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The Q factor in Punjab

April 22, 2013

Accompanied by the Chaudhry brothers, the then president, retired Gen Pervez Musharraf, appeared to be in a buoyant mood before he addressed a public meeting in Islamabad on May 12, 2007.—White Star

The Chaudhries of Gujrat and their Pakistan Muslim League, popularly known as the PML-Q, may be down but they are not out. Cut to its size in recent times, the King’s Party or the Queue League of the past, still has a chance to prove its ‘relevance’. All it needs is a few seats for itself and a hung parliament.

“With the next assembly predicted to be more fragmented than the previous one, the PML-Q will not lose its relevance in power politics,” argues Sohail Warraich, an analyst who has a strong grip on Punjab’s politics.

He thinks the Q-League will be a power player in a hung parliament at the centre even if it wins 10 seats. “It has fielded candidates for 34 National Assembly seats from Punjab. It will be a relevant force if no major party gains a simple majority,” he argues.

Created to fulfil the wishes of the military dictator by merging different factions of the League nine years ago, the PML-Q began withering away shortly before the 2008 election. Most League factions were revived and many individuals left the party to join the PML-N or the PPP or contest the polls independently. The desertions in the National Assembly and Senate continued even after the election. In Punjab, 47 of the 85 PML-Q members of the provincial assembly formed a ‘forward block’ to support Shahbaz Sharif, which meant the chief minister could now sustain his government even after throwing the PPP out of the coalition.

The party had won 92 seats in the 2002 assembly to form its government but in 2008 its strength dwindled to 41. Of the 34 candidates it has nominated for the May 11 vote, all of them from Punjab, it will have the PPP’s backing on 20 seats. The two parties will be contesting against each other on at least five national seats, including the one from Gujrat (NA-105) where Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi is facing Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar.

Will the seat adjustment help the PML-Q win these seats is a tough question. While there are those who say the alliance could hurt both the PPP and the Q-League, others consider the seat adjustment will be mutually beneficial. Warraich says the PPP voters may resist initially but, just like their party, they will make the compromise and vote for the PML-Q.

History indicates the PML-Q could never evolve as a political party and was and remains a group of so-called individual ‘electables’ the Chaudhries of Gujrat had brought together to defeat (well-established) political parties in 2002.

The Chaudhries did not invent the trend but in their case where a party was hardly on display, the ‘influential individuals’ in their winning got even more prominence than usual.

No party is too shy to woo them and all parties boast them, but they do stand out more in a ‘non’-party the PML-Q has come to be known as.

The PML-N, for example, has embraced every one, barring a few, linked to the Musharraf setup in search of the ‘electables’. The same goes for the PPP and it is still trying to win over every strong candidate. The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) has accepted in its fold many people with ‘tainted’ past despite its slogan of change and given them tickets despite protests from its old activists.

This lack of ideology in the politics raises fears of the rise of the only ideology that exists: the religious right. “When in power under Musharraf, the PML-Q touted his idea of enlightened moderation,” explains a political scientist who would rather remain unnamed. “But when the time came, Chaudhry Shujaat was the first to take a stand against the efforts to minimise the imprints of religion on school curriculum. Every time an effort, however weak or insignificant it may have been, was made to reduce the role of religion in public life he stood up with the religious groups.”

“I think the PML-Q has become a victim of its policy of weakening political parties and strengthening individuals,” the political scientist says. “Even its strategy of joining the PPP government could not stop desertions. Take the example of Sheikh Waqas Akram: he remained a federal minister in the coalition government with the PPP and defended it vociferously on television. When the government completed its term, he immediately crossed over to the PML-N. There are many such examples from Amir Muqam to Riaz Hussain Peerzada.”

Warraich agrees the PML-Q could never become a political party. “It was and remains a group of electables who are together to watch one another’s interests. It’s a party that has candidates but no party following amongst the voters.”

He also agrees that only those ‘electables’ had stayed with the party who could not be adjusted by any of the three major parties for different reasons, but adds some have stayed with the PML-Q because they have developed a strong relationship with the Chaudhries of Gujrat over time.

Warraich says the Chaudhries had joined forces with PPP because they had run out of other options. They had drifted too far apart from the Sharifs and did not want to bet on the emerging PTI. So an accommodating PPP was the only viable option.

Will its alliance with the PPP save the party of the electables from extinction? “The PML-Q was created in the tradition of the Convention League and the Council League. Those who are with it today are traditionalist practitioners of politics. A really bad showing in the polls will only accelerate the process of disintegration that the PML-Q has been beset with for long,” concludes a senior journalist.