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Diversity and divisions within south Punjab ‘sooba’

May 01, 2013

BAHAWALPUR: In April 2011 Salahuddin Abbasi, the heir to the title of the Nawab of Bahawalpur, launched his Bahawalpur National Awami Party (BNAP). The new party was to strive for the revival of the old Bahawalpur state reincarnated as a province. It was to consist of the three southern most districts of Punjab – Bahawalnagar, Bahawalpur and Rahim Yar Khan – as the state of Bahawalpur existed at the time of its merger with Pakistan and before the formation of the One-Unit in 1954.

Two years later the Nawab is struggling to field his candidates for the May 11 election. He himself decided to stand down after he failed to gain the support of any of the two major political parties – the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. His party, however, says he is not contesting because his younger brother is not well these days.

As a last resort, his party has struck an electoral deal with the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and the powerful independent candidates like Tariq Bashir Cheema to perk up the chances of its candidates: two for the national assembly and nine for the provincial assembly. The BNAP’s vociferous campaign for the Bahawalpur Sooba overwhelmed by the clamour of bigger players with similar and contrasting agendas, few are prepared to bet on the Nawab’s party for the May 11 race.

On their own, some of the BNAP candidates are big names in local politics. One of them, Farooq Azam Malik, the BNAP candidate for a national seat from Bahawalpur city, does not agree with the general assessment about his party’s chances. He contends that the voters from the three districts had lent “overwhelming” support to the Bahawalpur Sooba Mahaz in the 1970 election because it had opposed absorption of Bahawalpur Sooba into Punjab after the One-Unit was disbanded.

“The Mahaz won 85 per cent of all the national and provincial seats from the districts comprising the (defunct) State of Bahawalpur. It was the only area in Punjab that escaped the PPP wave in that election. Such was, and still is the kind of public support that the demand for the revival of the sooba can stir up,” he argues.

He claims no party can do politics in this area without supporting the revival of Bahawalpur Sooba. “The PML-N, Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid, PTI, Jamaat-i-Islami and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl, have all included the demand for the revival of Bahawalpur Sooba in their election programmes. Even the PPP, which favours creation of a single Janoobi Punjab province, was forced to rename the proposed province as Bahawalpur Janoobi Punjab for fear of losing public support here,” Malik says.

The BNAP leader has a point that echoes in the ongoing political discussions in Bahawalpur and its surroundings. There exists massive support for the revival of the old Bahawalpur Sooba. However, for the time being it may be mostly restricted to Bahawalpur and Bahawalnagar.

“The demand for carving a separate province out of Punjab is not restricted to the Seraiki population of the area. The settlers — Punjabi and Urdu-speaking — are also overwhelmingly in favour of creation of a new province on an administrative basis rather than for ethnic and linguistic reasons,” says a journalist in Rahim Yar Khan, himself a settler. And he points out the public support for a “bigger” province comprising all southern districts of Punjab, starting from Khanewal, as an economically viable unit is much greater than for a smaller Bahawalpur Sooba.

While the proposed new province evokes strong emotions, it is so far not clear if it will become an electoral issue on the scale the PPP is hoping for. A random survey shows that the support for the separate province grows as you go deeper into south Punjab with the increase in Seraiki-speaking population. Non-Seraiki voters will tell you that they want a new province because it will bring “government near their homes”. Seraikis want it on the basis of their “distinct language and culture”. These are strong undercurrents which may grow even stronger as election day nears.

In Khanpur, Mujahid Jatoi, former general secretary of the Seraikistan Qaumi Movement, frankly admits the issue is bigger than may be reflected in the analyses of electoral politics. “It is an issue that no political party contesting the election can ignore. If it were not a big issue for the people of Seraiki areas, no political party would be talking about it,” he says.

The PML-N leaders describe the issue of creating a new province in south Punjab as a political stunt which has absolutely no value in the election. Sheikh Fayyaz-ud-din, a PML-N candidate in Khanpur, dismisses the claims of the PPP that the issue will have a deep impact on the outcome of the election in south Punjab. “It is a gimmick played by the PPP. The issue has already fizzled out.”

The question of a Janoobi Punjab province, analysts say, had always had the potential to tilt the “balance of vote” in favour of the PPP in south Punjab, especially in its urban areas, where Seraiki identity is a big issue for the middle class voters. However, there is a strong feeling here that the PPP leadership has not been able to exploit this issue the way it should have in its election campaign.

“Yousuf Raza Gilani was supposed to lead the party campaign and organise public rallies and meetings in south Punjab, but he has so far not been able to get out of Multan where his two sons and a brother are contesting the polls. How can you expect the party to make the issue a major part of its election campaign and galvanise voters around it in the absence of its leaders?” wonders one observer. He is also surprised not to see any mention of the issue in the PPP election campaign in newspapers and on TV channels. “There may still be time. The PPP can exploit the issue by raising the issue of the Janoobi Punjab province in its rallies and in its campaign in the media.”

The PTI’s Shah Mahmood Qureshi is categorical in his dismissal of the PPP’s attempt. “The issue has boomeranged on the PPP and will not affect the election outcome (in south Punjab),” he says. “The voters know the PPP had lied to them on the issue as it did not have enough numbers in parliament to create the new province and the PML-N had created obstacles (in the way of its creation by staying away from the multi-party parliamentary commission).”

Still, the parties like the PTI are mindful of the importance of including empowerment of the local population in their rhetoric. In his election meeting in Lodhran PTI leader Jahangir Tareen, for example, stops short of talking about the division of Punjab but seeks to assure his supporters that his party would “devolve power to the grassroots level” so that they could take their own decisions without having to travel to Lahore.

The rivals may not see any ‘vote value’ in the issue of a separate Janoobi Punjab province, but the PPP candidates from south Punjab are quite optimistic about attracting the voters because of their party’s stand on the issue. They are hopeful that the party’s efforts for carving out the new province will to an extent compensate for its poor performance in government during the last five years.

“The people in southern Punjab strongly feel about the discriminatory treatment meted out to them,” says Mirza Nasir Baig of the PPP, who is Tareen’s challenger for the Lodhran seat. “You have large sums to spend on expensive Metro bus project in Lahore and motorways. But you don’t have money to bring basic facilities like drinking water, sanitation, healthcare and education to the people in south Punjab. I will not be surprised if the issue of a separate Janoobi Punjab province becomes a strong electoral issue, affecting the election outcome in favour of the PPP.”

With or without the physical presence of the party’s senior leadership by their side, the PPP candidates across the Seraiki belt have consistently been raising the issue in their election rallies to draw as much political capital out of it as possible. “The voters’ response to the mention of a separate Seraiki province in the speeches of the PPP candidates has been immense,” says a journalist in Dera Ghazi Khan. “The crowd just erupts in thunderous applause whenever a PPP candidate mentions the issue in his speech.”