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Pirs in politics


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MULTAN: Just before Zain Qureshi steps into his campaign Prado, a woman and her daughter approach him to ask for a prayer. Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s son and heir duly raises his cupped hands and obliges. In Multan, as in many rural parts of the country, the Makhdooms are seen as intercessors. Their status, as custodians of revered local shrines, can also lend candidates an advantage in the “city of saints”. “The pag carries a lot of weight,” says one of Qureshi’s supporters, looking on approvingly from the back of the vehicle.The contest in Multan’s mostly rural constituency of NA-148 pits two Makhdoom families against one another. The quarrel between the Qureshis and the Gilanis stretches back to before elections came to the country. Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Yousuf Raza Gilani both entered local politics in 1983, running for Multan’s District Council. They both secured seats in the 1985 non-party NA elections. And until two years ago, the pirs of Multan were members of the same PPP-led cabinet. Now Gilani’s son Musa is taking on Shah Mehmood in the former foreign minister’s traditional seat, reviving an old and fierce rivalry.

Sitting in his redbrick compound, former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani receives guests who stoop to almost genuflect. Before they can touch his knees, he grabs their hands and lifts them back up. Before he ventures out into the constituency, he flicks open a gold-plated mobile phone and summons support. “Go find me a ’70 model or an ’88 model,” Gilani says to a voice at the other end. He isn’t in search of cars, but PPP supporters from Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto’s first election wins.

“Our people,” says Gilani, “don’t vote for other parties. But they shouldn’t stay at home.” Like other PPP members across Punjab, he’s aware of the chance of a low party turnout. Gilani concedes that as a descendant of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and Abdul Qadir Gilani, the 12th century Mesopotamian saint, he can secure some votes for his three sons and brother who are fighting elections in Multan. The Gilani family’s pirs have devotees in the city. But it won’t be enough.

“What matters,” says the former prime minister, while driving around Multan himself, waving to slightly startled passersby, “is your own performance, what you do for the area, the party you represent, and your alliances with other dharras. Being from a spiritual family helps, but only a little.” Other makhdooms can help a little, too. Shah Mehmood’s brother is a provincial candidate with the Gilanis, while Javed Hashmi’s daughter is a provincial candidate with Shah Mehmood.

At a rally of around a thousand in an empty plot of land in the shade of an abandoned warehouse, Gilani rouses the party faithful with a mix of swipes at his opponents and talk of a new Seraiki province. “The PPP is the only party that values our Seraiki people,” he says. “The PPP gave you a Seraiki president, a Seraiki prime minister and speaker, and even a Seraiki foreign minister. Remember him?” If someone can’t stay loyal to their party, Gilani adds, “How can he be loyal to you, the people?”

Shah Mehmood’s core supporters aren’t fussed about the switch. They’ve been supporting the Qureshis for generations, both when Makhdoom Sajjad Hussein Qureshi was Gen Ziaul Haq’s Governor of Punjab and when Shah Mehmood was Benazir Bhutto’s president of the PPP in Punjab. “If Shah Mehmood goes to Imran Khan’s party, we’re fine,” a well-wrinkled man with widely spaced teeth reassures the Qureshi camp, at a meeting in one of NA-148’s many villages. “Even if he goes to the [Indian National] Congress, he’s acceptable to us.”

The 34th Makhdoom of Shah Rukne Alam is counting on a personal vote. “It’s the same constituency and the same candidate,” his son Zain explains to the huddled group of supporters. “But this time we have to vote for the bat.”

Shah Mehmood has few mureeds in his constituency. “They’re mostly in Sindh,” says Zain. The former foreign minister will also be seeking their votes there. But even in the constituencies of Umerkot and Tharparkar, the mureeds may be loyal to Shah Mehmood but needed the Pir of Pagara’s nod to vote for him.

The influence has traditionally proved electorally lucrative in swathes of south Punjab and Sindh. In Sindh, for example, the Makhdooms of Hala have a vast following and have never lost. But they’re an exception. Two other powerful pirs of Sindh are the Pir of Pagara and the Pir of Ranipur. In 1988, the father of the current Pir of Pagara suffered a stunning defeat to a little known PPP candidate, Pervez Ali Shah. And the Ranipur pirs are now divided among themselves and too weak to influence elections in their area.

What matters more than spiritual clout is development work. Voters want roads, sewerage systems, and gas supplies. Gilani’s supporters cheer the fact he is said to have diverted vast sums from Islamabad to Multan. They point to the new bridges, underpasses and roads that have changed the way the city looks. Jobs matter, too. One man squeezed into the back of a Qureshi Prado fondly recalls being summoned by then PML-N provincial minister Shah Mehmood to Lahore in the late 1980s, where he was given a job in Nawaz Sharif’s provincial government of the time. The man sitting next to him, an amateur cricketer, has a brother who works at the Foreign Office.

Voters also demand you stay in touch. “We’re going now to go and placate someone,” Gilani explains after the rally, as he plunges his own Prado through narrow and winding roads near his ancestral village. What’s the gripe? “He doesn’t like my face,” Gilani quips. “But watch this.” After hearing a brisk Gilani speech, men slouched on rope beds rise to announce their support for Musa. “I wasn’t angry,” says a visibly gratified Sardar Khan, the owner of the home. “He just hasn’t been here in five years.” The visit enhanced his standing in the union council where his father was once president.

