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ANP and its antecedents

October 12, 2008

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THERE was once a political party named the Awami League, based largely in East Pakistan and headed by Maulana Bhashani. In February 1957 it split because of differences between him and Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy over issues of foreign policy.

Bhashani and the leftist contingent in the party left and in July formed the National Awami Party (NAP).

It included a number of politicians from West Pakistan, notably Abdul Wali Khan, Mian Iftikharuddin, Abdul Majid Sindhi and Mahmudul Haq Osmani. It stood for full autonomy for both East and West Pakistan, non-alignment in foreign policy and parliamentary democracy. It remained united and moderately active in national politics for about 10 years, but then in November 1967 it split again. Abdul Wali Khan became the leader of a pro-Moscow faction while Maulana Bhashani headed a pro-Chinese group. In post-1971 Pakistan, Mr Bhutto's government banned NAP. It re-emerged in 1986 with a slightly different name, that is the Awami National Party (ANP).

Abdul Wali Khan (d.2006), first president of the ANP, was a seasoned politician, widely respected for his candour and integrity. As he grew old and fragile, his wife Nasim directed the party for a few years, and his son Asfandyar Wali Khan has been its president since 1999. He appears to have inherited his father's self-esteem, sense of personal honour, dedication to the Pakhtun identity and, presumably, his political ethic.

Born in February 1949 at Charsadda, Asfandyar Wali received his early education at Aitchison College in Lahore, a BA degree from the University of Peshawar, and somewhere along the line a master's degree in business administration. Like his grandfather (Abdul Ghaffar Khan; d. 1988) and his father, he does not seem to have ever worked for a living. He may have inherited a good deal of property and wealth.

Asfandyar Wali was active in student politics, joined groups that opposed Ayub Khan and later Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He was arrested, along with several ANP politicians, tried and convicted by a special tribunal in Hyderabad jail, and sentenced to imprisonment for 15 years. Gen Ziaul Haq released him and some of the others in 1978. He was elected a member of the NWFP Assembly in 1990 and a member of the National Assembly three years later. He lost in 1997, but was elected senator in 2003 for a six-year term and, once again, an MNA in February 2008.

Asfandyar Wali regards all Pakhtuns, including those from Afghanistan who came and settled in the tribal areas on the Pakistani side, as one people. He and his party are dedicated to promoting their well-being. He wants the tribal belt to be politically integrated with the NWFP. The fact that the Taliban, who have been killing his people, are also Pakhtuns puts him in a difficult position.

Initially he advocated means other than military force for dealing with them. His attitude has radically changed following the recent suicide bombing at his own doorstep in Charsadda and an attack on Amir Haider Hoti's home in Mardan. He now wants to make sure that the generals and the government in Islamabad are determined enough in their campaign to eradicate the Taliban.

The ANP has maintained a significant presence in the legislatures. Of the 80 seats in the NWFP assembly, it won ten in the 1988 election, 23 in 1990, 18 in 1993 and 32 in 1997. The number of seats in the assembly increased to 124 just before the 2002 election. It is well known that this election was rigged to the advantage of the ANP's opponents, especially the Islamic parties, and the party ended up with only seven seats that year. It emerged as the largest party in the house following the elections of 2008 and formed the government in coalition with the PPP.

The party has all along shown a bias in favour of socialism, but more as political theory than as a controlling framework for policymaking. In any case it stands to the left of centre in its policy preferences. Note also that it has always been unambiguously secular-minded. It opposes Al Qaeda, the Taliban and all expressions of religious fundamentalism and extremism. It is Asfandyar Wali Khan's and his party's avowed mission to counter and defeat these movements which they fear are spreading to settled districts of the NWFP and parts of Balochistan, Sindh and Punjab.

The ANP claims to be, and I think it actually is, a liberal, progressive and modernising force in Pakistan. It is committed to democracy (holds regular internal party elections) and social justice. Being the ruling party in the NWFP at the present time (in coalition with the PPP), it will have the opportunity to improve the lives of the poor. Let us see what it does.

The party is well known for its espousal of provincial autonomy and the right of the various nationalities in the country to preserve and promote their languages and cultures. The matter of nationalities was associated with the ANP's parent organisation, NAP, in the 1960s. Its proponents distinguished nationality from the nation state which, they said, is often composed of distinct linguistic and cultural groups, each with a historic identity that it cherishes and wants to preserve. This kind of thinking does not alarm us today but it was not well received by the centralising regimes in the 1960s.

The issue of provincial autonomy is as old as the state itself. Most of our political parties advocate it, albeit in varying measure. There is, however, no consensus on its dimensions. Some of the 'nationalists' in Sindh and Balochistan would allow the federation nothing more than partial charge of defence and foreign affairs, deny it revenue-raising authority and make it dependent on subventions from the provinces. This is an extreme position which most other parties would avoid. As far as I know, the ANP has never spelled out how much of provincial autonomy would be good enough.

It should be noted that, as in the case of many other parties in the subcontinent, a specific family's predominance in the ANP's affairs gives it a dynastic character. Abdul Wali Khan was its first president, then came his wife Begum Nasim who was followed by her son Asfandyar. The newly elected chief minister of the NWFP, Amir Haider Khan Hoti, is Asfandyar Wali's nephew. He is a 36-year-old man whom the party's executive committee chose in preference to Bashir Ahmed Bilour, a veteran politician and a long-time party stalwart.n

The writer is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts.

anwarsyed@cox.net