Urban disruptions

Published February 5, 2024

 REHANA Dar was a housewife who has become a household name. Wrapped in a chador that covers her head tightly, she is an instinctive speaker, knowing when to pause and when to thunder.—Courtesy PTI
REHANA Dar was a housewife who has become a household name. Wrapped in a chador that covers her head tightly, she is an instinctive speaker, knowing when to pause and when to thunder.—Courtesy PTI

IT WAS one of the first shops on what appeared to be a long commercial street, choked with motorbikes, cars and kiosks. Beyond the glass doors, the din of the outside faded and the floor seemed to stretch out. Sparsely inhabited by a single customer, the man behind the counter had time to spare.

He was planning on voting for PML-N, he said, having opted for PTI the last time around. His employer, the owner of the shop, was a close associate of PML-N’s man in Sialkot, Khwaja Asif, he told me knowingly.

“Mature people support PML-N; it’s a party of sensible people,” he said as he pulled out a picture of his boss. The young man who had been serving the customer also walked over, pretending to neaten the counter but listening intently to our exchange. His wispy moustache betrayed his junior position in the hierarchy. Who will you vote for? “PML-N,” came the answer.

The man behind the till laughed and said, “He is PTI; aisee hee keh rahe hai PML-N. Yeh dil say PTI hai, even though his sister is part of PMLN’s youth wing.” The boy joins in the laughter.

Sialkot tells a story of the changes in Punjab, where demography and inflation have created a tough challenge for PML-N in a number of its urban strongholds

As I walk out, I ask a young man sitting on the mobile kiosk just outside the shop about his choice. “I have to vote PML-N because of them,” he gestures behind him to the shop. “Otherwise, like all others, I too would vote for PTI,” he says, his eyes on the cell phone in his hands.

Indeed, in Sialkot, if there was a clear demarcation between those who said they would vote for the Nawaz league and those whose choice would be PTI, it was age. This is not to say that there were no young PML-N voters or there weren’t well-off shop owners who pulled out PTI pamphlets from underneath the tables, but it didn’t detract from the distinguishing factor here.

And this despite the fact that the contestants on both sides happen to be in the senior-most age bracket.

On one side is Khwaja Asif, the PML-N stalwart who has not lost this constituency since he entered politics in the 90s. On the other side, Rehana Dar, a novice to the arena who jumped into the fray after her son, Usman Dar, disappeared and re-appeared in a television interview, in which he denounced PTI.

Since then, a brother of his has also been arrested and the women in the family have now become the face of the election. His mother is contesting the National Assembly seat, while Umer Dar’s wife is the candidate for the provincial assembly.

Dar VS Khwaja

When I visited Jinnah House, the premises from which the family is running the campaign, Umer Dar’s mother-in-law was there to greet visitors, offering tea and snacks while she recounted how the family was targeted after May 9 and later. Just a day earlier, Rehana Dar had not been allowed to lead a rally in the city; police blocked the street outside, I was told.

 Khwaja Asif is also running an energetic and savvy campaign; clips of him taking selfies with young students can be found across social media.—Photo courtesy X/@Faisalbutt55
Khwaja Asif is also running an energetic and savvy campaign; clips of him taking selfies with young students can be found across social media.—Photo courtesy X/@Faisalbutt55

Shortly afterwards, Rehana Dar’s vehicle entered the compound; one which is not adorned with any party paraphernalia usually associated with an election campaign. Flags, banners, pamphlets are missing; from the outside there is nothing to indicate this is a party office. On the other hand, a PML-N office a short drive away is visible from afar because of the party banners and posters.

Rehana Dar was a housewife who has become a household name since the footage of her being manhandled by the police public. But in some ways, her lack of experience is not a disadvantage; she is a natural. Oratory comes naturally to her, as does an instinct for theatre.

As she got off the car, she picked up a plate of fried chicken and offered it to the security guards, before acknowledging the waiting journalists. A man standing nearby remarked, “Isn’t she completely unlike any politician?”

Wrapped in her chador which covers her head tightly, she is an instinctive speaker, knowing when to pause and when to thunder. Her remarks are punctuated with religious references, the police’s mistreatment of her and her family, as well as Imran Khan. She is running a campaign based on emotions and she knows it is working. When she refers to herself, it is as “Maa” (mother); which is also the focus of her campaign song.

