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Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) contender in NA-117 Ahsan Iqbal. — File Photo

NAROWAL: It’s 10pm in this small town near the border with India and Kashmir and Ahsan Iqbal is standing on a road in front of a poor neighbourhood. A horse is dancing to the beat of a dhol as Iqbal looks on surrounded by a few dozen cheering supporters.

After a few minutes, with the horse leading the way, Iqbal makes his way into a pitch-dark lane towards a makeshift stage with a few dozen chairs placed in front of it. As Iqbal takes his seat on the stage, a handful of five rupee notes are thrown in the air and children scramble to grab them.

Of such ‘corner meetings’ will be built Iqbal’s election campaign and the thrice-elected PML-N MNA is the prohibitive favourite in this largely rural constituency, NA-117.

“The last time (in 2008) the two main complaints against Ahsan Iqbal were that he doesn’t stay in touch with his constituency and there had been little development,” explained Iqbal Ali Javed, a local journalist. “Over the last five years, he’s fixed that to a great extent and the people’s complaints have gone down a great deal.”

Today, Ahsan Iqbal’s fingerprints are visible all over the constituency: the town stands transformed by massive road projects while schools have been upgraded across the rural areas. Sui gas has finally made its way to the district, addressing a major political grouse over the decades.

For all his success, though, Iqbal is already in full campaign mode and appears to be looking over his shoulder. The threat, to the extent there is one, quickly becomes apparent at the corner meeting.

“Imran Khan wasn’t able to manage his own house, how will he look after politics?” thundered a heavily bearded, black-turbaned man on the stage, warming up the 100-strong crowd for Iqbal. “Imran Khan found his Jewish wife more appropriate to raise his own children.”

PTI rival At his home later, Iqbal explained the key to winning an election: “It’s like a three-digit lock on a briefcase. One digit is the party, the other is the candidate’s personal vote bank and the third is the grouping and dharra. Only when the three are aligned does the briefcase open.”

He added, “Development can make you lose an election, if you haven’t done any, but on its own it’s not enough to ensure victory.”

If he is to win a fourth term on May 11, Iqbal will likely have to beat Abrarul Haq, the presumptive PTI candidate. While Haq has now begun his campaign and banners advertising his candidacy dot the constituency, the PTI has not officially declared him as their candidate yet. Haq also faces a strong rival within the PTI, Javed Safdar Kahlon, a former district nazim who got his wife elected as a PML-Q MNA in 2002 by defeating Ahsan Iqbal.

As a wealthy Jat in a constituency where Jats are the largest, though a generally poor, biradiri, Haq is relying on two factors to help him win votes: one, as a philanthropist who set up the Sughra Shafi Medical Complex, named after Haq’s late mother; and two, as a member of a family that has been active in constituency politics. Haq, himself new to politics, also has the name-recognition factor: his successful career as a pop singer has made him a household name.

Sahir Ali Shah, a local businessman, explained the appeal of the PTI and Haq’s vote-getting potential: “Tabdeeli (change) is not about roads and gas connections. People are sick of the system: there is no justice, there is corruption, there is unemployment. That’s what they want to change.

“But Abrar doesn’t live here and hasn’t helped anyone. He will get votes from his native area because he is a chaudhry and people are beholden to him.”

Rural campaign

“In 1993, when I first won, if one chaudhry in a UC (union council) said yes to voting for me, then I could sit back and forget about it. All the votes would be mine,” Ahsan Iqbal said, explaining the changing nature of rural politics. “Now, no one person, not even two, three or five people sometimes, can deliver a UC. Everyone wants direct access to their representative. There is awareness.”

And with awareness comes an arduous campaign in this sprawling constituency of 600 villages, home to many subsistence farmers and a large number of rural labourers. Abrarul Haq, counter-intuitively for a PTI candidate but because of his rural family base, is desperately playing catch up in NA-117 by rushing from village to village in the company of his political relatives.

In Mulukpur, seated on a charpai under a tree in the garden of one the village’s larger homes, Haq met a group of around 50 potential voters. “Our campaign has started very late because there was a problem with tickets. But that’s because in PTI everything is done by merit, not nepotism,” Haq said.“Go to your own areas, speak to people, phone them, there’s very little time left,” Haq exhorted the small gathering. “Please also don’t forget that there’s a large number of women voters here. We need the women to vote and soon my wife and the women of my family will come here to campaign,” he added.

While PTI and Haq are expected to put up a fight, Irfan Ali Javed, the local journalist, explained the reason why Ahsan Iqbal is still the candidate to beat: “Abrar will win votes because of the Jat-ism slogan. But he hasn’t given Ahsan much to worry about yet because he’s new. A better (PTI) candidate would have been Khalon (the former district nazim). If they join up, then they can give Ahsan a tough time.”

Whether Kahlon, who has lobbied hard for the PTI ticket in NA-117 but may end up as a provincial assembly candidate, will rally behind Haq is an open question, even for Haq.

Otherwise, too, the pop star is realistic about his chances: “75 per cent is with Ahsan and PML-N. 25 per cent is with us at the moment. Let’s see, the weeks ahead could change things,” Haq said before hurrying off to his next village meeting.

Wary of the unpredictable nature of politics, Ahsan Iqbal is not taking anything for granted either. At his late-evening corner meeting, Iqbal hammered away at the experience factor in his stump speech:

“Imran Khan has no experience. At the town, district, provincial or central level he has no experience whatsoever. How can he lead when he has no experience? Only PML-N has both the passion and the experience to deliver.”

“Look around you. In five years, we haven’t made Narowal into Paris yet but it is already half a Paris,” he said to cheers.