After facing months of political turmoil, Nawaz Sharif’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) received some good news last week when the Supreme Court removed a stay order that the Lahore High Court had imposed on the orange train project – an automated rapid transit system – in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province. This is the pet project of Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother.

The party has had a tumultuous few months. Nawaz Sharif was forced to resign as prime minister on July 28 after the country’s highest court disqualified him from office over corruption allegations against him and his family. Subsequently, the National Accountability Bureau, Pakistan’s top anti-corruption body, opened corruption cases against him. Then, last month, Pakistan’s law minister was compelled to step down after protests by Islamists paralysed Islamabad for over two weeks. The protests, which turned violent, started after the Pakistan government amended the oath election candidates must take while they are sworn in. Islamists claimed that the changes were blasphemous, and had demanded the minister’s resignation.

The Supreme Court’s intervention regarding Lahore’s orange train project therefore comes as a breather for the party. Lahore is the hometown of the Sharif brothers, and their political bastion. The project is the first of its kind in the country and is estimated to cost Pakistani Rs 200 billion (approximately $18.2 million).

Over the years, Lahore has seen many firsts, including a bus rapid transit system, which is locally referred to as the metro-bus. This project also faced severe criticism but was eventually completed in 2013, just before the general elections in which the Pakistan Muslim League (N) secured a majority.

Even before the formal election results had been declared that year, Sharif announced similar bus rapid transit systems for Karachi and Rawalpindi. While work on the Karachi metro-bus system is still underway, the Rawalpindi-Islamabad line was completed in 2015. The metro-bus system in Multan started operating in January, and work is underway on a similar project in Faisalabad, Pakistan’s third-most populous city.

Party of the middle class

The orange train and metro-bus projects reinforce a narrative that the Pakistan Muslim League (N) has crafted for itself over the years vis-à-vis the Opposition Pakistan Peoples’ Party. Ever since the nationalisation of industries and land reform policies of the first Pakistan Peoples’ Party government headed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s, that party has found it hard to shed its image of being anti-business. Haunted by Bhutto’s economic policies, several industrialists and business groups in the 1980s firmly supported Islamist dictator Zia-ul-Haq as he undertook policies to liberalise the economy. This privatisation continued into the 1990s when democracy returned to Pakistan for almost a decade. At that time, even though the Pakistan Peoples’ Party under Benazir Bhutto, the charismatic daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had abandoned the senior Bhutto’s policies, Nawaz Sharif, Zia’s protégé and a rising political star from Lahore, presented himself as a pro-business alternative to the “anti-business” Pakistan Peoples’ Party.

It is for this reason that in the popular imagination over the decades, the Pakistan Peoples’ Party has been seen as the party of the poor and the downtrodden, while the Pakistan Muslim League (N) is viewed as the party of the urban middle-class and the business community.

Punjab and Lahore bag all

Punjab has played a crucial role in creating this image for Sharif’s party. Under his party, the province, particularly central Punjab and Lahore, saw massive investments in infrastructure. Numerous underpasses, bridges and new roads were constructed in provincial capital. In fact, the development of roads became the unit through which economic development came to be measured. Even while Pakistan’s macro-economic indicators continued to suffer, with a substantial increase in the country’s international debt, Sharif’s party managed to bury its dismal economic performance under the tar of newly-laid roads. While not everyone could comprehend the truth behind opaque economic indicators, the shiny new roads were for everyone to see.

After returning to power in Punjab following the 2008 elections, Sharif’s party did what it does best. Lahore became the beneficiary of more new road infrastructure. However, by then there was also a growing awareness that simply relying on roads, bridges and underpasses might not be enough. This is when the brand new metro-bus project was introduced.

Lahore's metro-bus. (Arif Ali/AFP)

Lahore, with its new toys, came to be seen as a model city, transformed by its talented and dedicated chief minister, making Punjab a model province. However, for others, this attention to Lahore just underscored the province’s historical dominant position. As in past years, all new things, all good things, were meant for Punjab and Lahore. The other provinces remained neglected.

Fighting off its own anti-business image, the Pakistan Peoples’ Party was quick to seize the opportunity. It accused Sharif’s party of being a Punjabi party with no representation in the country’s other provinces unlike itself, which had representation from all provinces. The Pakistan Peoples’ Party referred to the provincial government of Punjab as Takht-i-Lahore, comparing it to the 19th century autocratic regime of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The 2013 general elections proved the accusation correct with Sharif’s party gaining an overwhelming majority of its seats from Punjab. But then Punjab is all that is needed for a party to form the federal government in Pakistan. If the Pakistan Muslim League (N) wants to return to power in the general elections scheduled for 2018, all it needs to do is to ensure it dominates Punjab like it did in 2013.

Whither development?

In this context, the orange train project stands for everything the Pakistan Muslim League (N) represents – skewed priorities. Over Rs 200 billion has been earmarked for a transportation project in a province where the allocated budget for education development was Rs 32.8 billion and the budget for healthcare was Rs 43.83 billion for 2015. This is evidence of how hard it is for the party to envisage a Pakistan beyond Punjab, and Punjab beyond Lahore. While billions have been spent on the city’s infrastructure, other parts of Punjab and the country lack basic facilities.

It is not as if the ruling party is not cognisant of these paradoxes. But its leaders realise that investment in education or healthcare will take years to show fruit – precious time that a political party looking to hold on to power for another five years cannot afford. A shiny new bus or orange train is easier to spot, and the timely completion of the project will be seen as testimony to the efficiency of the chief minister and his party.

Following the Supreme Court order, Shehbaz Sharif will be desperate to complete the project before the upcoming general elections. Its successful completion might win the party the election in Punjab, and give the Sharifs the key to the federal government once again.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail.