By Awais Saleem
There is never a dull moment in Pakistani politics, more so when electoral fever is in full flow. The by-election in NA-122 has become a “do or die” affair for both PMLN and PTI. Battle lines have been drawn, emotions are running high, claims are being made and supporters of both sides are baying for each other’s blood.
The PMLN, having the advantage of incumbency in the Center as well as Punjab, has traditionally enjoyed a stronghold in NA-122 with Sardar Ayaz Sadiq being their poster boy in the constituency. Having earned a moral victory against Ayaz Sadiq when the election tribunal ordered re-elections on account of accusations of fraud, PTI is considerably confident of changing the constituency’s political landscape and turn the tables on the PMLN this time round. To convert this dream into reality, PTI has fielded Abdul Aleem Khan.
While both parties and their supporters are busy whipping up arguments in support of their preferred candidates and in their attempts to discredit the opponent in the same vein, the frenzy has taken me back to the 2002 general elections. These were the first elections after General Pervez Musharraf’s coup in 1999. The announcement of elections understandably created a buzz within the political parties as well as the general public as the first sign of the return to democratic ways. The fact that everything was being micromanaged by the khakis and PMLQ was well and truly entrenched as the king’s party is another debate.
I was a rookie reporter at that time working for an English daily in Lahore and was assigned to cover NA-127. The constituency comprised of Model Town extension, Township, Green Town, Kot Lakhpat and other adjoining areas where a majority of voters belonged to middle or lower middle class backgrounds. It was going to be a three-way fight between PMLQ, PMLN and PPPP. The latter two parties, facing considerable adversity from General Musharraf, had a difficult time finding worthwhile candidate. Eventually, PMLN awarded the ticket to Naseer Bhutta, a member of their lawyer’s wing while PPPP settled for an old warhorse (but a spent force) in Mian Ijaz-ul-Hassan.
However, the main interest in the NA-127 elections was not generated by either the PMLN or the PPPP’s candidate. Pakistan Awami Tehreek’s Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri had a fan base in the constituency and had decided to contest again after a long gap. His credentials were well known though. The PMLQ, on the other hand, had fielded a previously unknown young man Abdul Aleem Khan in the elections. He was neither known to the voters in the constituency nor to the media contingent covering it. He emerged more as an enigma and remained long after the polls were over.
Being my first major political assignment, I was more than eager to gather as much information as I could about the goings on in NA-127. Therefore, most of my evenings in the lead-up to the polling day were spent in the constituency in trying to understand the dynamics and to gauge as to which way the wind was blowing. It was no surprise to hear people believe that PMLQ was going to carry the day because it was backed by the high and mighty General Musharraf. It soon became obvious that the PMLQ candidate, Aleem Khan, was not only banking on that support but also much more.
It didn’t take long for te reporters covering NA-127 as well as the electorate to find out exactly where Aleem Khan was drawing his strength from. Two facts trumped any other things on his resume. His entry into politics had the patronage of then Corps Commander Lahore, Lt. Gen Zarrar Azeem and the then DG Rangers Punjab, Maj. Gen. Hussain Mehdi. It goes without saying that the accusations of shady land dealings were the common denominator between them. The second factor was the obscene amount of wealth that Aleem Khan was spending n NA-127 on creating visibility through banners/posters etc., election offices, and even hard cash in return for the promise to cast votes for him. Even his strongest critics were quick in admission that it was hard to match Aleem Khan’s spending spree in NA-127.
The show of wealth and the PML-Q ticket appeared to be tilting the contest in Aleem Khan’s favour as the race heated-up. All expectations came to nothing on the election day itself. Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri trumped his opponents and Aleem Khan ended as runners-up. The former had a strong vote bank in the constituency while the latter just had his financial empire to create an impression. From NA-127 to NA-122, it seems Aleem Khan’s politics and election strategy hasn’t changed a single bit.
Several experts are predicting that he will run Ayaz Sadiq close and may even go on and beat him. To me, this impression is nothing different from what Aleem Khan was able to achieve in 2002 through his election expenditures. It is true that several things have changed from 2002 to 2015. Aleem Khan candidature is now backed by PTI which claims, and rightly so, to be the sole opposition in the country with a dedicated and passionate support-base.
The PMLN also will be dented somewhat by the failure to fulfill promises made before the 2013 elections. One reality, however, remains unchanged. Not having a personal stake and rapport with the constituents holds the key in Pakistani politics where Ayaz Sadiq will be able to leapfrog him. Being a financial powerhouse only resulted in making Aleem Khan the second-best option in 2002 and that might as well be the case in 2015. We will come to know for sure by Sunday (October 11) night.