Sheikh Rashid Ahmad’s Laal Haveli stands fort-like across the street from Rawalpindi’s Moti Bazaar, guarded by sandbags and private security guards strapped with guns.
Once the home of a man who seemed invincible - Rashid has been elected to the National Assembly six times from Rawalpindi - it is difficult to shake the impression that the fort is making a last, defensive stand against what many analysts think will be a fierce election that might hand the victory to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).
Drive down the stretch of Benazir Bhutto Road, and it is as if the tigers on green posters taunt anyone who dares to threaten the PML-N position. Meanwhile, posters of Shaikh Rashid and his Awami Muslim League (AML) flap loosely at the bottom or the top of the streetlights. Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) posters remain hard to spot, and Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf (PTI) remains conspicuously absent. The PML-N posters, on the other hand, stand erect on a specially-prepared screen. ‘We are a party’, it seems to say, ‘that is hell-bent on winning’.
When it comes to the question of the NA-55 - contested by Sheikh Rashid, his AML and his Laal Haveli - there is some indication that the PML-N might just be right.
Despite the entrance of a third candidate on NA-55 in the form of the former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association and lawyers’ movement leader, Ali Ahmed Kurd, most analysts predict that the PML-N dominates here. Hence, if the party loses this seat, its defeat will be a far bigger story than the candidate who wins from here - at worst to Rashid.
Rashid used to dominate Rawalpindi city’s two main constituencies - NA-55 and NA-56 - bagging a string of election victories from the 1980s to 2002. In 2008, however, he lost by an embarrassingly large margin to Javed Hashmi, then a PML-N leader who has since joined forces with the PTI (Hashmi won with a margin of over 60,000 votes).
Even the PPP candidate, Malik Amir Fida Paracha, got more than double of what Rashid was to receive. With a little over 15,000 votes, it seemed like Rashid’s days were counted. His second defeat in the 2010 by-election at the hands of PML-N’s Malik Shakil Awan by a margin of more than 20,000 votes seemed to be the final nail in the coffin.
In this round of elections, NA-55 - and its neighbouring NA-56, for that matter - is turning out to be one of the key battlefronts in the upcoming election. PTI president Imran Khan has already announced that he will be contesting from NA-56 after negotiations of a seat adjustment with Rashid (old posters still line the streets of the city announcing that Rashid will be contesting what is now Khan’s seat).
Kurd is an interesting wild card, who insists that, was it not for his boycott in 2008 he would surely have been elected. And rumours are flowing that the PML-N, who seems to be dragging their feet when it comes to announcing their candidates, will field Shahbaz Sharif in either Rashid’s or Khan’s constituency - NA-55 or NA-56.
“I cannot tell you who will win, or who my strongest contenders are. But I can tell you that I’m in it to win. I am no stranger to the politics of this place,” says Kurd, echoing the conviction that all the candidates repeat when asked for an analysis by Dawn.
The PML-N has yet to confirm who they will field in NA-55, but sources from the party told Dawn that Rawalpindi is securely in the hands of Pakistan’s party of tigers. “Look around Rawalpindi, this is our city,” says one PML-N member, before arguing that Rashid lost in 2008 because he stood outside the party.
“Of course, PML-N will tell you that this is their constituency. But I beat them from two seats in 2002 when I ran as an independent, and I will beat them again,” says Rashid, referring to his most recent run without a PML-N ticket and his shift from being what many thought was Nawaz Sharif’s right hand to the Lota of Rawalpindi.
According to Rashid, his defeat in 2008 was because of PML-N’s close ties to the religious vote. “The religious groups whipped up sentiment against me, chanting Lal Masjid ya Lal Haveli in an attempt to discredit me. The 2008 election was not a vote for the PML-N, but a vote against the Lal Masjid debacle,” he says.
Rashid had been part of General Pervez Musharraf’s ‘democratic’ set-up that came into being after the 2002 elections.
“The [development] work is what matters,” says a source from the PML-N, who preferred not to be named. “And when you look at Rawalpindi, the PML-N has the most work. That is what is going to ensure that we win this election - not anything else.”
Whether the PML-N is right or not will only be clear on the election day. Though much indicates that the sort of politics that Kurd, the third contender, hopes to see, might not play a key role in May. “A politics where thought and political ideology is what matters - in this election, in politics, and in life,” says Kurd.