LAHORE, June 13: Malik Meraj Khalid, former caretaker prime minister and one of the country’s leading political figure, died on Friday after a week’s hospitalization for chest congestion and high fever.

One of the founders of the People’s Party, Mr Meraj Khalid was 89. He is survived by a widow and an adopted son. His funeral prayers will be offered at Bagh-i-Jinnah at 8am on Saturday.

A self-made leader, Malik Meraj Khalid was a versatile person. He had played a role in the Pakistan Movement. After the creation of Pakistan, he set up a committee for the promotion of the Punjabi language and he was always proud of his initiative.

A law graduate, Malik Meraj Khalid started his political career in the mid-60s with his election as an independent member of the West Pakistan Assembly. He then joined the Convention Muslim League.

Subsequently, “responding to the call of his conscience,” as he wrote in a pamphlet he had then authored, he left the party to join the Pakistan People’s Party of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

A staunch supporter of left politics, Malik Meraj Khalid became one of Mr Bhutto’s trusted colleagues. He was made chief minister of Punjab, but could not last long and was eclipsed by then strongman Malik Ghulam Mustafa Khar.

Since the two could not co-exist, Malik Meraj Khalid was made federal minister for agriculture. After the 1977 elections, he was elected speaker of the National Assembly. But the whole system was packed up by Gen Ziaul Haq the same year in July after opposition parties operating from the platform of the Pakistan National Alliance had refused to accept the election results and launched a movement against Mr Bhutto.

Later, when Benazir Bhutto formed the government, Mr Meraj Khalid was part of what was known as the ‘gang of four’ dissidents, the others being Rao Rashid, Afzal Sindhu and Mian Ehsanul Haq. However, the dissidents settled differences with Ms Bhutto and all of them were accommodated in the government. Malik Meraj Khalid was made speaker of the National Assembly.

When the opposition parties tabled a no-trust motion against Ms Benazir Bhutto in 1989, it was Malik Meraj Khalid who presided over the assembly proceedings. The move was defeated by less than a dozen votes, because of which Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi could not become prime minister.

Before the foundation of the second Benazir government, Mr Meraj Khalid had developed serious differences with the PPP leadership. When the Benazir government was dismissed in November 1996, then president Sardar Farooq Ahmed Khan Leghari appointed Malik Meraj Khalid as caretaker prime minister, presumably in the hope that he would be able to play a role in preventing the PPP from returning to power. Mr Meraj Khalid used all his energies to have the PPP defeated, holding meetings to resolve differences between Mumtaz Ali Bhutto and PPP-SB Chairperson Ghinwa Bhutto. The PML-N of Mian Nawaz Sharif won the election with a two- thirds majority.

As caretaker prime minister, Malik Meraj Khalid set a new precedent of austerity. On most occasions, he travelled without protocol. He would often be seen strolling on the Mall in Lahore.

He spent a good part of his life for the promotion of literacy in the Burki area, his constituency, and played a part in persuading people of the area to send their children to school. His death was widely mourned by politicians from across the political divide and his old political colleagues.

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