Journalists from the area explain that the treatment meted out to the Dar family has created a wave of sympathy for her.

Around the city, the general word is that PML-N faces an uphill task; even in 2018, Khwaja Asif hung on to the seat amid a controversy that continues to be discussed; his victory of margin was around a mere 1,000 votes.

Asif is also running an energetic campaign, which is savvy as well. His social media team is far better than many of his party colleagues; he can be seen visiting different parts of the city, interacting with people in markets, corner meetings and jalsas. Clips of him having selfies taken with young students at their graduation ceremony or trying out gulabjamans at a shop can be found on social media.

When asked if he faces a tough fight, he says quietly that he never takes any election for granted and works hard on every campaign.

The result will be here soon enough, but this seat in Sialkot tells a story of the changes in Punjab, where demography and inflation have created a tough challenge for PML-N in a number of its urban strongholds.

This is reflected in the party’s decision of ensuring all three — Nawaz Sharif, Shehbaz and Maryam — attend the jalsas held in urban centres. Otherwise, by this time in the campaign, the strategy is to divide and conquer, hitting as many districts as possible. But for Sialkot, all three of the Sharif stars turned up to stand besides Khwaja Asif, a performance they later repeated in Faisalabad and Gujranwala.

Tumult in the peripheries

The rest of Sialkot, which stayed with PML-N during the turbulent election of 2018, is not expected to throw up any surprises in 2024, according to political pundits. But in several constituencies, it reflects many of the trends that mark the 2024 polls as a whole.

Take the Daska seat. Another PML-N stronghold, the ticket passed to daughter Nosheen Iftikhar once her father Syed Iftikharul Hasan passed away in 2020. He had contested and won from the constituency around five times in the past. His daughter entered the fray in a by-election against PTI’s Ali Asjad Malhi, which turned so contentious that ECP had to order fresh voting. Iftikhar won that round, becoming the second directly elected woman from PML-N to enter the 2018 parliament.

The general perception is that she is set to win again. Unlike in the city centre, the limited space allowed to the PTI makes a difference for seats such as Daska’s. But in her constituency too, one can see a sense of “candidate fatigue”; a shop owner who takes time to warm up in between finding the right lock or plug for customers who slip in and out, points to the street outside as he asks, “Her father was elected multiple times but this has never been fixed; a short spell of rain and it becomes impossible to use. Year after year, it has remained like this.”

He doesn’t say so directly, but he implies his family used to vote for PML-N.

A political worker points out that over time, the PML-N’s margin of victory in the urban areas of the constituency has been shrinking.

Indeed, most disgruntled voters tend to ask questions in a similar vein, which focus on what these multiple-time parliamentarians have gotten the people of the area. While few think there is the possibility of an upset here, but even so, the PTI contestant from the area was picked up around a week before the election — in a case related to May 9.

Even though the PTI had lost the seat both in 2018 and the 2020 by-election in a hard-fought campaign marred by rigging, Ali Asjad Malhi, the PTI candidate, had increased his vote tally by around 30,000.

And in Daska, more so than in Sialkot city, another trend is evident — the third choice for voters is TLP and not PPP, which doesn’t really seem to figure as a choice.

A third Sialkot seat which will be watched with interest, even though no one expects an upset is the one where Firdous Ashiq Awan of the Istehkam-i-Pakistan Party (IPP) faces PML-N’s Armghan Subhani as well as PTI-backed Hafiz Hamid Raza, who belongs to a religious family.

In fact, Sialkot is interesting because it has three constituencies in which women are contesting the national assembly seats. And while Rehana Dar and Nosheen Iktikhar have entered the fray due to their families, Firdous Ashiq Awan is a constituency politician who has built up a vote bank on her own steam, as she jumped from party to party.

Since 2008, she has moved from PPP to PTI to IPP. However, this time she faces a particularly difficult election as her party has virtually no presence on the ground. Subhani is expected to hold on to this seat easily, especially as it is a primarily rural seat where PML-N holds sway.

Published in Dawn, February 5th, 2024

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