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Pirs in politics

May 03, 2013

MULTAN: Just before Zain Qureshi steps into his campaign Prado, a woman and her daughter approach him to ask for a prayer. Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s son and heir duly raises his cupped hands and obliges. In Multan, as in many rural parts of the country, the Makhdooms are seen as intercessors. Their status, as custodians of revered local shrines, can also lend candidates an advantage in the “city of saints”. “The pag carries a lot of weight,” says one of Qureshi’s supporters, looking on approvingly from the back of the vehicle.The contest in Multan’s mostly rural constituency of NA-148 pits two Makhdoom families against one another. The quarrel between the Qureshis and the Gilanis stretches back to before elections came to the country. Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Yousuf Raza Gilani both entered local politics in 1983, running for Multan’s District Council. They both secured seats in the 1985 non-party NA elections. And until two years ago, the pirs of Multan were members of the same PPP-led cabinet. Now Gilani’s son Musa is taking on Shah Mehmood in the former foreign minister’s traditional seat, reviving an old and fierce rivalry.

Sitting in his redbrick compound, former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani receives guests who stoop to almost genuflect. Before they can touch his knees, he grabs their hands and lifts them back up. Before he ventures out into the constituency, he flicks open a gold-plated mobile phone and summons support. “Go find me a ’70 model or an ’88 model,” Gilani says to a voice at the other end. He isn’t in search of cars, but PPP supporters from Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto’s first election wins.

“Our people,” says Gilani, “don’t vote for other parties. But they shouldn’t stay at home.” Like other PPP members across Punjab, he’s aware of the chance of a low party turnout. Gilani concedes that as a descendant of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and Abdul Qadir Gilani, the 12th century Mesopotamian saint, he can secure some votes for his three sons and brother who are fighting elections in Multan. The Gilani family’s pirs have devotees in the city. But it won’t be enough.

“What matters,” says the former prime minister, while driving around Multan himself, waving to slightly startled passersby, “is your own performance, what you do for the area, the party you represent, and your alliances with other dharras. Being from a spiritual family helps, but only a little.” Other makhdooms can help a little, too. Shah Mehmood’s brother is a provincial candidate with the Gilanis, while Javed Hashmi’s daughter is a provincial candidate with Shah Mehmood.

At a rally of around a thousand in an empty plot of land in the shade of an abandoned warehouse, Gilani rouses the party faithful with a mix of swipes at his opponents and talk of a new Seraiki province. “The PPP is the only party that values our Seraiki people,” he says. “The PPP gave you a Seraiki president, a Seraiki prime minister and speaker, and even a Seraiki foreign minister. Remember him?” If someone can’t stay loyal to their party, Gilani adds, “How can he be loyal to you, the people?”

Shah Mehmood’s core supporters aren’t fussed about the switch. They’ve been supporting the Qureshis for generations, both when Makhdoom Sajjad Hussein Qureshi was Gen Ziaul Haq’s Governor of Punjab and when Shah Mehmood was Benazir Bhutto’s president of the PPP in Punjab. “If Shah Mehmood goes to Imran Khan’s party, we’re fine,” a well-wrinkled man with widely spaced teeth reassures the Qureshi camp, at a meeting in one of NA-148’s many villages. “Even if he goes to the [Indian National] Congress, he’s acceptable to us.”

The 34th Makhdoom of Shah Rukne Alam is counting on a personal vote. “It’s the same constituency and the same candidate,” his son Zain explains to the huddled group of supporters. “But this time we have to vote for the bat.”

Shah Mehmood has few mureeds in his constituency. “They’re mostly in Sindh,” says Zain. The former foreign minister will also be seeking their votes there. But even in the constituencies of Umerkot and Tharparkar, the mureeds may be loyal to Shah Mehmood but needed the Pir of Pagara’s nod to vote for him.

The influence has traditionally proved electorally lucrative in swathes of south Punjab and Sindh. In Sindh, for example, the Makhdooms of Hala have a vast following and have never lost. But they’re an exception. Two other powerful pirs of Sindh are the Pir of Pagara and the Pir of Ranipur. In 1988, the father of the current Pir of Pagara suffered a stunning defeat to a little known PPP candidate, Pervez Ali Shah. And the Ranipur pirs are now divided among themselves and too weak to influence elections in their area.

What matters more than spiritual clout is development work. Voters want roads, sewerage systems, and gas supplies. Gilani’s supporters cheer the fact he is said to have diverted vast sums from Islamabad to Multan. They point to the new bridges, underpasses and roads that have changed the way the city looks. Jobs matter, too. One man squeezed into the back of a Qureshi Prado fondly recalls being summoned by then PML-N provincial minister Shah Mehmood to Lahore in the late 1980s, where he was given a job in Nawaz Sharif’s provincial government of the time. The man sitting next to him, an amateur cricketer, has a brother who works at the Foreign Office.

Voters also demand you stay in touch. “We’re going now to go and placate someone,” Gilani explains after the rally, as he plunges his own Prado through narrow and winding roads near his ancestral village. What’s the gripe? “He doesn’t like my face,” Gilani quips. “But watch this.” After hearing a brisk Gilani speech, men slouched on rope beds rise to announce their support for Musa. “I wasn’t angry,” says a visibly gratified Sardar Khan, the owner of the home. “He just hasn’t been here in five years.” The visit enhanced his standing in the union council where his father was once president.

Such occasions also offer the chance to vent freely to a captive audience. When Qasim Gilani — the only Gilani son not fighting an election — visited a traditional supporter, he was forced to hear out a litany of complaints. In the end, the supporter yielded. “The Gilanis are my pirs, so I can’t vote for anyone else.” To avoid upsetting more supporters, candidates hasten to every wedding and funeral in the city. “If even a donkey dies today,” says Qasim, “every candidate will send someone to offer condolences.”

The pirs also have powerful rivals in other parts of Multan who don’t have the titles or the devotees to match. Different members of the Dogar clan are strong candidates in urban seats. Sikandar Bosan, who is fighting against Abdul Qadir Gilani in NA-151, can draw on an extensive clan for votes and the thousands that live on his land. “Bosan starts out from his house with 40,000 votes,” says Qasim. For all their saintly sway, neither the Gilanis nor the Qureshis can beat those numbers without working for most of them.