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LAHORE: Stunned by recent defections from among the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) political leaders of the south Punjab region, party president Shahbaz Sharif has begun meeting the PML-N parliamentarians from the cotton belt, in order to ascertain the “real” motives behind the defections and to frame a strategy to check further erosions in the party base there.

Lawmakers and PML-N leaders from south Punjab including federal Minister Awais Leghari, Minister of State Abdul Rehman Kanju, MNA Amjad Farooq Khosa, Malik Sultan Mehmood Hanjra, Sardar Ashique Hussain Gopang, MPA Zeeshan Gurmani and former MNA Saddique Khan Baloch visited Mr Sharif in Model Town on Tuesday. They were joined by provincial Minister Rana Mashhood Ahmad and Special Assistant to CM Malik Muhammad Ahmad Khan.

While the PML-N is looking to win back some of its members who had changed their loyalty, the participants of the meeting also discussed other party leaders who might quit in the coming days. “We discussed each deserter and pinpointed those who may quit the party under pressure,” one of the participants told Dawn.

The provincial government issued a statement quoting MNA Alamdad Lalika from the NA-167 constituency in Bahawalnagar district, who clarified that contrary to the news published in many newspapers the other day he had no intention of resigning from the National Assembly or the PML-N. He termed the news baseless, insisting that he had strong faith in the leadership of PML-N’s supreme leader Nawaz Sharif and party president Shahbaz Sharif. He added that he would remain loyal to the PML-N till his very last breath.

He said some MPs had, in a press conference in Lahore, claimed that he had quit the PML-N. “I have neither resigned from the National Assembly nor changed my political affiliation,” he said.

Separately, PML-N MNA Syed Asghar Shah from Bahawalnagar, too, quashed rumours surrounding his defection from the party.

Two lawmakers named defectors earlier clarify they’re still loyal to PML-N

Talking to Dawn, he said that he was and would remain a PML-N member. He, however, supported the demand for a south Punjab province.

He added that his name had been included in the list of party defectors without his consent, and he noted that it was unfair. He vowed to contest the next election on a PML-N ticket.

On the other hand, PML-N MPA Chaudhry Ehsanul Haq claimed that Tahir Bashir Cheema, one of the ‘rebels’ behind the formation of the South Punjab Province Front, had been expelled from the party four months ago. He criticised the defecting political leaders for, what he termed was, exploiting the people of south Punjab for their vested interests.

According to party insiders, however, the PML-N leadership has been scrambling to reach out to political leaders in south Punjab after receiving reports that the defections announced the day before will be followed by another wave of party leaders jumping ship.

On Tuesday, the participants of the meeting held with the Punjab chief minister decided that they would highlight the PML-N’s services for the south Punjab region. The region had received higher allocations of development funds, said the source, adding that the participants had decided to counter the deserters’ complaints of deprivation in south Punjab by focussing on the development carried out by the PML-N government in the past five years.

A party official shared that the participants focused on how to get development funds released for south Punjab constituencies. He claimed that so far, the PML-N had held “haphazard” meetings with parliamentarians from the southern belt, after receiving reports that more desertions were afoot.

CM Sharif will also go see party leaders in other provinces. He is scheduled to visit Peshawar in a few days – his first trip to the provincial capital after becoming president of the PML-N. He will head to Karachi after that.

The PML-N seems to be open to reviving the issue of restoration of Bahawalpur province in order to offset the appeal of Janoobi Punjab Suba Mahaz (South Punjab Province Front) for a separate administrative unit.

A statement issued after the meeting quoted Mr Sharif reminding the participants that the PML-N had gotten resolutions approved in the parliament to set up a south Punjab province and restore the Bahawalpur province.

Resolutions calling for the creation two new federating units – Bahawalpur and Janoobi Suba – had been approved by the Punjab Assembly (between 2008-13) but since then, no progress had been made.

“No other party had dared to get resolutions for demand of the creation of southern Punjab and Bahawalpur provinces approved,” Mr Sharif was quoted as saying. He then added: “We are committed to the demand of creation of new provinces”.

Reposing confidence in the younger Mr Sharif’s leadership, the participants of Tuesday’s meeting suggested that the chief minister should give regular audience to MPs for having first-hand information about issues concerning their respective constituencies, and have their say in the selection of development work there.

The chief minister said the PML-N government had provided resources worth billions of rupees for the progress and prosperity of southern Punjab. During the current fiscal year, 36 per cent of the Annual Development Programme (ADP) has been spent in the region as development projects worth Rs229bn are being completed.

Published in Dawn, April 11th, 2018