“We’re ready to lend all kind of support if you field Hafiz Salman Butt from NA-118.” The message did the rounds in Lahore, purportedly sent by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) to the Jamaat-i-Islami. The JI leaders expressed their surprise. They wanted, and eventually got, a seat adjustment arrangement with the PML-N in two National Assembly constituencies of the Punjab capital. NA-118 was not among these.
The Sharifs, in exile and disallowed to contest the 2002 polls, were on a revenge mission. They wanted to defeat and humiliate Mian Muhammad Azhar, who had triggered a rebellion in the PML-N ranks after the party’s ouster in the Musharraf-led army coup three years ago. Azhar, Sharif's gift to politics, had gone on to form PML-Q that was to play the king’s party in the forthcoming elections.
Salman Butt, with his fiery, often insulting, attacks on opponents, was the best PML-N bet at the time to give a tough time to the former Punjab governor. As Lahore was devoid of any other interesting electoral contest, the duel in NA-118 became the centre of attraction for political observers in the city.
Butt was fielded as an independent - because of differences over the nomination among the local chapter of the six-party religious alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal. With support from the N-League he turned out to be a real nightmare for Mian Azhar and he was defeated by a margin of fewer than 4,000 votes. That was good enough for Butt’s supporters. Back in 1997, Mian Azhar had won the same seat with a margin of more than 45,000 as the PML-N nominee.
Mian Azhar had a more local vision and saw the Chaudhries of Gujrat behind his debacle — as part of the intra-party struggle for the control of the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-i-Azam (PML-Q). He must have been further incensed when Humayun Akhtar Khan, another PML-Q stalwart, was declared the winner in a contest in Lahore which everyone thought he had actually lost. In the late-night PTV transmission, PML-N’s Akram Zaki, a former foreign secretary, was the victor in NA-125, with PPP’s Naveed Chaudhry as the runner-up. The next morning, Khan was declared the winner by around 1,200 votes.
There were two more interesting contests in the Punjab capital. Now tsunami-fame Imran Khan was then a candidate in NA-122 and lost to PML-N’s Sardar Ayaz Sadiq. Imran’s electioneering was dull as the Tehreek-i-Insaf chairman was overtly busy in his Mianwali constituency rarely giving time to his election campaign in the provincial capital.
Another recent reformer Pakistan Awami Tehreek chief Dr Tahirul Qadri was in the fray from NA-127. He seized the seat with a narrow margin of a couple of thousands of votes — again when he appeared to be losing according to the early reports after counting. Now a preacher against the use of money in politics, back in 2002 Dr Qadri was known as a messiah whose men offered people gifts such as sewing machines and bicycles in return for something as small as a vote.
But for these few exciting moments, 2002 was a dull affair. The PML-N lacked proper candidates even in Lahore that was and is considered to be its stronghold. Having secured all but one seat from the provincial capital in the previous polls, it could lay claim to only four out of 13 constituencies this time. Salman Butt was not the only nominee it had accepted from outside. It had accommodated PPP’s Aitzaz Ahsan and MMA’s Liaquat Baloch and Farid Paracha. For the provincial assembly seats, it had approached ‘electables’ even from the parties like Gen Aslam Beg’s Awami Qiyadat Party to contest from various constituencies.