Such occasions also offer the chance to vent freely to a captive audience. When Qasim Gilani — the only Gilani son not fighting an election — visited a traditional supporter, he was forced to hear out a litany of complaints. In the end, the supporter yielded. “The Gilanis are my pirs, so I can’t vote for anyone else.” To avoid upsetting more supporters, candidates hasten to every wedding and funeral in the city. “If even a donkey dies today,” says Qasim, “every candidate will send someone to offer condolences.”

The pirs also have powerful rivals in other parts of Multan who don’t have the titles or the devotees to match. Different members of the Dogar clan are strong candidates in urban seats. Sikandar Bosan, who is fighting against Abdul Qadir Gilani in NA-151, can draw on an extensive clan for votes and the thousands that live on his land. “Bosan starts out from his house with 40,000 votes,” says Qasim. For all their saintly sway, neither the Gilanis nor the Qureshis can beat those numbers without working for most of them.

Comments (21) Closed

azhar May 03, 2013 12:48pm
They can survive only by this way..
Qamar May 03, 2013 01:45pm
Below is excerpt from the above article; "Gilani concedes that as a descendant of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and Abdul Qadir Gilani, the 12th century Mesopotamian saint, he can secure some votes for his three sons and brother who are fighting elections in Multan." This is the worst form of religious manipulation. BTW, PPP calls itself a 'secular' party.
Nasser Ali Khan May 03, 2013 11:28am
These wretched, backward, unjust, and uneducated people deserve all the misery they get from the PPP and PML (N).
Riaz Ahmad May 03, 2013 05:56pm
Such relics of middle ages mindset, can exist only in backward societies like Pakistan, oblivious to the realities of modern times and age.
endcorrupt May 03, 2013 05:26pm
Is this the whole plan? Gilanis & PPP want us to stay illiterate so we go to these pirs and mureeds. Decendents & look at their actions.
caz May 03, 2013 06:03pm
Recommend a good book ` Sufi Pirs and Political Power in Sindh by Sara Qureshi ?
abdussamad May 03, 2013 03:55pm
Masters and slaves.
Bold May 03, 2013 05:02pm
Pakistan will only progress when real educated commoners will form govt. Since after its creation Pakistan has been a hostage either in the hand of dictators or sardars, vaderas, chaudries & khandani pirs. Bangladesh, born much later has risen to commendable heights in all fields whereas Pakistan has been made to struggle for basics of life. Unless real change is introduced in words & spirit Pakistanis will continue to suffer
S.A. Afaqi, May 03, 2013 07:01pm
When the ousted PM, Pir Y.R.Gilani says that PPP is the only party which values seraiki people and it gave you a seraiki President, a seraiki Prime mimister and Speaker and a seraiki foreign minister. True! but all of them will be remembered for their outstanding 'non-performance' leaving no foot-prints for the guidance of their successors.
Qamar May 03, 2013 11:50am
No wonder the pirs, waderas, sardars, etc want to curb education for the poor and illiterate people of Pakistan.
concerned212 May 03, 2013 01:40pm
Yes mr Waderas and Pir's.............keep the masses uneducated so that they worship you like God. This guy (Gilani) should be ashamed of even mentioning being a descendant of the prophet (P.B.U.H) after all the corruption he enjoyed along with the PPP. There is no such thing as SHAME in Pakistan anymore/
Arcane May 03, 2013 02:09pm
How can you expect these people to understand the meaning of free will? let alone bring democracy, their slaves touch their feet before talking to them.
Humayun Akhtar Bwp May 03, 2013 10:47pm
Gillani and his two sons dishonest and corrupt to the core have the audacity to talk about poverty and to bring about better future for a common man when in power he did nothing of that sort except to enrich himself
Imran Malik May 03, 2013 01:22pm
This article is more than a PR activity of writer with "PIRS" of South! No in-sight analysis about constituencies.
Cynic May 04, 2013 01:36am
These people are charlatans, deceiving the poor and illiterate.
Naz May 03, 2013 03:34pm
Kindly stop using the term wadera because it has run its course, how about choudhry instead. These kind of comments hurt Pakistan as a federation, in order to be respected, you need to give respect others.
m h kayani May 04, 2013 06:48am
Corrupt to the core all of them, get rid of the lot in one go.
aslam minhas May 04, 2013 05:33am
Out of them all, YRG gave a bad name to the pirs fraternity. His whole family was allegedly involved in scams. And got booted out of the PM-ship. If he still goes around wihout wearing a masking his identity, well he is a brave man! And so is his entire clan!
Anwar Qureshi May 04, 2013 08:24am
Pirs families should manage and control Darghas; recite Tasbeh and write Taweez etc. To become a member of the National Assembly is a feather in their crown and make them more aristocratic in their areas while to occupy such position entails lot of perks and privileges; the voters cannot imagine. If voters really come to know what they get as salary and perks etc then the unemployed youth of their should contest these elections and people should vote for those poor contestants and not Pirs. Now its time for change. Nawaz Sharif deserves one final chance as he never got his complete tenure but still he has lot of feathers of success in his cap. Let us give him one full tenure of 5 years and I am sure he will turnaround the country.
Aamir May 03, 2013 03:21pm
WOW - where world is going and where people of Pakistan still are. It is the result of zero education in that part of the country. These big names never want the people of their area to get education, other wise they will never vote for them. Education makes huge difference.PPP and PML(N) are of the same school of thought.
Shams May 04, 2013 06:57am
The so-called pirs and makhdooms have had enough of their share. Why dont they go back to their dargahs and do what they are supposed to do. Why cant they leave the politics to more civil, educated, and common people? They think they are boron to lead and they always get their way because the simple and uneducated people just follow them blindly.