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— File Photo

JHELUM: Ego, ambition, greed and a bit of farce thrown in — the politics of this northern Punjab district, where clan and family affiliations dominate party considerations, has a bit of everything this election season.

Farce made an appearance yesterday in the courtroom of Additional District and Sessions Judge Mumtaz Hussain.

Designated as the returning officer for NA-62, Hussain, seated below a portrait of Jinnah, was scrutinising the nomination forms of candidates, and verifying their Islamic credentials.

When a marginal candidate, Malik Sajid, was asked to recite numerous Quranic verses, laughter rippled across the courtroom.

“This isn’t important. This is just for show,” one onlooker said to his companions, who nodded their agreement and offered their own, derisive, comments.

Next up was Farrukh Altaf, the heavyweight PML-Q candidate and two-term district nazim in the Musharraf era.

The judge flipped through Altaf’s nomination papers, asked about an outstanding telephone bill of Rs1,400 and for the candidate’s educational certificates and then turned to what appeared to be the main business of the day.

“Recite the Durood Shareef,” the judge said. Altaf, flanked on either side by his nephews, Fawad Chaudhry, a recent inductee to the PPP, and Faisal Hussain, a lawyer, smiled.

“With all the respect to the court, I object,” Faisal Hussain said.

“The court does not have the right to certify the Muslimhood of any candidate.”

“Chaudhry sahib is a very educated man,” the judge countered.

“This isn’t a test. Just say the prayer as a blessing.”

Hussain, the lawyer, continued to protest but the judge wasn’t to be deterred.

After a minute or so of arguing between the judge and Hussain, Altaf cleared his throat and softly recited the prayer.

The waiting game

Elections may be just five weeks away and six seats — two National Assembly, four provincial — are up for grabs here in Jhelum, but politics here is in a state of suspended animation.

There are no party flags in the streets, no banners by candidates, no rallies or corner meetings, and the homes and offices of the major candidates are unusually quiet.

“The tickets haven’t been finalised,” Abid Mehmood, a local journalist, said. “Until tickets are finalised, there’s nothing that can be done.

Nobody wants to spend money or put their face on a billboard if they don’t know which party ticket they will get.

It’s very quiet in the city.”

A situation replicated in many other parts of the country at the moment is especially acute in Jhelum because of a political earthquake here last December.

Raja Afzal, the dominant political force in Jhelum and a close ally of Nawaz Sharif, lost an acrimonious by-election for a Punjab Assembly seat to Khadim Hussain, a former ally of Afzal whose son, Nadeem Khadim, was disqualified from the seat, PP-26, for possessing dual nationality.

Afzal, whose sons won both NA seats in 2008 and who masterminded a sweep for PML-N in the district at the last election, was incensed by what he saw as interference by the younger Sharif, Shahbaz, and Nisar Ali Khan in Afzal’s Jhelum bailiwick.

Tucked in under a blanket in his bedroom that also doubles as his office, Afzal explained the long simmering tensions with the PML-N leadership: “In 1997, I opposed Shahbaz Sharif as CM and supported Pervaiz Elahi because I felt one family shouldn’t dominate.

I suppose Shahbaz never forgot that.

And Chaudhry Nisar just wants everything under his thumb.”

In January, Afzal quit the PML-N and joined the PPP, a move facilitated by Haji Nawaz Khokhar, an influential Islamabad-based politician, and Malik Riaz, the Bahria Town tycoon.

Jhelum’s politics were turned upside down in an instant and the dust hasn’t settled since — in part because Afzal is still hedging his bets.

Groupings trump parties “I am with Raja sahib. Whatever party he is with, I will be with at the election,” claimed Riaz Ahmed Lilla, a prospective PA candidate supported by Raja Afzal, when asked whether he had joined the PPP now that his political mentor had jumped ship.

Afzal himself was candid about his reasons for joining the PPP, even though he refused, even now, to categorically state he will contest the elections on a PPP ticket: “There is no politics of ideology anymore. There’s no Left or Right left. Is there any difference between the manifestos of any of the parties?”

He added: “I wanted to go to PTI. But when I met Imran Khan, I realised he may be a good administrator and a good captain, but he’s not a good politician.”

The pervasive political uncertainty in Jhelum at the moment has a root cause: despite having one of the highest literacy rates in Punjab and an affluent population, of which large sections have migrated to Europe, politics here is rooted in the old systems of caste and clan.

“Politics here is semi-tribal.

It’s all about family and clan.

The party isn’t such a big factor,” said Farrukh Altaf, the PML-Q candidate from NA-62 and leader of the main, Jat biradari, group pitted against Raja Afzal in Jhelum.

Chaudhry Shahbaz Hussain, an ally and relative of Altaf’s who lost both NA-62 and NA-63 to Raja Afzal’s sons when Altaf was district nazim in 2008, was also forthright:

“There’s no ideology in politics anymore. It’s just self-interest and dharras (groupings). Neither our group nor our opponents can afford to leave the field, so we contest — the party doesn’t really matter.”

New entrants Historically Raja vs anti-Raja (largely the ‘Ladhar group’ led by Farrukh Altaf), the politics of Jhelum is being shaken up by smaller players trying to elbow their way to a bigger stage.

Khadim Hussain, the octogenarian who defeated Raja Afzal in the bruising December by-election, will likely contest NA-62 on a PML-N ticket, as will another former MPA, Muhammad Saqlain, who has migrated over the past decade from the Q-League to the N-League and is now with PTI.

Saqlain, the likely PTI candidate and a fierce critic of both Raja Afzal and Farrukh Altaf, said: “All biradaris vote for me. I am a Jat, the Rajgan love me and we will have a candidate from the Gujjars.”

Nadeem Khadim, the disqualified son of Khadim Hussain, explained why his father, on NA-62, and another relative on a PA seat would be serious contenders on PML-N tickets: “There’s many Gujjars in the constituencies we will contest and we have proven our mettle.”

But the upstarts’ relentless focus on clan and personal politics tells a tale of its own.

Beyond lambasting their opponents for misdeeds, both real and alleged, there’s almost no discussion about issues — governance, development, economic performance, law and order — that could shape the election on May 11.

And where the old rules of politics still apply, the established players continue to see a path to victory.

“It’s to our good luck that our opponents are divided,” Farrukh Altaf said.

“Saqlain, Khadim Hussain and Raja Afzal were all together at the last election, meaning their groupings have been in turmoil. Ours has stayed the same. If it’s a four-way fight, we feel quite confident,” referring to a possible contest in NA-62 between PML-Q (Altaf), PTI (Saqlain), PML-N (Hussain) and PPP (Afzal).

The wiliest politician, though, remains Afzal and he is sharing little at the moment.

In his bedroom-cum-office, reclined in his bed, the septuagenarian said, “You’ll see in a few days. I’ve been around a long time. I’m not from this area and yet I’ve won so many voters over.”

“My son and I will win,” Afzal added, referring to Asad, one of his two MNA sons who joined the PPP with Afzal in January and then promptly quit the party, perhaps because of differences with his father or, more likely, because father and son are plotting their next move.