NASIR Bhatti is an undergraduate student at the Government Degree College Sheikhupura who, amongst other things, does not want to miss an opportunity to have good food. For many days now, each afternoon after classes, he hurries off to keep his important lunch appointment — at the election office of Mian Javed Latif, a well-known PML-N election candidate.
Once the first item on his agenda is taken care of, Bhatti can choose from a variety of assignments. He can either board a car in one of the Latif campaign caravans or pick up a bag of the party candidates’ badges to distribute amongst the youth in a nearby neighbourhood.
“This is election time and such expenses are unavoidable,” Bhatti says, pointing to the tandoor set up in the camp office “This is the least they [the election candidates] can offer.”
But it is definitely not just good food that attracts the young man to the PML-N. A councillor belonging to the party helped his family without consideration of biradari and clan. This single act won the young man over to the party’s side in an area where biradari-ism reigns. “People here vote for someone they can turn to in their hour of need,” Bhatti nods as an elderly Ashraf Din enters the conversation.
Virk, Manj, Bhatti, Rana, Arian, Dogar, Rahmani, Gujjar … the biradari vote is vital for success in Sheikhupura district, just as the utmost importance is attached to dharay ki siasat or the politics of influential groups.
“Folks here gauge the strength of a candidate through the number of dharas that are supporting him,” says Ashraf Din. “Javed Latif won the 2008 and 2013 elections on NA-121 (Sheikhupura-III) but he is struggling to gain the support of some influential groups this time round. Many of the local dharas are siding with the PTI’s Saeed Virk or independent candidate Khurram Munwar Munj.”
The PML-N’s Javed Latif alleges that his party is not being given a level playing field. “The loyalties of some PML-N local body members are being changed,” he says. His party is faced with dissent in its ranks in this constituency. The party’s city president, Tayaab Rashid Sindhu, is angry after he was denied a PML-N ticket. He is contesting the PP-140 seat — that falls within NA-121 — as an independent, with the ‘jeep’ as his symbol.
Sindhu has joined hands with Khurram Munj, a former PML-Q parliamentarian, who aspired for a PTI ticket for NA-121 under the PML-Q and PTI seat-adjustment formula. However, the PTI preferred Saeed Virk — a relative of former CIA SP in Lahore, Umer Virk, and also a former PML-Q MNA. Given Munj’s own political clout and the biradari vote, an intriguing and tense battle between Javed Latif, Saeed Virk and Khurram Munj is playing out.
In the neighbouring NA-120 area, it is Ali Asghar Manda who prepares to take on former minister Rana Tanvir Hussain of the PML-N.
Manda was elected on a provincial seat in 2013 and subsequently joined the PML-N. He later developed differences with Tanvir Hussain and recently switched over to the PTI. “It is primarily a contest between the Rajput (Hussain) and the Arain (Manda) clans,” says Iqbal Ahmad, who has his home in NA-120 area and who introduces himself as a political worker. “Jatts are also present here in good numbers and their vote might well prove decisive here. Tanvir Hussain has a strong vote base but has to contend with Pir Ashraf Rasool and Mian Abdul Rauf for PP-137 and PP-138 respectively. The two may eat into his support in the ‘religious’ and Arain vote.”
Rana Tanvir Hussain’s brother Rana Afzaal Hussain is contesting in the NA-119 (Sheikhupura-I). The PTI has fielded retired Brig Rahat Amanullah Bhatti here.
In 2013, Afzaal Hussain clinched this seat with a margin of 30,000 votes, defeating the independent candidate Umar Aftab Dhillon (41,000 votes). It appears to be a tougher fight now as Dhillon has been given a provincial assembly (PP-135) ticket by the PTI.
“The PTI is in a good position,” says Chaudhry Ansar Ali, who lives in Sattuwala village. He tells Dawn that the PML-N is faced with dissent by some local government councillors. Again, the Jatt versus Rajput factor dominates the race.
In NA-122 (Sheikhupura-IV) the PTI nominee is Ali Salman, a lawyer and son of former chief secretary Punjab Salman Siddique. In the 2013 election, Ali won the provincial assembly seat PP-168 (Sheikhupura-IV). He is up against two-time national seat winner, PML-N Sardar Irfan Dogar.
“This is going to be one of the most closely contested constituencies of Sheikhupura district,” predicts Aqeel Bhatti, a local journalist. “Many local body representatives of the PML-N are not happy with Dogar and are supporting the PTI candidate,” he claims, saying the candidates from the two major parties are trying to ensure the support of some local influential groups who right now are siding with independent candidates.
Nankana Sahib, formerly part of the district of Sheikhupura, has two national seats: NA-117 and NA-118. In NA-118 (Nankana Sahib-II) Shezra Mansab Kheral, a relative of Rana Tanvir Hussain and Afzaal Hussain, mentioned above, is the PML-N candidate. The PTI has fielded former Intelligence Bureau (IB) chief and once close associate of Gen Musharraf, retired Brig Ijaz Shah. Here Rai Shah Jehan Bhatti is the PPP candidate, the only ‘competitive’ candidate of Bhutto’s party in an area (the then Sheikhupura district) where the PPP bagged all five national seats in 1988.
Former MNA Shezra Kheral is up against a revolt within the family as one of her relatives, Rai Tauseef Ahmed Kheral, is contesting independently after being denied the PML-N ticket. His posters have Nawaz Sharif declaring Rai Tauseef as his soldier. Any split in the Kheral vote is going to be critical here.
Former PPP lawmaker Rai Shah Jehan Bhatti says he preferred to contest on the PPP’s platform instead of going independent. The PPP government (2008-13), he says, carried out development work in Nankana and also there are many beneficiaries of the Benazir Income Support Programme in NA-118 areas.
In NA-117 (Nankana Sahib-I) former PML-N federal minister Barjees Tahir is said to be a strong candidate against PTI’s Bilal Virk, primarily because he manages to keep his allies — influential groups and old party cadres — on his side.
There are many candidates in the run in both Sehikhupura and Nankana as nominees of the Mutahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), the Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) and the Allah-o-Akbar Tehrik backed by Hafiz Saeed’s Milli Muslim League. Their presence in the constituencies can be seen in posters and banners. Local observers say that while these candidates are capable of winning a good number of votes which may influence results, they are unlikely to win seats of their own.
Published in Dawn, July 11th, 2018