GUJRAT, Jan 20: The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz may not find it difficult to regain the lost ground in Jhelum even though its veteran leader Raja Mohammad Afzal and his two scions MNAs Raja Asad Khan and Raja Safdar Khan broke their decades-old affiliation with the Sharifs on Saturday.
The PML-N believes that Rajas’ change of heart may rather prove beneficial for the party which has its reliable votes bank in the district.
On the other hand, after gaining the support of the Rajas, the Pakistan People’s Party is nursing hopes for wining National Assembly seats in Jhelum for the first time since 1990. The PPP, which had swept the 1970 elections in Jhelum district, could only win one NA seat in 1990. Since then the district has been a stronghold of the PML-N.
Sources said Raja Afzal had been at odds with the Leader of Opposition in the National Assembly, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, for a few years. The situation was exploited by real estate tycoon Malik Riaz, who is also known for his rivalry with Chaudhry Nisar. It was Malik Riaz who paved the way for the Rajas to join the PPP, according to the sources.
The scene was different in Jhelum on Sunday. A large number of local PML-N workers gathered outside the residence of MPA Khadim Gurmala, danced to the beats of drums, distributed sweets and congratulated each other for getting liberated from “the clutches” of Raja Afzal who had been calling the shot in local politics for a long time.
Former MNA Nawabzada Iqbal Mehdi, former MPA Nadeem Khadim Gurmala, PML-N’s district president Chaudhry Boota Javed and others addressed the gathering and vowed to strengthen the party.
Raja Afzal Khan contested the local government elections in 1983 and became chairman of the municipal committee. He was elected to the National Assembly four times and once as member of the Senate between 1985 and 1999.
He started distancing himself from the PML-N after losing the PP-26 seat in the recent by-election to his own party’s nominee Khadim Gurmala.
At the request of Raja Afzal, PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif had declared the PP-26 seat open and reversed his earlier decision of awarding the party ticket to Khadim Gurmala. The seat had fallen vacant after disqualification of his son Nadeem Gurmala for holding dual nationality.
According to sources in the PML-N, Raja Afzal held the Punjab government responsible of his defeat with a huge margin at the hands of the Gujjars of Gurmala. The gulf further widened after his appointment for a meeting with Mr Sharif was cancelled twice.
Political observers here are of the opinion that the defeat actually exposed the ‘political might’ of Raja Afzal who had developed serious differences with party workers as well as all four members of the Punjab Assembly in the district over the past four years.
Jhelum district has two National Assembly seats -- NA-62 (tehsils Dina and Sohawa) and NA-63 (tehsils Jhelum and Pind Dadan Khan). Traditionally, Raja Afzal and Nawabzada Iqbal Mehdi, also a four times MNA, contested the seats from 1988 to 1997. However, they could not contest in 2002 because of the graduation bar.
Raja Afzal fielded his scions on both the seats in 2002. His son Raja Safdar lost the NA-62 seat, but Raja Asad won the NA-63 seat because of the support of Nawabzada Iqbal Mehdi -- their traditional ally in the district.
But the two sons returned to the assembly in 2008.
According to PML-N insiders, Raja Afzal’s differences with Iqbal Mehdi surfaced a few months ago when the latter expressed his desire before the party leadership to contest this time for NA-63 seat which he had actually surrendered to Raja’s son Asad.
Raja Afzal refused to surrender the seat and instead expressed his willingness to contest from there. This angered the Mehdi group in the PML-N which manoeuvred Raja Afzal’s defeat of in the PP-26 by-election.
According to the sources, local party workers and legislators accused Raja Afzal of dictating his terms in the party and interfering in the affairs of the district administration on development schemes.
Raja Afzal’s close aides are of the opinion that the PML-N would never succeed in consolidating its earlier strong position in the district after losing the old hand. They said the party did not have a strong candidate for NA-62 where the Altaf family of the PML-Q is still considered quite strong.
But district president Boota Javed said the PML-N would not be affected by Raja Afzal’s departure because workers were now heaving a sigh of relief because of his highhandedness. He said most of the workers had supported Khadim Gurmala whose victory proved that the Raja group had lost grounds in local politics.