It was the year 1976. A bitter cold had engulfed Chitral and entire communities were stranded in mountain villages. In March that year, the local deputy commissioner made an emergency appeal to Islamabad at 10 in the morning. By 2pm, then prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was on a direct “green line”, speaking to him. What could he do to save human and animal lives, he asked the DC.

The district official asked for wheat and hay. But the road to Chitral was blocked by snow. He asked the prime minister to send aid by air. Prepare the distribution network on ground, Mr Bhutto told him and went off-line.

Read more: Lowari tunnel to sway Chitral vote

Within 20 hours of this brief conversation, several aid sorties were made to Chitral, says Dr Inayatullah Faizi, who was the information officer in the district then. “C130 planes full of wheat and hay flew from Chaklala to drop stacks of wheat and hay at the Broghil valley. Mr Bhutto was an administrator with guts — he would read reports and respond immediately.”

In the entire Pakistan, APML won one NA seat and it was from Chitral. Had Musharraf’s nomination not been rejected, he would have been elected. Shahzad Ahmad, a local election observer

Rustam Shah Mohmand, who was DC of Chitral between 1973 and 1975, says such sorties were an annual occurrence. He doesn’t know what endeared Chitral to Mr Bhutto but the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader went there often, taking children and international leaders with him. “Once we were waiting at the airport for the Sheikh of Dubai to arrive by his plane. Mr Bhutto took me aside and said, ‘Begum Nusrat Bhutto has grown fond of Chitral. Could we buy some land here?’”

Mr Bhutto never got to own a place in Chitral, but he did find one in the hearts of local people.

Development pioneer

Chitralis escape bitter cold in the mountainous region by going to “down” districts — Islamabad, Peshawar, Karachi — in winters. Before the Lowari tunnel that connects Chitral to the rest of Pakistan was built, locals would traverse the Lowari Pass (elevation: 10,230 ft) through a dangerous road vulnerable to avalanches that killed travellers.

In an essay titled Remembering Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the late Gen Naseerullah Babar writes: “In the winter of 1976-77, Mr Bhutto, accompanied by the Aga Khan, visited Chitral. The sight that one met that cold, icy morning was one of absolute and abject poverty. During his address, he could not hold back his feelings and wept publicly and unashamedly and remarked, ‘God has not destined the poor to remain poor. It is man and society that is maintaining this stark difference.’ He immediately directed the construction of the Lowari tunnel so as to ensure an all weather and year round communication.”

With initiatives like starting work on the Lowari tunnel — “The lifeline of Chitral” — in 1975 and abolishing agriculture tax, Mr Bhutto came to be seen as a “development pioneer”. It made him and his PPP the face of Pakistani politics in this district — formerly a princely state that had joined Pakistan late in 1969 — in the remote Pakistani north.

Development voters

“In past elections, two parties have found emotional and ideological support among people in Chitral,” says Dr Faizi, now principal of the Chitral Model College. “The religious groups — whether in alliance as the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) or alone — and the PPP. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz has done politics here through money and electables.”

Popularity in “second Larkana” — as the PPP-leaning Chitral came to be known — saw Nusrat Bhutto contest and win NA-32 (now NA-1, after delimitation), the only National Assembly constituency here in 1988. Since then, the party has stayed relevant but is rife with divisions, ending up as the “runner-up” in polls.

Along came retired Gen Musharraf, starting construction work in 2005 on the Lowari tunnel, abandoned earlier due to lack of funding. As the army chief, he inducted Chitralis into his personal guard. It helped that the royal family had members in the army and was supportive of military. So were the Ismailis, the liberal community that comprises 40 per cent of the local population. In 2013, Musharaf’s All Pakistan Muslim League (APML) swept the elections, winning the NA seat and one of the two provincial assembly seats.

“In the entire Pakistan, APML won one NA seat and it was from Chitral,” says Shahzad Ahmad, a local election observer. “Had Musharraf’s nomination not been rejected, he would have been elected.”

In past elections, two parties have found emotional and ideological support among people in Chitral, the religious groups... and the PPP. The PML-N has done politics here through money and electables. Dr Inayatullah Faizi

The Lowari tunnel was opened to traffic last year under the watch of the PML-N, which also gave Chitral the Golen Gol Hydropower Project, built on the Mastuj River. Started in 2002, the 108MW project was completed in January 2018. Perhaps sensing its imminent demise, and to forestall the rise of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) in the region, the PML-N moved fast to inaugurate these projects.

Can one say that development projects would determine who gets elected in Elections 2018? Far from it, says Ahmad, it is personalities not issues that will influence voters’ behaviour.

Personalities over ideology

At the MMA’s election meeting in Chitral, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam’s Maulana Abdul Akbar Chitrali appeared confident that all Muslims, no matter what their political leanings, would vote for the religious alliance. “We [the religious parties] have a vote bank locally and with the alliance, we are hopeful that our collective vote would bolster our chances considerably,” Mr Chitrali told Dawn. The JI, another party in the alliance, also has considerable support.

In an age of the electables, the MMA can perhaps still bank on religious ideology to attract voters.

For others, candidates fielded for NA-32 come with a strong potential for electability. In a district composed of 362 small tribes, a family or tribal vote bank alongside support among contractors who have benefited from the development largesse of an MNA or MPA in the past, lends a candidate certain political cachet. Shahzada Iftikharuddin, a royal scion, who led Musharraf’s APML to victory on NA-32 in 2013, is now a PML-N candidate. His father Shahzada Mohiuddin, a PML-Q candidate, won from here in 2008. The PPP candidate Saleem Khan is a former provincial minister and MMA’s Chitrali a former MNA. Also in the run this time is PTI’s Abdul Lateef, who lost to APML’s Iftikharuddin by a small margin in 2013, and is expected to put up a tough fight this time.

Sectarian split

Beyond family and the tribe, the population of Chitral — 460,000 according to Census 2017 — is also divided along sectarian lines, a sentiment that, locals say, has become increasingly entrenched in recent years due to the state’s support for sectarian groups. As a reaction, this sentiment, more deep-rooted in the neighbouring Gilgit due to its history of sectarian conflict has become pronounced in the district where Upper Chitral is dominated by the Shia Ismailis and the lower by Sunnis.

“Voters in Chitral are now clustered around sectarian considerations whereby they vote for a candidate not on the basis of party affiliations but sect,” says Dr Faizi.

The trend dictates how political parties apportion seats and nominate candidates on the chhota (PK) and bara (NA) seats. If a certain party wants to win on an NA seat in the Sunni-dominated Lower Chitral, it would serve it well to field a Sunni candidate there.

Perhaps it was only a matter of time before sectarian sentiments in Chitral should replace the secular, development outlook people once had in relation to politics.

Published in Dawn, July 23rd, 2018