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DEPALPUR: It’s a little past midnight when Khurram Jahangir Wattoo, son of Manzoor Wattoo, steps up to a podium to address a few dozens supporters in the small town of this largely rural tehsil of Okara district.

Slogans ring out in praise of the Wattoos and a provincial-assembly candidate accompanying Khurram Jahangir. Then, someone behind Wattoo shouts out, “Long live PPP.” The audience goes momentarily silent, refusing to shout support for their party. This in a town where the PPP has enjoyed a historical vote bank.

The Wattoos and Depalpur are synonymous: Manzoor Wattoo, the family patriarch and wily politician, has used this area as a springboard to national fame, and infamy too, as a former chief minister of Punjab and federal minister — positions attained through intrigue, ambition and ruthlessness on an epic scale.

Independents in Feb 2008, after Manzoor Wattoo quit the PML-Q, the family has since thrown in its lot with the PPP. Today, Manzoor, the PPP president in Punjab, is the architect of the party’s campaign from Okara to Lahore.

In Depalpur, however, the Wattoos face strong headwinds in the two National Assembly seats here, NA-146 and NA-147. First, there is Wattoo fatigue in the electorate: Manzoor is contesting both National Assembly seats, while a son, Khurram Jahangir, and a daughter, Jahanara, are standing from provincial-assembly seats. With the elder Wattoo also in a provincial assembly race here, five of the six seats in Depalpur — NA and Punjab Assembly — have a Wattoo-PPP candidate.

Second, as Khurram Jahangir confronted at his midnight meeting with voters, there is a strain of anti-PPP sentiment here, particularly in the town — though Depalpur is largely a rural tehsil where party affiliation matters little.

On a late-night drive back to his family home in Wasewevala, some 30kms from Depalpur town, Khurram Jahangir Wattoo, who won NA-147 in a June 2008 by-election after his father vacated it having won both NA-146 and NA-147 in the Feb 2008 elections, admitted: “People are not happy with the PPP. With the load shedding and other factors, people say it’s not a good party.”

The younger Wattoo, who is now a Punjab Assembly candidate, continued: “The PPP’s image is so negative and people are saying the N-League will come to power. The voter tends to go where he thinks power lies.”

PML-N challenges

Manzoor Wattoo’s strongest challenge lies in NA-146, which includes the more politicised Depalpur town and is adjacent to his principal stronghold, NA-147. In 2008, Manzoor only won NA-146 after a late-night recount in controversial circumstances gave him victory by a margin of less than a thousand votes.

The defeated candidate in 2008, Rao Muhammad Ajmal Khan, son of an influential politician who once defeated Nawaz Sharif, won the seat in 2002 as an independent. Now, Ajmal is on a PML-N ticket, having quit the PML-Q after his 2008 loss.

“I’m feeling confident,” Ajmal said, sitting on a chair in a darkened field next to a stage where a PML-N rally had just begun. “Wattoo hasn’t been seen around here (NA-146) much. When he comes, he just meets the important people, doles out some money and leaves. People aren’t happy.”

Ajmal explained his own appeal to voters: “I swore on my father’s grave that I would work for the people’s benefit. Until I came, there had been no mega projects here. I brought schools here, built roads, gave Sui gas connections.”

The PML-N candidate’s crowning achievement in Depalpur was to establish a sub-campus of the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, while he was a PML-Q MNA. Now inactive, caught up in the struggle between Ajmal and Wattoo, the campus’s fate is a sore point.

“I don’t talk much about Wattoo in my campaign. But where it is a real issue (the agriculture university), I tell the people about it.”

Ultimately, though, politics here is about groupings and dharras and Ajmal has worked to win over local players previously aligned with Wattoo. A key supporter of Ajmal in the 2013 race is the Khokhar family, whose scion, Malik Ali Abbas Khokhar, is Ajmal’s running mate.

Ali Abbas Khokhar summed up his family’s influence in NA-146 in this way: “In 2008, we were with Wattoo and he won. In 2002, we were with Rao Ajmal and he won.”

Khokhar was also straightforward about why his family is so influential in the rural parts of this constituency: “The literacy rate here is low. In the city there is more awareness, here it is all about dharras. Rural life is all about the politics of police stations.”

Wattoo stronghold

“We wanted father to have a safe seat. It was important that he enter the National Assembly,” Khurram Jahangir Wattoo said, explaining why the elder Wattoo was once again the family candidate in NA-147, the seat the younger Wattoo won in a 2008 by-election.

“Manzoor Wattoo is the favourite in NA-147,” said Imtiaz Wattoo, an election monitor with a local NGO. Imtiaz, no relation to the Wattoo political family, explained: “147 is entirely about dharras and personalities, there is no party vote there. Wattoo’s position may be weaker than in 2008 but there’s no strong opposition to speak of either.”

The main opponent, such that he is, in NA-147 is Muhammad Moeen Wattoo, the leader of a rival family of Wattoos in Depalpur. Moeen is now on a PML-N ticket but as an independent in 2008 he supported Manzoor Wattoo in the general election and Khurram Jahangir in the by-election several months later.

“Even though they are rivals, the Wattoos don’t want any other families to break through,” Shahzad Aqdas, a local lawyer, said of the rival Wattoo families’ support for another, sometimes overt and sometimes covert depending on circumstances. “Moeen’s strength is more in the provincial assembly seat anyway. Even now, he might end up supporting Manzoor Wattoo on the NA seat a day or two before the election.”

The key to Manzoor Wattoo’s strength in NA-147 is his mastery of patronage politics in a rural area where political parties have a negligible role. “Jobs,” Khurram Jahangir said, explaining in a word the primary driver of politics in the area. As federal minister for industries and production and later Kashmir affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan, the elder Wattoo leveraged his position in the last government to win maximum support in his stronghold.

“National Fertiliser Corporation, Utility Stores, Sui, all the BISP staff in this area, Nadra staff to some extent too, jobs were given by Wattoo to his people,” Shahid Aqdas said. “People didn’t even have to go to the relevant department, there were readymade appointment letters available at his dera with the name left blank, to be filled in as necessary.”

Aqdas added that the jobs were largely doled out to members of Wattoo’s local political network, ensuring they would mobilise voters come election time.

Which is why the Wattoo family is fairly confident about winning at least one of Depalpur’s two NA seats. “People in the city don’t like it, yes,” Khurram Jahangir said of his family contesting five of the six seats in the tehsil. “But it’s not because we are trying to keep others out. It’s because of the people’s love for us.”