ON the night of June 20, a panaflex poster at Humayun Khan’s hujra in Batkhela greeted everyone a happy Eid. The salutation was past its sell-by date — it had been three days since Eid ended, four if you consider it was celebrated here a day early than in the rest of Pakistan. But for Khan, the provincial president of the Pakistan Peoples Party, the night could have been Eid’s eve. He had just welcomed a posse of political workers from Charsadda, who were ending their political association with their party to enter the PPP’s fold.

For the PPP, elections in Malakand have always been a make-or-break event in its scheme of national and provincial politics. Party workers in Batkhela, the headquarters of Malakand district, are quick to invoke its “mini-Larkana” status, signifying the region’s eminence in their political calculus. This is not without its reasons.

In the last 10 general elections, the party has won the National Assembly seat (NA-8) from Malakand four times. A majority of the party’s legislators elected to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly in the past came from Malakand. Presently, the top tier of the district government of Malakand is from the PPP.

Bilawal is contesting from Malakand’s National Assembly constituency

Beyond the Malakand Protected Area, in the districts of Malakand Division — in Chitral, Dir, Buner and Swat — the PPP remains a political force to reckon with, not quite as spent as in other districts of KP.

“From Batkhela-Totakan Road to the DHQ Hospital, the Batkhela Water Gravity System to the Community Hall and the Benazir Income Support Programme, the PPP has built projects and met expectations here,” says Gohar Ali Gohar, a Batkhela-based journalist. “Among the locals, the sense is that with the PPP, the money somehow trickles down to people.”

Both for the party and the people, then, Elections 2018 takes that relevance a notch up as PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, a prime-ministerial hopeful, launches his electoral career from Malakand. The locals in Batkhela pin this decision to the fact that “the people’s association with the party is borne out of loyalty”.

“It is not a wave like the PTI’s sudden rise out of nowhere,” says a Swat-based observer. “The PPP has roots here that go a long way.”

The “roots” the observer alludes to can be traced back to PPP founder Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government in 1970, when the region first got the right to vote. Formerly a tribal area, Malakand became a ‘protected area’ within the larger Malakand division that year, and the people believe that Bhutto made that happen. They instantly paid back by electing PPP stalwart Mohammad Hanif Khan, father of Humayun Khan, to the provincial assembly. Of the three PPP parliamentarians in the province, Hanif Khan went on to become speaker of the assembly. Since then, notwithstanding the interludes, the party has come to represent Malakand at the national and provincial level more frequently than any other contender since then.

In recent years, two things have threatened the PPP’s control over Malakand, forcing it out of complacency in the region. First, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s gains in the 2013 elections in NA-8 were considerable, relegating the PPP from the top position in 2008 to the third. Coming virtually out of nowhere, its candidate Junaid Akbar bagged 51,312 votes against PPP Lal Mohammad Khan’s 19,081 (34,472 in 2008, falling by 48.14pc in 2013).

With Junaid Akbar, a PTI candidate contesting from the party’s ticket in NA-8, the Elections 2018 has seen Bilawal replace Lal Mohammad Khan, who has represented the PPP in NA-8 in the last three general elections, losing to Akbar in 2013.

Secondly, this change in strategy comes after the routing of the PPP in the local government elections of 2015 that left party workers in Malakand divided and in disarray, with disgruntled local jiyalas forming a PPP ideological breakaway faction. Since then, the top leadership of the PPP has tried to address local grievances but have only managed to deepen them, forcing the senior Malakand leadership to cede space to the national leadership in view of locals bickering over seats. In June this year, Lal Mohammad Khan invited Bilawal to contest on NA-8.

“That’s local wisdom from the local leadership,” says a Swat-based observer, who feels that with several local claimants to the NA and provincial seats, the divisions would further undermine the PPP’s vote in a region that has been traditionally its stronghold. With Bilawal agreeing to contest, the local leadership has had no choice but to yield.

But that’s just one side of the picture. Humayun Khan, if he wins, and if the PPP forms the government in KP, will become, in all likelihood, the chief minister. Bilawal, on the other hand, has eyes on the prime-ministerial slot. “With the PPP’s provincial president and the party’s chairman both contesting from here, hopefully it would mean something for Malakand if they make it to the highest offices in the province and the country.”

To have its topmost leadership, with such ambition, contesting from Malakand, means that the party is betting big and hard on the region. For a party whose profile has dwindled from a national player to a regional, and shrinking even there, it speaks of certain desperation to make the most of its strength on ground. It also means it had to bring in the best of its candidates to wean voters away from the PTI, especially in view of the big setback in the 2013 elections. “Imran can’t be a youth, he is 68,” says Humanyun Khan. “Bilawal is. Last time, the elders were with us but the youth voted for the PTI. This time, they have come around.”

The PPP has been hard at work, and its Peoples Youth Organisation has been looking to initiate the youth into the party. Of late, it has also strengthened its tanzeem (organisation) at the grassroots level in Malakand and Swat. What Khan points to is a real and immediate dilemma facing ideological parties in Malakand division where traditionally voting has been on the basis of clans. Here, elders and Khans have exerted influence over voters, especially those in the family or clan. “Earlier in the Pashtun region, it was the hujra-jumaat [the community and the mosque] that people looked up to for decisions,” he says. “Now the youth listen to the internet.”

How, then, has the PPP responded to that challenge? “When the elders come, we ask them to bring the youth along, so they can observe and remember how politics is done,” says Khan, who entered politics after the late PPP leader Benazir Bhutto encouraged him to. “I had no aptitude for politics. She asked me to resign from the C&W Department and enter politics. She said she didn’t like politics either but after Bhutto’s death it had become an obligation. It is that message we give to our youth, emphasising practical engagement beyond the drawing-room politics of social media.”

But in their bid to outshine the competition, parties like the PPP have also allowed the rivals to mould their character and turn them into their (the rival’s) clones. “This time around, the PPP has opened up to new entrants — perhaps forced by the PTI’s clamour for electables — and in doing that, it has sidelined the ideological cadres, much like the PTI itself,” says the Swat-based observer. “It doesn’t matter much to the PTI that has no ideological mooring as such but for the PPP, it is a gamble because compared to the jiyalas the electables have no ideology and they can anyone for greener pastures.”

To see the observer’s point, one need not look further than the aggrieved party workers, disillusioned by the induction of the electable rich in the PPP and the fragmentation it triggered in party ranks post 2013 elections and local bodies elections in 2015. Like that night in Batkhela, the PPP may welcome new workers into its fold but it is also losing old ones.

Published in Dawn, July 11th, 2018