Eventually, the grand project of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), Peshawar Bus Rapid Transit (PBRT), saw the light of the day when Prime Minister Imran Khan inaugurated it on August 13, not only fulfilling the dreams of millions of residents of the provincial capital but also reviving the dwindling political base of the ruling party in the province.
The PBRT is a grandiose project, initiated in October 2007 by the then PTI Chief Minister of KP, Pervez Khattak, just seven months before the five-year tenure of the provincial government. Khattak, while laying the foundation of the project, had made a seemingly impossible claim that the PBRT would be completed within six months or just a month before the 2018 national elections. Obviously, it was almost impossible as nobody believed it, even the contractor and the implementing government agency, Peshawar Development Authority officials had serious doubts about the deadline, because the civil work and the infrastructure that had to be constructed needed demolishing a considerable part of the city’s main roads to build the longest metro service of Pakistan.
As expected, the PBRT could not be constructed before the July 2018 national elections; however, a huge amount of work had been completed. It played on the psychology of the people of the province as well as of entire Pakistan, which became a key factor in the winning of the elections by the PTI in the country. The fundamental cause of the PTI win in the 2018 national elections was the people’s exasperation with the former ruling parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and their regional collation partners, like the ANP, JUI-F, PkMAP etc. Pakistanis wanted to give the PTI and Imran Khan’s agenda of “change” a chance to revive society and the economy. Nevertheless, the performance of the PTI government in KP (2013-18), led by CM Khattak, was far better, particularly its relative transparency was also a key factor in convincing Pakistanis to vote in majority for the PTI. Had the PTI government in KP not performed up to the mark, it would have been very difficult for the party to win the elections in the length and breadth of the country. It is important to note that the PTI swept KP in the 2018 national elections by winning a two-thirds majority in the provincial assembly and winning most of the National Assembly’s 39 seats from the province. The seats were instrumental in enabling Imran Khan to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan.
Within KP, the PBRT was the signature project of the PTI government and although it could not be constructed within the stipulated time, yet it convinced the people of other provinces that similar projects could be initiated there if the PTI was voted to power. It was despite the fact that no other than the PTI head, Imran Khan, was against the PBRT and had asked CM Khattak not to go ahead with the idea. He wanted the KP PTI government to invest in human development initiatives instead of infrastructure projects. However, PM Khan, while inaugurating the PBRT, admitted that he was wrong in trying to convince his former KP CM Khattak not to go ahead with the mega project. The admission on part of PM Khan is really welcome. Thus, seeing that the PTI government could launch similar mass transit projects in their own cities, people of Karachi and Quetta also voted for the PTI in huge numbers. Karachi, the capital of Sindh province, and Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province, are still without any mass transit system. The PTI failure to win a large number of National Assembly and Punjab Assembly seats from Lahore, the capital of the Punjab province, could be attributed to the fact that the city already had its metro bus system, developed by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government of Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif. On the other hand, more than a billion-dollar project of the Lahore Orange Line Metro Train was well underway at the time of the 2018 elections. Thus, Lahorities did not expect much from the PTI in terms of the provision of good transport facilities, therefore, they did not vote for the party and they could not be impressed with the PBRT.
Coming to the significance of the BRT, it seems that it is far more than a transport project. Firstly, it is the largest infrastructure development project of the history of the province, consuming nearly half a billion dollars. Never in the history of the province has any government, whether the PML-N, PPP, ANP or MMA (a religious parties alliance), initiated any such infrastructure development project. It has mainly been because that all are traditional political parties and they concentrate only on constituency-related development or micro-development projects. As the PTI has a large urban base, therefore, its government rightly came up with an urban development megaproject in Peshawar to facilitate the residents of the city, which in the last two elections gave the PTI nearly all Provincial and National Assembly seats. PM Khan himself got historic victories from Peshawar in both 2013 and 2018 national elections. Secondly, Peshawar despite being the only truly urban centre of the entire province and adjoining Afghanistan, still it has few urban development projects. Thus, the completion and operationalization of the PBRT would have a huge impact on the political psychology of the entire province, including the merged districts (former FATA) and even Afghans, living and trading in a huge number in the provincial capital. There would be now policy demands from people of other cities of the province for the construction of a mass transit system, at least at a scale that corresponds to the needs of their residents. Afghans experiencing the PBRT would most likely cherish and thus may start making demands from the Ashraf Ghani government and international donor agencies to establish such a mass transit system in the Afghan capital, Kabul, which is expanding fast.
Thirdly, the completion and operationalisation of the PBRT is all set to revive the dwindling political fortunes of the PTI and PM Khan, as the people are quite perturbed by the policies and measures of the government in the country. The PBRT would now convince the people in Pakistan that the PTI government is also capable of devising and completing huge infrastructure projects in addition to beating the drum of putting an end to corruption and it would go a long way in scratching the label from the party being immature and unable to deliver on any front.
Although the PTI governments in the Centre and KP have been rightly criticized for being unable to complete the PBRT in time and the project developed many technical faults during construction, yet the party must be credited for completing the project in a very difficult situation in the province, particularly terrorism-torn Peshawar. The opposition political parties, particularly the PML-N, PPP, ANP, JUI-F and Jamaat-e-Islami, have criticised the delay and quality of work on the PBRT, but they are finding it difficult to convince the people after the completion of the project. The parties, as mentioned earlier, could not come up with any mega development project for Peshawar during their respective governments; therefore, their leaders are now finding it nearly impossible to neutralize the political mileage which the PTI has drawn from the completion of the PBRT. It would have a huge impact on the politics of the province, and consequently of the country.