GUJAR KHAN: This is the story of one constituency but of two political contests — one between the former prime minister who is battling a province-wide swing and a second, more bitter, fight within a party that now has far too many contenders for its tickets.
But at the corner meeting on Friday afternoon, the story was a familiar one — of a son of the soil who had made it big without forgetting his roots.
The gathered crowd not very big and listless but then began a frenzied beat of the dhols as Raja Pervez Ashraf walked in.
In the midst of the coordinated cheering it was hard to miss that the speeches focused on the soil of the son, his effort to ‘develop’ the area and potshots at the opposition.
Conspicuous by its absence was the mention of the Pakistan Peoples Party –there was no mention of the party and its five years in power or of the Bhuttos that dominate the television ads.
“I am a son of the soil, who brought development to this region,” said the former prime minister when he took the podium.
He promised to finish the remaining development work (stopped short in the constituency under court and ECP orders). His only reference to the larger national context and the past was to remind the people present that he had stuck around and faced the military wrath while his opponents had not — the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz candidate in the area abandoned the PML-Q two years ago to join the Sharifs.
“I was here, confronting the dictator, when others joined him,” he told the people.
Later while on his way to another meeting he sounded confident that he will win on May 11.
“I am the first one to have ever worked on the development of this area,” he added.
He dismissed the idea that the general mood in Punjab, which is anti-PPP, will work against him or that he may lose votes that the party garnered in 2008 in the shape of sympathy vote in the wake of Benazir Bhutto’s death.
“But there was no sympathy vote in this area in 2008. She died in Liaquat Bagh and nothing changed in Pindi,” he said.
Mr Ashraf’s is one of the few seats in Punjab where the PPP is confidently predicting a win — and that too in Pindi district that the PML-N wallahs like to claim is the party’s stronghold after Lahore.
And this confidence is linked to two factors of which one is a third world staple — development work.
As prime minister he spent lavishly here. People in small villages point to gas connections and the newly paved paths that lead right up to their homes.
Noor Khan, 66, a retired government employee and a resident of Porj Sharif, a small village, is one of them. He pointed down to the cemented path that led to the small patch where two cows could be seen.
“When it rained, it was impossible to bring back the cattle here but now I don’t have to worry,” he said.
This one path had brought so much ease to his life that he dismissed questions about Ashraf’s alleged corruptions and the PPP’s inability to reduce loadshedding or inflation.
“We can’t refuse him our votes,” was his quiet verdict.
A local journalist also waxes lyrical for the work carried out by the former prime minister and argues that the women in the constituency are even greater fans — they no longer have to collect wood before getting down to cooking. Reportedly, Mr Ashraf has got development schemes worth Rs47 billion approved for all 33 union councils in his constituency.
A fickle friend
But despite the Raja’s confidence, development is a fickle friend especially in Punjab.
Consider the defeats suffered by among others the Chaudhrys in 2008. All their efforts in this regard did not prevent the PML-Q from being trounced.
Even in Gujar Khan there are cynical residents; one at the corner meeting retorted when reminded of the development work. “It’s his job [to carry out development work]. And it was not out of his own pocket.”
At the same time, there are always those who feel neglected.
In Guliana, a union council, some local men were not happy with the incomplete development work. One of them, a man in his 60s, said the streets had been dug up and left incomplete.
“Now they are telling us that after the elections, Raja sahib will complete this work,” said Mohammad Rafiq, adding that he was going to vote for the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf. “We have seen enough of these leaders; let’s give Imran Khan a chance.”
(Though few are willing to give too great a chance to PTI’s NA candidate, Farhat Faheem Bhatti, who has given up his British nationality to contest the election, the party has a good chance in the provincial assembly race from this area.)
But luckily for the Raja, it’s not just the pakki gallis that he can count on for a victory.
As he himself mentioned in his speech, the secret to his success may just be the infighting in the N League camp.
This in fact is the bigger story in Gujar Khan.
Khan Iftikhar Ahmad, a lawyer pointed out, “During the last two elections they (Muslim Leaguers) committed the same mistake, and once again they are hell bent upon repeating it.”
He is referring to Chaudhry Muhammad Riaz, who was the party’s candidate in 2008 elections, and is now angry that the ticket has been awarded to Raja Javed Akhlas. In the dimly-lit drawing room of his huge house, Chaudhry Riaz spoke of his “loyalty” to the Sharifs and the party and the anger of the workers “who are insisting that they will not vote for Akhlas”.
“He was the first one from Gujar Khan who joined hands with Musharraf,” he added.
“What can I do? It is not in my control,” he insisted as he warned of the impending doom and the ‘saazishi tola’ in the party that robbed him of his due ticket.
He was the PML-N nominee in 2008 when he bagged 56,381 votes, while Raja Qasim, the son of Raja Javed Akhlas was the PML-Q candidate who bagged 69,679 votes against Raja Pervez Ashraf’s 80,247 votes.
This time around the ticket has gone to Javed Akhlas who joined the party in September 2010.
These numbers are cited by observers and Leaguers to argue that the League has a stronger presence in the area — together the two candidates polled over 120,000 votes. And only a ‘division’ of this ‘vote’ allowed Ashraf to win in 2002 and 2008. Before this, he had never won this seat and neither had any other PPP candidate from 1988 to 1997.
But this hypothesis will surely not be tested out this time around because Chaudhry Riaz or rather others who were seated in his house that day are threatening to keep supporters away from the polls.
He enjoys the support of his Arain clan of some 15,000 to 20,000 voters, and others. This lot, because of the unofficial campaign, might just swing the Ashraf way. But there is no guarantee here despite what one hears in the mansion called “Zaman House”, Chaudhry’s home and political office.
But the former prime minister is well aware of this split and counting on it. While he kept referring to the “lota” in his speech, he praised Chaudhry Riaz as the “real Muslim Leaguers”.
Whether or not the spurned Sharif loyalist can pull of what he promises and what impact it has on the campaign of Akhlas, there is no doubt that this is one Punjab town where the League campaign is miserly.
Raja Ashraf’s posters, banners and the PPP flag are visible everywhere while the PTI makes its appearance too. But few are the places where the League posters can be spotted without an effort. Even Akhlas’ office in a commercial centre in Gujar Khan city is sparse where chairs and tables are covered in dust and randomly placed. It does not look like a place that has witnessed much activity lately. (Mr Akhlas’s wife had passed away recently and he returned to campaigning in the middle of last week.)
But is the lacklustre presence of the party due to the divisions within?
The grey-haired and soft-spoken Mr Akhlas disagreed.
“I got 70,000 votes in 2008 general elections, when people simply rejected the PML-Q candidates. Now I am confident that as the PML-N nominee, I will easily defeat Raja Pervez Ashraf.”
His companions proved more aggressive.
Advocate Raja Tanvir Akhtar, former nazim of union council and a PPP voter, who has recently joined the PML-N, dismisses the notion of any threat.
“Yes, Mr Riaz does carry some support among his clan, but, that too is divided,” claimed Shahid Saraf, a local businessman present.
Both these men have recently joined Mr Akhlas — but whether it is because they think he will win or because they are simply following the direction of the province-wide wind blowing the PML-N way.
But there is no doubt that even those who have benefited from the development work may make the same decision as Mr Saraf and Mr Akhtar — that Mr Ashraf has outlived his utility because after May 11 the development funds will lie elsewhere.
And this is Mr Ashraf’s Achilles heel — he belongs to a party that is not going to return to the prime minister’s house. The voters in Punjab are only too aware of this.
But there is no doubt that this is one PPP candidate in upper Punjab who is not struggling without hope.