The electoral contest in Tharparkar, the large desert district of Sindh bordering India, promises to be an exciting one, as the political dominance of former Sindh chief minister Dr Arbab Ghulam Rahim and his acolytes is being challenged in the region by traditional rivals as well as promising newcomers. Up for grabs are two National Assembly seats (NA-229 and 230) and four Sindh Assembly seats (PS-60, 61, 62 and 63) in the district. The number of male voters in the constituency is just a little over 73,000, with around 61,000 female voters.
For over the past decade, the area has been dominated by the Arbab group while its leader Dr Arbab Rahim has returned to the assemblies in the 2008, 2002, 1997 and 1993 elections.
This is in spite of the PPP’s popularity in most other parts of rural Sindh. Of course it goes without saying that there is certainly no love lost between Dr Rahim and the PPP.
Yet though Dr Rahim has tasted constant electoral success, his fortunes have plummeted somewhat. From the high of serving as chief minister of the province between 2004 and 2007, the controversial politician was famously hit with a shoe — reportedly by a PPP supporter — on the floor of the Sindh Assembly in 2008 after he took his oath. Following that unceremonious incident Dr Rahim spent most of his time in the Gulf, not bothering to attempt a return to the assembly until he was finally unseated in March 2012.
As mentioned, political observers in Tharparkar note that though Arbab & Co have dominated regional politics in the past, they may face a tough time in maintaining their electoral edge in the constituency come May 11. As it is, Dr Rahim has changed his external political colours several times, at times standing as an independent candidate, then as part of the National Alliance, then representing the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid and later identifying with the PML-Likeminded grouping. In his most recent avatar, he has created a curiously named entity called the Peoples Muslim League. Suffice to say while the names have changed, the ideology has not.
Coming to the actual contest, NA-229 sees the PPP’s Faqir Sher Mohammad Bilalani square off against the Arbab group’s Arbab Togachi. The seat was won by Arbab Zakaullah in 2008.
Yet perhaps the juicier showdown is in NA-230, where the PPP’s Noor Mohammad Shah Jilani faces the PTI’s heavyweight Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Peoples Muslim League’s Dr Ghulam Haider Samejo, who won the seat in 2008. This will be a hotly contested seat as Dr Rahim’s partisan (Dr Samejo) will not have easy pickings; due to his status as a pir, Shah Mehmood has a large following in the region, so the voter will be tempted to renounce old political allegiances in favour of spiritual allegiances. As one Thar-based commentator noted, Dr Rahim’s influence will have to contend with the murshid’s pull.
As for the Sindh Assembly seats, Dr Rahim will contest from PS-60, considered his ‘safe seat’, while his main challenger is the PPP’s Engineer Gianchand, who Dr Rahim defeated in the 2002 polls. PS-61 sees the PPP’s Dr Mahesh Malani versus Arbab Niamatullah, though things could get interesting with Rana Hamir Singh, son of Rana Chandra Singh, also contesting. Though the Rana of Tharparkar is running as an independent candidate, some sources say the PML-Functional has promised support.
In PS-62, Makhdoom Khaleel-ur-Rehman of the PPP faces the Arbab group’s Arbab Anwar, while two other candidates — independent advocate Bharumal Kohli and the Qaumi Awami Tehreek’s advocate Vasand Thari — are also notable. In PS-63 it is Rahimoon vs Rahimoon as the PPP has fielded Dost Ali Rahimoon against Abdul Razzak Rahimoon, a member of team Arbab who won the seat in 2008.
Coming back to torn loyalties between spiritual and political benefactors, the entry of pirs such as Shah Mehmood Qureshi may divide communities such as the Samejos and Rahimoons. Even the Nohris — Dr Rahim’s own clan — may see some defections to the side of the Pir from Multan.
Yet one must not be so quick to write Dr Rahim’s political obituary as even in 2008, when a sympathy wave swept Sindh in the aftermath of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, he and his clan maintained their electoral sway over Tharparkar.