IN normal circumstances, the contest at Pindi Bhattian would have likely caught the attention of those interested in Punjab politics and in the PTI’s challenge to the PML-N in the province and the country overall. But there was so much happening on the national stage that this important little PTI victory over the Sharif camp in the heart of Punjab went largely unnoticed.
Pindi Bhattian came at a crucial time for the PTI. Only a few days earlier, the PML-N politicians had flashed a by-election result in Narowal not very far from Pindi Bhattian not just as a vindication of their popularity but also as proof of the fairness of the May 2013 general polls.
For a PTI campaigning for examination of the balloting process at a few, certain places, Narowal was a test case and the big defeat there that followed intense canvassing by the party was a dampener. The party tried to deal with the situation by saying the by-election had also been rigged, risking tiring the people further who were getting just a little fed up with their obsession with the vote-fraud slogans.
Just as Narowal was a reconfirmation of the huge PML-N presence in Punjab’s politics, Pindi Bhattian is a reminder about the strength of PTI’s challenge. Whatever the reasons, Imran Khan’s is a party with popular support. It is up to how he goes about building on this potential. The latest vote shows that beyond declaring the system as foul in his speeches, in times of demanding action Imran is capable of using the same system to his advantage.
Against each powerful pro-PML-N group is a reasonably strong rival party.
Read this recap by a journalist from the area, and it will be clear that it was all about revelling in and taking advantage of old traditions and the system:
PTI’s Nighat Intisar Bhatti won the Pindi Bhattian by-election. A PML-N candidate in May 2013 general election for the same seat, she had lost to an independent candidate, Shoaib Shah Nawaz, who was backed by the powerful Mehdi Hasan Bhatti family and who after his election had joined the PML-N.
Nighat’s husband, Intisar Bhatti, is a former MPA and a son of another lawmaker from the area, Jahangir Bhatti. After winning in 1985, Jahangir Bhatti died midway through his term and Intisar was elected unopposed in a by-election. In 1988, Intisar was an MPA belonging to the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI). He won on a PML-N ticket in 1990, before shifting to the PPP in 1993 and making a return to the PML-N in 1996.
Intisar Bhatti did not take part in the 2002 general polls because he did not have a BA degree. During 2005-2009, his brother Ansar Bhatti was the tehsil nazim in Pindi Bhattian and a known supporter of the creator of that local government system, Gen Pervez Musharraf.
On the other hand there is the Mehdi Hasan Bhatti family. Mehdi Bhatti has been in the IJI, PML-N and PPP. In 2002, when he could not participate in the election because of the degree issue his brother Liaqat Ali Bhatti was elected as MNA as a PML-Q man. Liaqat Bhatti retained the NA seat in 2008. The constituency includes areas falling in the Punjab Assembly seat that Nighat Intisar Bhatti has now won.
In May 2013 election, Liaqat Bhatti, a state minister in the outgoing PPP government on the PML-Q quota, won this National Assembly seat as an independent. His election was annulled on rigging charges. In the by-polls, the PTI gave its ticket to Liaqat Bhatti’s nephew Shaukat Ali Bhatti, who is the son of Mehdi Bhatti and who was the minister of culture in the Punjab government of Pervaiz Elahi. In the latest by-election, the Mehdi Bhatti family was supporting Sarfraz Bhatti, a PML-N candidate against Intisar Bhatti’s wife.
This is a somewhat complicated and raw account of Pindi Bhattian’s electoral circus over the last few decades. But in its detail it should be able to illustrate one simple point: Every political force that could, did play a role in nurturing Nighat Intisar to a point where she was acceptable to a party as principled about a new brand of politics and as vocal about change as the PTI.
The PTI leader does sometimes talk about how those who come through suspicious means can never be expected to do good in parliament, but that is a remark meant for lesser politicians in lesser parties. His belief in the PTI and more than that in himself is unshakeable. He had promised that all those from among the old lot who passed through the PTI’s door would be rinsed clean and would be deemed fit for national duty from that point onwards.
Not only does the winning candidate in Pindi Bhattian have the requisite background in local politics, she is all set to benefit from this famous Imran Khan offer.
More will follow the same route in time, for away from the politics of ideologies, ill-concealed and necessary, exists a real world full of local rivalries.
Against each family or powerful group standing with the PML-N, there is a reasonably strong rival group or family looking for a political party to assert its own clout. For many decades, while the PML-N remained the biggest and most secure patron of these groups in Punjab, the PPP had its share of local ‘influentials’, with its ideological voters playing their assigned but limited role.
Pindi Bhattian reaffirms that with the crumbling of the PPP in vast areas of Punjab, the PTI is the alternative go-to party.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
Published in Dawn, June 6th, 2014