KARACHI: It is much like the case of the ‘runaway bride’ — or so the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf says. Its NA-245 candidate Amjad Ullah Khan ditched his party at the eleventh hour only to join rival Muttahida Qaumi Movement moments before the opening of the by-election vote, a dramatic announcement resulting in much embarrassment and a forced soul-searching within PTI ranks.
“He was in love with someone else all along,” scoffed Imran Ismail, PTI’s deputy secretary general. The irony doesn’t escape Ali Zaidi, the party’s Karachi president, who adds: “I suppose he too was bit by the Altaf Hussain love bug. But this happens often in politics. Haven’t you seen how people are leaving the MQM after years of association? At least our bride left us early in the marriage.”
The two leaders had no clue what was coming. Both vouch that Mr Khan was with them till 5pm on Wednesday, discussing how party camps would be set up among other logistics like the supply of food for workers. Thereafter, he left to make “arrangements for transport” and switched off his mobile phone.
“We kept trying to trace him. I thought he was kidnapped. I went to his father’s house and kept banging the door,” says Mr Ismail. “Then I got a text from MQM’s Ali Raza Abidi saying they are having a press conference and we were going to love it. That’s when it hit me.”
Mr Zaidi describes how they were blindsided. “The initial feeling was that we have been had. When we got that WhatsApp message from the MQM, Imran and I looked at each other and put two and two together.”
Shocked and mortified, both Mr Ismail and Mr Zaidi spent most of Thursday engaged in a damage-control exercise after their candidate’s unexpected departure coupled with allegations of lack of financial and physical support and rifts within the party.
“The PTI has created a public image of itself which does not exist in Pakistan,” Mr Khan spoke out at a press conference held in the early hours of Thursday morning at the MQM’s Azizabad headquarters where he announced that he had jumped ship.
“I was worrying that I didn’t have polling agents instead of focusing on my campaign. The party refused funding to me outright. I only got 500 small party flags from them yesterday — nothing else.”
Accompanied by senior MQM leaders Aamir Khan and Kunwar Naveed Jameel, he warned PTI chief Imran Khan about certain elements in his party. “If they are in power in Karachi, then perhaps their workers can even sell the Quaid’s mausoleum. Imran Khan is a good person but he can’t run a party. You [Imran] will have to take difficult decisions and remove people who use your name to amass wealth.”
Mr Ismail rejects these allegations outright. “We didn’t give him any campaign money because the PTI doesn’t do that,” he says.
He shared with Dawn the copy of a letter purportedly submitted by Mr Khan before he applied for the ticket, which says he will bear all expenses for the election himself.
Mr Ismail hit out at his former party member for being a “coward who started asking everyone for money”. “Once his camp was attacked, his legs started shaking. He was under tremendous pressure. He was running away, hiding here and there. I had no clue he would do such a despicable thing. He asked everyone for money. He even asked Khurram Sherzaman for money which he gave.”
He criticised the Election Commission of Pakistan and said: “What is the ECP doing after knowing he was under duress? Why didn’t they call us with Amjad Ullah and his father to talk it out? They are sleeping.”
The MQM was also not spared. Mr Ismail felt the party wanted to prove a point after being hurt by former Karachi mayor Mustafa Kamal.
“When people defect from the MQM, they abuse them. But if someone leaves a party and joins the MQM, they say ‘their conscience has awakened’.”
Mr Zaidi echoed a similar sentiment. “The MQM shouldn’t have accepted him just as the PPP refused. Why did they have to do it?” Ultimately, they both admitted it was poor judgement and unpreparedness that culminated in this surprise departure.
“I take 100 per cent responsibility for it,” said Mr Ismail. “I was a major part of the parliamentary board; I made the recommendations to give him a ticket. I apologise to my voters and supporters for a bad choice made by me.”
“How could they [PTI’s Karachi leaders] not have known Amjad Ullah will pull the rug from under their feet? It’s a literal walkover and is making the party look bad,” said a senior party leader.
He absolved Mr Khan of blame and pointed a finger at the party’s poor organisational skills. “How can a party, whose leader has clear national popularity, do so poorly at the grass-roots level?”
‘I have no idea what price the MQM paid for him’
The MQM did not believe Mr Khan when he first contacted the Karachi leadership a couple of days ago through a mutual friend and expressed his desire to join the party, recalled a senior leader.
“The matter was discussed at the top level and we were asked to tell him that MQM is going through a tough phase and have nothing to offer to him,” he said. “The Karachi leadership communicated the message to him but Mr Khan said he wanted to join the MQM on the call of his conscience.”
Since NA-245 was a secure seat for the MQM, the party wanted him to contest the by-election from the PTI platform and join the MQM after the results.
The leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Mr Khan insisted on Wednesday evening that he did not want to contest the election and wanted to withdraw in favour of the MQM candidate. “So we discussed the issue again and then called a press conference late on Wednesday night.”
However, Karachi president of the Pakistan Peoples Party Najmi Alam had a different story to tell.
He told Dawn that Mr Khan phoned him at 3:30pm on Wednesday and said he wanted to meet him. “I asked him to come to my home and he came at 5pm. He spoke against the PTI leadership for leaving him alone in the election and then told me he wanted to withdraw in favour of our [PPP] candidate.”
He said that Mr Khan asked for the monetary benefits if he withdrew in favour of the PPP and a secure seat from the interior of Sindh in the next elections. “I refused to entertain his offer and he left. I have no idea what price the MQM paid for him.”
MQM spokesperson Amin-ul-Haq told Dawn that Mr Khan was in touch with the MQM after a party rally was attacked by “PTI miscreants” in Hyderi. “He saw the real face of the PTI that day and was fed up with them. He decided to join the MQM yesterday [Wednesday]” he added.
He said that Mr Khan spent a major part of his life in North Nazimabad but now he lived in Defence.
Published in Dawn, April 8th, 2016