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Islamabad’s sons of the soil

April 28, 2013

As the cliché goes, Islamabad is just a few miles from Pakistan. This stands true even when it comes to elections.

Influential people or electables in other parts of the country own huge land-holdings or run some industry or enjoy the support of spiritual followers and they enter politics because they need access to or control the local power structures. In Islamabad, however, local politics is about the ability to buy or sell property.

This is why all the three main political parties — the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, Pakistan Peoples Party and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf — have chosen candidates who over the years have entered and then prospered in the real estate business.

In other words, the May 11 election contest for NA-48 and NA-49 will be a race between politicians, who had made big bucks by investing in the property business.

This is understandable to those who know the role real estate plays in the life and politics of the capital city.

Until 2000, Islamabad was mainly known for its serenity and as the seat of government. Aside from bureaucrats, only politicians, who had to attend parliament, opted to buy houses here. Even then Islamabad was but a temporary abode.

But this changed when the city became an attractive destination for those who were migrating from other cities (because of security reasons) or for expats who headed home and found the green capital as clean and serene as the developed world they were leaving behind.

A property boom followed resulting in Islamabad becoming home to the most expensive real estate in the country. And property is now the biggest business in town aside from politics.

According to a local property dealer, Asadullah, who has been in the business for quite some time, within the gap of a few years — from 2000 to 2004 — the city witnessed a tenfold increase in its property rates.

And those who either were in the business or were local residents with significant property in their possession earned millions and billions.

Before 2002, when Islamabad used to have one National Assembly seat — NA-35 — politicians from the neighbouring city of Rawalpindi would contest for this constituency.

In 1985, Haji Nawaz Khokhar, head of the Khokhar clan, won the seat as an independent candidate and Raja Pervez Khan was declared the winner in 1988 as a PPP nominee. Mr Khokhar again won the seat in the 1990 and 1993 general elections for the PML-N.

In 1997, the PML-N chose to field Syed Zafar Ali Shah, a Supreme Court lawyer, who posted a huge victory of 67,500 votes against Nayyar Hussain Bokhari (29,847 votes) of the PPP. This was the first time that a resident of the rural areas of the capital called the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) had participated in the elections. Mr Bokhari is from the ICT.

In the 2002 elections, the city was divided into two constituencies when retired Gen Pervez Musharraf decided to increase the number of National Assembly seats. When elections were held Mr Bokhari won NA-49 and Mian Aslam of the Jamaat-i-Islami bagged NA-48.

Mr Bokhari was the first politician whose family had made huge profits in the land business of Islamabad while Mr Aslam was a local businessman who made a living from poultry.

Now when the city is bracing for another general election, all three parties have awarded tickets to those businessmen who have had made a fortune in the real estate business after the business blossomed in early 2000s.

The PML-N has awarded the ticket for NA-49 to Anjum Aqeel Khan, its winner of the 2008 general elections. Mr Khan used to be a schoolteacher before his family hit the jackpot in the property business. A brother of his used to serve in the local revenue department as naib tehsildar and it is said that he played a role in helping the family business.

In fact, in December 2011, Mr Khan was arrested in the National Police Foundation  land scandal in which he had allegedly made Rs6 billion. Cheques that he had given for the purchase of property had bounced and Mr Khan was released from jail on the assurance that he would clear all financial liabilities against him.

Facing Mr Khan is the PPP’s Faisal Sakhi Butt, who had headed the prime minister task force for the development of Islamabad under Yousuf Raza Gilani.

Mr Butt throughout his stint under former prime minister Gilani remained in the news for what the Islamabad High Court said was his involvement in the land issues of the Capital Development Authority (CDA); the court in September last year stopped Mr Butt from visiting the premises of the authority after which it was alleged in the court that he tried holding meetings with CDA officials in his home.

The court then issued a contempt of court notice against him. In his nomination papers, Mr Butt has shown Building Materials (Pvt) Ltd and Sakhi Butt & Sons Pharmaceuticals as his businesses.

Dr Tariq Fazal Chaudhry is the PML-N’s nominee for the NA-49, which covers the rural area of the ICT. A medical doctor, Mr Chaudhry has described himself as an agriculturist in his nomination papers.

According to a close aide of Dr Chaudhry, who didn’t want to speak on the record, the doctor’s family also has business interests in real estate though these are not as extensive as Mr Khan’s.

The PPP is not far behind the PML-N. Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, the son of Haji Nawaz Khokhar, former deputy speaker and three-time member of the National Assembly, has been awarded a ticket by the PPP for NA-49.

He is the nephew of Imtiaz Khokhar, who at the moment is a proclaimed offender in a land dispute case that resulted in the killing of a woman. Mr Khokhar’s name has cropped up in property disputes and controversial land deals in Islamabad.

The party which has promised a new Pakistan has also stuck to  Islamabad traditions. Facing Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar is Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s Chaudhry Ilyas Mehrban.

According to his nomination papers, Mr Mehrban runs a school, but his entire family is in the real estate business. Natives of the area, they have a town named after them — Mehrban Town — on Park Road. During the early 2000s, when the city grew rapidly, the worth of its rural areas grew by leaps and bounds. The Mehrbans profited by this price hike.

Indeed, Islamabad is one city where the real estate bubble never bursts and its politicians know this.