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A leaf from history: The opposition alliance

July 28, 2013

With the announcement of election dates, the opposition parties sprang into action. It was much awaited, but the time between the official announcement and the poll date was too short — a part of Z. A. Bhutto’s strategy for giving the opposition the shortest time for electioneering. The PPP government had already begun preparations and when the date was announced the party leaders were extremely happy. There were two reasons for that: one, the United Democratic Front (UDF) still lacked coordination; secondly, every opposition party wanted to contest on every seat, dividing the opposition vote bank.

On Dec 31, 1976 Bhutto convened a meeting of all provincial governors, during which a new commission comprising chief justices of the high courts was to be formed to discuss the issue of water apportionment to prevent the opposition from exploiting the issue during electioneering.

On Jan 2, 1977, the chief election commissioner (CEC), Justice Sajjad Ahmad Jan, announced the details of seats over which contests were to be held: Punjab 115 NA, 240 PA; Sindh 43 NA, 100 PA; KP (NWFP ) 26 NA, 80 PA; Balochistan 7 NA, 40 PA; Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) 8 NA, Federal Capital 1 NA. In all, 200 seats in the National Assembly and 460 seats in provincial assemblies were to be fought over.

The PPP team was sure that it would bag a two-thirds majority easily. Some opposition leaders outside the UDF were busy drawing new lines for the upcoming encounter. Among them Asghar Khan appeared very serious. But the problem with him was that he was not prepared to join the UDF. The former air force chief had opposed Bhutto since the 1970 elections. He was against Bhutto in all respects and wanted him to vanish. For that he could go to any level. This was proved later when as a result of the 1977 elections and failure of talks he asked the armed forces to act (in other words to take over). He also thought that he could prove to be a better leader than Bhutto. With that background he seemed poised to take a solo flight rather than join the UDF. If at all he could work with some party it was Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan (JUP). Behind the curtain, hectic efforts were underway to bring as many parties as possible to form a wider platform to contest the next polls; however, Asghar Khan’s standpoint proved to be a stumbling block till one day he broke down and showed his intention to sit with the other parties but with certain reservations.

Immediately after the CEC’s press conference the opposition parties began evolving a strategy on two fronts: one to create a unified platform; two, to choose suitable candidates for all 660 seats — a difficult task to attain in a few days before landing into a real electioneering campaign. Lahore became the centre of all activities. On Jan 10, 1977 when the National Assembly was dissolved, a meeting of the opposition parties took place at the residence of Rafiq Ahmad Bajawa. It was a long session with all opposition leaders deliberating upon the possible structure of a united platform, its aims, objectives and working. The main hurdle was allocation of seats to parties in a possible united front.

After a lengthy session lasting for almost the whole day, it was announced that nine parties had agreed to form a joint election forum and contest on all seats by pitching one candidate against the PPP candidate. The decision of the opposition was delayed by some reservations put forward by Asghar Khan who in consonance with the JUP demanded 50pc of the total seats and the office of the secretary general for JUP. After heated discussion these demands were conceded and both the parties joined the forum called Pakistan National Alliance (PNA), replacing the UDF. The PNA comprised: Muslim League, Jamaat-i-Islami, Tehreek-i-Istaqlal, National Democratic Party, Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, Khaksar Tehreek and the All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference. The nine-party alliance was called nau sitare (nine stars) and its flag too bore nine stars.

The next day all the component parties held another meeting in which the remaining details were discussed; the meeting concluded with a press conference at which Asghar Khan formally announced the formation of the PNA, its decisions, and selection of plough as the election symbol. A committee comprising Rafiq Ahmad Bajawa, Professor Ghafoor Ahmad, Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan and Malik Nazir Ahmad was formed to decide the hierarchy of the alliance without losing any time. On Jan 16, Mufti Mahmood of JUI was elected its President, Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan as Vice President and Rafiq Bajawa of the JUP as secretary general, as pressed by Asghar Khan.

Against all assurances of the secret agencies which were assigned the task of keeping the PNA parties away from getting closer, Bhutto was quite annoyed at the speed with which the alliance had come into being. To calm him down, the Rao Rashid team assured him that the PNA would soon fall apart.