Gujrat riot in the making
PRESIDENT Asif Zardari may want to take note of this: one of his men has decided to openly put his faith in the powers at Aabpara.
He is an old devotee and these are not particularly good times for jiyalas in Punjab. Loyalties are fast changing as the run for election picks up pace. Nowhere is this trend more visible than in Gujrat.
Here, long-time PPP symbol Nawabzada Ghazanfar Gul has been left behind alone — frustrated by his close relatives, by his group but, above all, by his party. His brother and a nephew have crossed over to the PML-N discovered in the Sharif Brothers’ search for ‘electables’.
Gul, like a haunting, imposing figure from a distant past, remains festooned in the PPP camp. By some accounts he is poised to take on his party from within by contesting the next election from his traditional constituency even if the PPP doesn’t. That would be more painful for the Zardari camp than the crossovers taking place.
The PPP could end up on the wrong end of the bargain. The Shujaat Husain group has been quite good at uniting their opposition. Instances where the Chaudhries have run away with victory have been few.
Theirs have been generally close fights, routinely decided by swing voters, sometimes in their favour, sometimes in the favour of their local opponents of whom they have had plenty and who have routinely been concentrated in the PPP camp. Consequently, Gujrat is far from the Shujaat-Pervaiz fortress it is sometimes made out to be.
This local scene contributes to and is influenced by the national stage, where the Shujaat group has been fighting for bigger honours. Their efforts to win the coveted seat of the chief minister of Punjab were repeatedly frustrated, even though the founding father of their group, Chaudhry Zahoor Elahi, was close to their common mentor, Ziaul Haq, long before the Sharifs arrived on the scene.
This denial of the top job in Punjab was a crucial factor that buoyed their opponents in Gujrat as elsewhere. It was one group everyone thought could be contained despite all its clever politics and high claims.
In Gen Pervez Musharraf’s time, Pervaiz Elahi did finally manage to take the chief minister’s office. However, at the national level, while Chaudhry Shujaat was hailed as the kingmaker, he had to repeatedly make compromises.
As head of the largest party, he had two prime ministers chosen against his wishes, and later on, his formula for winning the 2008 election by collecting influential local names on the PML-Q platform backfired badly. In that vote, Chaudhry Shujaat Husain lost his seat in Gujrat.
In another crucial contest for his family, in Lahore, Pervaiz Elahi’s son, Moonis Elahi, lost after coming quite close to beating the Sharifs’ man from their home Model Town constituency. After years of Pervaiz Elahi as a quite able chief minister during a period when the Sharifs were away, Moonis’s defeat was a sign of continued containment of the Shujaat group.
The Sharifs may have been to an extent responsible for this containment. They do look determined to defeat the Chaudhry Shujaat Husain group in the next election.
Towards this end they have enlisted the support of Ahmed Saeed, brother of PPP stalwart and minister for power, Ahmed Mukhtar, apart from winning over members of Ghazanfar Gul’s family.
But while the Shujaat group is faced with a stiff challenge, it is the PPP which has put at stake here a lifetime’s investment in aid of a Maula Jatt-Noori Natt kind of friendship.
The PPP has been losing ground in the vicinity. It lost Rawalpindi and Jhelum to the PML-N and has been cut down to size in Gujranwala and Sialkot. It has been contained in Sheikhupura. A little further, in Sargodha, its profile did improve in 1988 and men such as Nadeem Afzal Chann could in time graduate as unshakeable PPP symbols.
That is for the future. In the story so far, Gujrat comes to mind as one area where the PPP men have quite successfully withstood the challenge of what many ablutions ago was regarded as Zia’s tribe.
Ghazanfar Gul’s Nawabzada family, the Ahmed Mukhtar group, the Pagganwalas as well as the family of Ameer Husain (Kuki) Shah have all been successful in defeating the Chaudhry Shujaat group in elections of the past, under the banner of the PPP.
The PPP has been squandering this capital. Ameer Husain Shah’s son Ali Haroon Shah beat Pervaiz Elahi for a Punjab Assembly seat in 1988. A few years later, he joined the PML-N. Members of the Pagganwala family have also drifted away from the PPP as have the Sammas, who had given ZAB’s original PPP one of its MPAs in the 1970 election.
The pragmatism of the times — Mr Zardari’s version of it — cannot cloak the imposing figure of Ghazanfar Gul in bright, promising colours. The PPP’s disintegration is most visible in Gujrat, just as its resistance here has been looked upon as a model to follow. The making and breaking of alliances in Gujrat will have far-reaching effects on the party’s cadres — beyond its leadership’s vision.
“I have given up politics,” says one PPP activist from a Punjab district at a distance from both Gujrat and Islamabad.
He has got himself a new telephone number to avoid the rush of callers. He has grown a beard since he lost a by-election which he fought as an independent, after being denied PPP nomination. The seat went to PML-Q under the Zardari-Shujaat barter. “I am no more in politics. I cannot deliver speeches in favour of people I have always spoken against.”
A barrage of expletives follows. Like a soul uprooted, the gentleman wanders until he finds guidance from the shrine of his pir located at Aabpara. The pir says there is going to be no election but a long war. This forecast is his hope. An election in the near future will put his creed and his faith under unbearable pressure.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.