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SHAKARGARH: In this tehsil famed for its Basmati rice and inextricably linked to the Kashmir dispute - Shakargarh was a part of Gurdaspur district in India before Partition - the battle for NA-116 is shaping up to be a fierce, old-fashioned wrestling match.

In one corner is Tariq Anees, the schoolteacher’s son who has risen to affluence via a politics centred on a deft touch with the public and a formidable capacity for arm-twisting. In the other corner is Danyal Aziz, son of a legendary practitioner of rural politics and the once-dominant political force in Shakargarh, Anwar Aziz.

Party affiliation here appears to matter little to an electorate that is largely rural and poor and always looking for an escape, to jobs abroad or elsewhere in Punjab. Anees won in 2008 as an independent by defeating Aziz before joining the PPP to partake in the bounties of being a government representative in a region dominated by the PML-N.

Aziz won in 2002 on a PML-Q ticket, defeating Anees, but quit the party before the 2008 election and is now the N-League’s candidate, having joined the PML-N at the end of March.

This, the third consecutive face-off between Anees and Aziz, appears set to be a real humdinger. “It will be very close,” said Azhar Inayat, a local journalist.

“After the by-election, it looked like Tariq Anees would be very hard to beat, but the situation has changed since then,” Inayat added, referring to a December by-election for a provincial assembly seat in which Anees’s candidate thumped both the PML-N contender and a candidate backed by Aziz.

Anwar Aziz, Danyal’s father who looks after constituency politics in the absence of his son, was also cautious: “Tariq Anees will be very tough to beat. When your opponent has no qualms about doing whatever it takes to win, it is always difficult. But we are prepared too this time.”

Preparation in this sprawling constituency means many things: a relentless door-to-door campaign in Shakargarh town and travelling endlessly from village-to-village to win over new voters and secure old ones; assembling teams of armed strongmen to contend with expected low-level violence on polling day; and always keeping an eye on the opponent’s moves to break potential voters with inducements and threats.

Power politics

Much as it may appear that the election is singularly fought in the villages of Shakargarh, hard bargaining in power centres far away significantly influences the race here.

Danyal Aziz, who expects a boost from capturing the PML-N ticket, said: “I met with all the parties: PTI, PML-N, PPP. They all wanted me but the PML-N made most sense (for me). Tariq Anees shed all his clothes and went running, begging for the PML-N ticket, but he didn’t get it. In the end, merit prevailed.”

Anees dismissed Aziz’s claim as “propaganda”, but did admit, “I was offered two tickets by Ahsan Iqbal but I didn’t open any negotiations with them (PML-N). I don’t need it.”

Behind those claims and counter-claims lies a tale of raw power politics, the kind that often determines to which party a particular seat in Punjab goes. According to sources speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss behind-the-scenes negotiations, the PML-N ticket eventually fell to Aziz after Ahsan Iqbal, the senior N-Leaguer in Narowal district, and Tariq Anees were not able to strike a deal.

The sticking point: Iqbal wanted Anees to pick as a running mate on a provincial assembly seat a relative of Iqbal’s, Rana Mannan, but Anees was reluctant to jettison his brother, Mohammad Abbas, who had won the seat in 2008 on a PML-Q ticket.

Iqbal, meanwhile, was wary of bringing Aziz into the PML-N fold because both see themselves as political players on the national stage and therefore uncomfortable allies in Narowal district, which has just three National Assembly seats. But Aziz bypassed Iqbal in opening negotiations with the PML-N, reaching out to other senior figures in the party first.

Eventually, after negotiations with Tariq Anees stalled, Ahsan Iqbal was coaxed into accepting Danyal Aziz’s PML-N candidacy. But there is a further twist in the tale: Iqbal insisted on selecting Aziz’s running mates - for the two provincial assembly seats that fall under NA-116 - much to Aziz’s chagrin.

One of Iqbal’s choices, Hafiz Shabbir, has had his candidacy rejected by the courts, opening the door for Aziz’s preferred candidate from the influential Ansari biradiri, Maulana Ghayasuddin. But the second, Rana Mannan, Iqbal’s relative whose candidacy proved the sticking point in a deal with Tariq Anees, will be Danyal Aziz’s other running mate on a provincial assembly seat.

Having running mates picked by others to suit their own, separate purposes --- as Danyal Aziz does in NA-116 but Tariq Anees doesn’t --- can be the difference between winning and losing a National Assembly seat.

Hard slog

“I have a request. For the next month, please try not to give the locals too much trouble,” Danyal Aziz urged a Rangers official in a remote village along the border with India.

In a close race, every little bit of help will count and Aziz was urging restraint on behalf of locals with small farms along the border, who frequently complain of harassment by paramilitary and army officials.

From there, following a punishing schedule of meetings neatly listed in a document that serves as Aziz’s blueprint for the campaign, Aziz continued to Babral village, a forty-five minute drive away, where no votes had been cast in his favour at the last election.

Aziz patiently listened to village leaders in Babral as they vented their anger, though the real problem had already been taken care of: Babral’s sister village, Fatwal, is Ahsan Iqbal’s ancestral home and he had opposed Aziz in 2008 --- a situation unlikely to be repeated in 2013.

For his part, Tariq Anees is relying, overtly, on his track record over the past five years and, covertly, on strong-arm tactics carrying him to victory on May 11.

“For 35 years, both father and son (Anwar and Danyal Aziz) ruled here. But not one kilometre of road was built, not one school was upgraded and not one dispensary was properly supplied,” Anees alleged, speaking at his large home in Shakargarh town.

“I have brought Sui gas here, a passport office has been opened, a sewerage system has been built in the city for the first time, and I have constructed much-needed bridges,” Anees continued. “We won by a massive margin (in the Dec by-election). What great sin can I have committed in three months that the voters will turn against me?”