Analysis: Okara— Punjab's political nowhere

Published October 14, 2015
Okara is Punjab’s Koofa, says an old local political worker.—AFP/File
Okara is Punjab’s Koofa, says an old local political worker.—AFP/File

WE don’t need political parties. We don’t need your sermons on governance or new this and old that. We don’t want you, move out. While all of Pakistan was watching that contest in Lahore, Punjab politics shifted a gear and moved to another realm. And it happened here in Okara.

In Okara, an independent candidate Riaz ul Haq Juj polled more votes than all the political parties put together. In the last election PML-N’s Chaudhray Arif was one of those super candidates who got more than one hundred thousand votes. Imran Khan held the biggest jalsa in the city’s history during the campaign.

Where did all the votes go?

And why should we care who is the winner?

“Okara is Punjab’s Koofa,” says an old local political worker. “These people can make you king but you take them for granted and you come to a tragic end.” It was Bhutto’s Okara once. There was a strong trade union movement and small farmers didn’t fear Bhutto’s land reforms dream. When Bhutto was hanged at least two citizens set themselves ablaze. Then like most middle Punjab it went over to Sharifs. It was Punjab’s Larkana.

Take a look: NA-144: Rise of independent candidate Juj shows new trends in politics

Then it was Sharif’s other Lahore. And now it has become Punjab’s political nowhere; you don’t need politics to contest elections. You don’t need political parties. Here a relatively unknown man with moneybags can grab power weeks after making a bid for it. When Juj started campaigning three weeks before the by-elections people asked each other who was this guy? He was that boy from Nemat banaspati family. Surely people knew about the family. It’s the richest in the city. And like most rich folks very stingy.

According to the local folklore PML-N’s downfall in Okara started with a casual insult to the family. When the Juj’s family showed interest in contesting the by-election PML-N’s local stalwart quipped. “I shall not let anyone else open a new shop in this town”. Now as it happens, the banaspati family had started making its fortunes by starting a small grocery store. Everyone remembers that little shop. And the family obviously doesn’t like to be reminded of that little shop.

Specially when they have cash to spare. An average candidate is expected to spend about two crore rupees in an election for National Assembly. The family and friends set up a fund of nine and a half crores, says an associate. Money was important for an outsider. It was even more important to create an impression there was more money where those crores came from. “When Juj and his comrades go out to canvass they carry bags of cash in their jeeps,” said a supporter during the campaign. “And if they bring some back in the evening their elders scold them for not spending their day’s money.”

A brief glance at how the family operates might give us some idea about the non-politics of future. They have their ghee mill and a cardboard factory. They are well known as bad paymasters. But their real money comes from trading in sugar. They buy up most of the sugar produced by sugar mills in the area in advance. They pay up in cash. Many retirees come to them with their life’s savings. They are reliable black market investors.

Like most black marketeers in the country the family is big on charity. And they are quite sophisticated about it. Every Ramazan their managers go around grocery stores in poor areas and get information about the poorest households. Then a month’s ration is delivered to these families. That’s the beginning and end of their politics. “You buy a family a month’s ration every year,” a down on his luck theatre artist in Okara told me. “And you can have their vote and their children’s vote.”

When the voters look at a fattened and arrogant PML-N, old pirates like Manzoor Watoo running the PPP and the revolutionary PTI stealing candidates from the old pirate, the man with the moneybags with real cash seems like a logical choice. It ceases to matter that the man delivering you free sugar for a month every year made his money hoarding sugar in the first place.

But all the charity in the world and all the Landcruisers carrying cash can’t win you an election with this margin. Remember Juj got more votes than all the political parties put together. One of the reasons is that everybody forgot there are people who grow stuff i.e farmers. PML-N has been a disaster for the farmers. Okara prides itself on being the potato capital of Asia. The poshest gated colony here is called The Potato Society. “Growing potatoes is not a poor farmer’s work,” said a veteran farmer. “In fifty years of farming I have never seen potato growers drive their trolleys to Lahore and dump potato sacks on Mall Road.” Potato farmers are not a happy lot by nature but I have never seen them so depressed and disgruntled in a long time. And nobody really listened to them. Not even the guy from their own biradri.

The old electioneering that relied on biradris is a folk myth lovingly kept alive by TV pundits. Both the leading candidates in Okara were Arain. “There are no Arain nationalist left,” said the staunchest Arain nationalist in Okara. “The new nationalists are kumhars and lohars. Wait for the local bodies elections and they’ll be voting for their own.”

Why would a rich family with a flare for profit and charity move into politics? Ask Sharifs. They have been here. They may not like it but there is a new shop on the corner.

Published in Dawn, October 14th , 2015

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