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Footprints: The NA-122 battleground

October 09, 2015

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A policeman on his motorbike passes by a road decked with PTI and PML-N banners for the NA-122 by-election in Lahore on Sunday.—Arif Ali / White Star
A policeman on his motorbike passes by a road decked with PTI and PML-N banners for the NA-122 by-election in Lahore on Sunday.—Arif Ali / White Star

OLD pride clashes with new ambition. On one side is the poise of the incumbent, Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, occasionally disturbed by the challenger’s charge as the day of election nears. He is met with full force by the aspiring Abdul Aleem Khan, the think-big gentleman who has found a way of surviving controversy.

The locale itself, NA-122, offers an assortment of Lahori shades. It has middle-class businessmen, a sprinkling of the government — mainly railways workers. It has a few colleges, and clusters of thickly populated middle-class localities. And it has, of course, the presence of major biradaris such as the Arain and the Kashmiri that have played a crucial part in polls past.

This is an area where the PML-N has habitually scored victories. The party’s current candidate, Ayaz Sadiq, won the seat hands down in 2002. Imran Khan, with whom Sadiq indulged in national sport hockey in Aitchison College, won half as many votes in that electoral contest. The PTI claims that by 2013 the tables had turned and Sadiq owed his declared victory to large-scale rigging. Though the same result is predicted this time around, the PTI’s campaign is short of neither verve nor resources.

As the two main contenders slug it out, there is a third force which, according to its remaining supporters, is at least trying. The PPP’s Barrister Amir Hasan is campaigning — as much as he can, given the circumstances and his resources. He has managed to summon to his aid some of the respectable PPP faces in a more visible attempt at some kind of revival than the party has been able to come up with in a long time.

If 2013 heralded the arrival of a rival who was ready and able to match the grandiose PML-N campaign, the PTI campaign this time has gone even further. If anything, it would appear at certain points as if it is the PML-N that is chasing the Imran Khan camp. This might rank as amongst the loudest poll campaigns in Pakistan, ever.

Mohammad Tariq, a resident of Jamil Town on the far end of the constituency near the University of Engineering and Technology, has never cast a ballot. But now the 25-year-old is canvassing for Aleem Khan.

“No one has ever done for my community what Aleem Khan did after his election as a member of the Punjab Assembly in 2002,” Tariq contends. “Every development scheme ever initiated in our area carries his name. Ayaz Sadiq? We didn’t even see him in the constituency until he was de-seated.”

Many voters in NA-122 share Tariq’s feelings. Khan’s image as a politician who laughs and cries with his voters precedes the idea of his being a ‘hard-core corrupt’ land-developer, one of the main planks of the PML-N’s campaign against him in the by-election.

Farrukh Javed Moon, in charge of the PTI’s main election office in Garhi Shahu, insists that “Aleem Khan has done so much to bring clean drinking water and health facilities to the area when he was a provincial minister [in Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi’s cabinet]. People remember. The results of this by-election will vindicate him.”

However, this is not the only factor that gives Khan points against the former speaker of the National Assembly who was de-seated by an election tribunal after it found large-scale irregularities in the 2013 polls.

“The kind of money Aleem Khan is spending and the hard work he has put in is amazing,” says a resident of Samanabad, who works as a divisional engineer at PTCL. “I will be very sorry for him if he loses,” he adds, refusing to give his name.

As you take the Nadeem Shaheed Road to drive to Ichhra from Iqbal Town via Samanabad on the other side of the constituency, you realise that the battle for NA-122 isn’t perhaps going to be easy for the PML-N. The whole stretch is decked with large PTI banners and posters. Only occasionally do you see Ayaz Sadiq peeping out. Ichhra and the part of Ferozepur Road that falls in NA-122 present the same picture.

“We always considered Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif as one of us,” an Ichhra trader, who says that he is a resident of Shadman and a registered voter, tells Dawn. “That was folly, which we realised only after the PML-N government imposed the banking transaction tax. They’re going to pay a very heavy price for it.”

Even so, it is difficult to predict the outcome of the Sunday by-election. While most analysts believe it is going to be a very close race, the PML-N remains confident.

“Lahore remains Nawaz Sharif’s city. The PTI’s win in Gulberg in the 2013 election was an aberration,” asserts Nadeem Butt, an ardent PML-N supporter from Dharampura. “Those who think that they can defeat Ayaz Sadiq and capture Lahore must be daydreaming.”

Another PML-N supporter from Rasool Park in Ichhra, Mohammad Shafiq, dismisses the suggestion that relentless and expensive canvassing by the PTI for its candidate has given him an edge. “If money could buy votes, people like Aleem Khan would never lose,” he says. “The silent majority is with the PML-N.”

Published in Dawn, October 9th, 2015

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