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In Gujrat, they hunt in pairs

Updated June 30, 2018

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POSTERS of candidates for National Assembly seat NA-70 (Gujrat-III) displayed across the GT Road in Lala Musa.—Photo by writer
POSTERS of candidates for National Assembly seat NA-70 (Gujrat-III) displayed across the GT Road in Lala Musa.—Photo by writer

A HUNDRED or so villagers gather at the dera of a local landowner in Ramke, a village that is a half-an-hour’s drive from Gujrat city, to hear what Nawabzada Ghazanfar Ali Gul, the ticket holder of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) for the national seat from Jalalpur Jattan, has to say.

As Gul rises to speak, he chooses to focus mostly on the style of politics (allegedly) practised by his opponents — the Chaudhrys of Gujrat: Shujaat Hussain and Pervez Elahi. “They can’t win a free and fair election. They depend on the military’s patronage for their electoral success,” thunders the Nawabzada, trying to recapture the magic that had bagged him the seats in 1993, on a Pakistan Peoples Party ticket.

Two decades later, his elder brother retook the seat from the Chaudhrys in 2013, this time, on a PML-N ticket. Gul did not contest that election because he had refused to ditch the PPP despite pressure from his family that had already switched over to the PML-N. In that election, under a controversial deal, the PPP had not fielded candidates against the Chaudhrys who were leading the Pakistan Muslim League-Q.

This time around, the Chaudhrys have put up Hussain Elahi against Gul. Hussain’s father Wajahat Hussain, the younger brother of Shujaat Hussain, cannot contest because of health issues, but he won the seat twice in 2002 and 2008.

“We have made this area safer for you,” Gul tells the gathering. “I don’t have to remind you how insecure we all felt five years back when the armed goons of our opponents walked in the streets. It is a different place today. What’s the use of roads and drains if your life and property aren’t safe?”

Then he moves on to the Chaudhrys’ electoral losses in the last polls. “Both the PPP and the PML-N have seen bad days and survived,” Gul says, setting himself up to deliver the punch line. “The PML-Q couldn’t even survive once the establishment withdrew its support from them. They are always looking for someone to lean on — Ziaul Haq, Nawaz Sharif, Pervez Musharraf and now, it is Imran Khan.

But even Gul allied with the Sharifs after a long stint with the ‘last batch of the typical PPP jiyalas’. This speech of his, meant to woo voters during a canvassing round on Wednesday, was a reminder of the fact that everything political in Gujrat continues to revolve around the Chaudhrys.

When you think of Gujrat’s politics you think of the Chaudhrys — Shujaat and Pervez. The two cousins have dominated the city’s political landscape ever since the ‘mantle’ to advance the legacy of Chaudhry Zahoor Elahi was passed on to them after his murder 37 years ago.

Throughout these years, the pair has worked hard to step up their hold over Gujrat and establish themselves as important players in Punjab and national politics. Their critics allege that they have employed every tool they have been able to lay their hands on to achieve their goals and stay relevant in politics: biradari connections, family ties, patronage, money and so on.

The Chaudhrys’ politics reached the pinnacle of national politics in 2002, when they carved the PML-Q mainly out of the PML-N after ditching Nawaz Sharif and collecting the so-called electables to support dictator Gen Musharraf, and formed a government at the centre and in three provinces barring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The party’s share in national seats nosedived from 118 seats to 53 in 2008 following Musharraf’s deal with Benazir Bhutto, that cleared the way for her and Nawaz Sharif to return home. Many electables had left the PML-Q before the election for safer tickets offered by the PML-N and the PPP. By 2013, the pair had difficulty finding enough electable candidates, other than their family members, to contest the polls and only Pervez Elahi and Tariq Bashir Cheema (from Bahawalpur) returned to the National Assembly and six others to the provincial assembly of Punjab.

On the ground, the seat adjustment deal struck with the PTI is being seen as a massive win for the Chaudhrys, of whom Pervez Elahi and Hussain Elahi are fighting for national seats from Gujrat City (NA-69, Gujrat I) and Jalalpur Jattan (NA-68, Gujrat II). In exchange, the PML-Q has conceded a brace of national seats from Lala Musa (NA-70, Gujrat III) and Serai Alamgir-Kotla (NA-71, Gujrat IV) to the PTI. Additionally, Pervez Elahi has also agreed to give a provincial assembly seat from Gujrat City under him to PTI’s Saleem Sarwar Jaura, who is expected to help him secure the ‘young, middle class’ votes from urban parts of the national constituency.

The rumour in Gujrat is that the Chaudhrys had used connections in the ‘right places’ to clinch the deal with the PTI. The PTI had already awarded tickets to its men in Gujrat but later withdrew them once the deal was finalised. Local journalists say this indicates that some powerful forces had pressured the PTI’s leadership to agree to the deal.

The seat adjustment will help both Pervez Elahi and his nephew Hussain Elahi on polling day against their PML-N rivals — Chaudhry Mubashir Hussain in Gujrat City and Nawabzada Gul in Jalalpur Jattan, local journalists say. But this is dangerous territory. The alliance could eliminate the PTI from at least these two constituencies, just like Asif Zardari’s decision to add the PML-Q to a coalition under him and create the office of deputy prime minister for Pervez Elahi in 2012, finished his party from Gujrat (and elsewhere in Punjab).

With the PPP virtually out of the competition for the Gujrat and Jalalpur Jattan seats, it is going to be a straight fight between the two factions of Muslim League with odds stacked in favour of the Q-League because of the pact with Imran Khan. Similarly, the battle for Serai Alamgir-Kotla seat is also expected to be a two-way affair between the PML-N and the PTI’s Ilyas Chaudhry. But an interesting three-way fight is expected on the Lala Musa seat where the PPP and its candidate Qamaruz Zaman Kaira still have a strong following, unlike the rest of the three Gujrat seats.

Indeed, its deal with the PML-Q has disappointed many PTI supporters. “It is very unfair. Imran Khan has let down party workers from this district who had supported his cause against corruption and suffered trouble all these years,” a PTI supporter from Gujrat, Mumtaz Ali Sindhu, complained.

He, however, was not certain if he would “shift” to the PML-N on polling day. “I may still vote for my party’s man for the provincial seat but I’m not sure if I want to vote for PML-N’s Mubashir Hussain. He’s also from the same family. There’s not much difference. It’d have been easier choice if we also had PPP’s Ahmed Mukhtar running for the National Assembly,” he concludes.

Published in Dawn, June 30th, 2018