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FOOTPRINTS: THE URGE TO PARTY

March 20, 2016

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AN unlit flight of stairs takes me to an apartment on the second floor of a commercial building in Cavalry Grounds. The premises serve as the headquarters of a newly founded, little-known political party. It is called the Pakistan Freedom Party but the name doesn't quite matter yet.

It is the sentiment that should count, believe those behind the idea. They come from the same business, foreign-educated background that has over time provided the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) with some of its more progressive and pragmatic members. Some of them then landed in the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), but the desire to find a political voice and platform leads many to think about forming a new party. A few of them do, indeed, go the whole hog.

A deep silence overwhelms visitors when they step into the hallway of the building where this particular party is headquartered. “Why such deadly silence?” you wonder.

Moments before your host, one of the founding members, leads you to a small room to wait until chairman Haroon Khawaja emerges from a meeting with growers visiting from D.G. Khan, Rafi Khan, the head of the party’s membership and overseas wing, enters.

“The chairman has shot down my suggestion to organise a farmers’ protest,” he tells his colleague. “He says the time is not right. He’s right.”

Khan, a retired investment banker, explains his party’s objectives. “We’re a pro-poor party. It’s our ideology. The poor are our natural allies. No other party speaks for the poor; they are anti-poor.”

Khan has spent the better part of his life abroad. But whether he was working in England or in the US, he “never ceased to reflect on the awful conditions” the vast majority of his countrymen back home were forced to endure. He looked forward to one day returning home to help the disadvantaged.

When he returned home a few years ago, he joined the PTI. “I had known Imran Khan for about 43 years,” he says. “When he raised the slogan of change, I knew he was the man to trust and follow.” But “the wealthy hijacked the party” just before the 2013 elections. “I left the PTI even though it was at the peak of its popularity at that time,” Khan says.

Soon he joined up with some like-minded, middle-class and well-educated businessmen and professionals who also wanted to do something for their country but felt disillusioned with the available choices.

Led by Khawaja, a businessman who owns hotels in the US and Pakistan and advised the governments of Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif until he parted ways with the Sharifs in late 2011 to join the PTI, the group hunkered down to develop a “plan to turn Pakistan around” by reforming the country’s dysfunctional governance and economic system. They took the plan, developed after years of “hard work and consultations”, to both the ruling PML-N and the PTI.

“We knew only a party in power could implement our plan. But both of them pushed us back. We were left with no choice but to launch a new political party to bring about the change we had always dreamed of,” says Syed Nabeel Hashmi, a businessman and one of the team members who developed the plan.

The party chairman is now ready to give a presentation on the reasons he and his friends decided to form a new party: the Pakistan Plan which, if implemented, “can turn Pakistan around in 36 months”.

“Unless this system is changed to meet our modern-day requirements, we are not going to get anywhere,” Khawaja begins. “Corruption, poverty, etc, are not our issue; these are only the symptoms of the disease. We need a paradigm shift.”

A majority of the founding members of the party and a good number of those who are attracted to it are small- to medium-sized businessmen and middle-class professionals, many of whom were educated or lived and worked in Europe, the US and the Middle East. Most supported either the PML-N or the PTI in the past, but felt disillusioned with their policies and the “arbitrary way these parties are run by the leadership”.

“None of us needed to jump into politics,” says Khawaja. “We were happy with whatever we were doing. But all of us wanted to give something back to society. We’ve built the horse [the organisation] and now we are focusing on building the cart [members]. In the next five to six months you will see a dramatic increase in our membership as we plan to contest and win the 2018 elections.”

Political analysts remain sceptical of the party’s electoral success, however. “Historically, people, especially in Punjab, vote for only those parties which they think can win the elections,” explains journalist and political analyst Sohail Warraich. “That’s why parties like the Jamaat-i-Islami have been wiped out of the electoral scene. The PPP [Pakistan People’s Party] lost the 2013 elections in Punjab not because it has lost public support but because voters thought it would not come to power. Hence, they switched to the PTI. I’m doubtful that the Pakistan Freedom Party will ever succeed in garnering the kind of public support any party needs to win an election.”

Published in Dawn, March 20th, 2016