Friday, May 17, 2013 -
From Print Edition
In a remote corner of north-western Pakistan, the voters came out in record numbers on May 11 to vote for former President General (r) Pervez Musharraf’s All Pakistan Muslim League. They felt an obligation to support the fallen dictator’s nominees in the election because he had sanctioned funds while in power for the Lowari Tunnel project for providing an all-weather road linking Chitral with the rest of Pakistan.
As expected, Musharraf’s APML almost swept the polls in Chitral by winning the lone National Assembly and one out of the two provincial assembly seats.
APML’s Shahzada Iftikharuddin won the National Assembly seat, NA-32 Chitral, while Muhammad Latif of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) was the runner-up. Latif did surprisingly well as he wasn’t being given much of a chance before the polls. In fact, the PPP’s Mohammad Hakeem Khan was considered the front runner and Iftikharuddin and Jamaat-e-Islami’s former MNA Maulana Abdul Akbar Chitrali as his main challengers.
Iftikharuddin was supposed to be the covering candidate for Musharraf, whose nomination papers for the seat were initially accepted following a sensible decision by the returning officer with the remark that he hasn’t been convicted in any court and, therefore, could not be disqualified. However, Musharraf’s papers were later rejected when an appeal was filed against him. The 43-year-old Iftikharuddin, son of former MNA Shahzada Mohyuddin, stepped in as the APML candidate and won. Veteran politician Shahzada Mohyuddin has been contesting elections and fighting for Chitral’s rights as an elected representative for years, but he couldn’t contest the polls this time due to illness.
APML’s Ghulam Mohammad, who was elected MPA from Chitral in 2008 on the PML ticket, again won the provincial assembly seat defeating PPP’s Sardar Hussain. He won by the narrowest of margins, seven votes to be exact. The second provincial assembly seat was won by PPP’s Salim Khan, a former provincial minister, against APML’s Shahzada Khalid Pervez, another son of Shahzada Mohyuddin.
It is obvious that Musharraf would have won the National Assembly from Chitral had he been allowed to contest. He had done his homework and had come to the conclusion that Chitral was his best bet to reach the National Assembly, even though he was also a candidate from his native Karachi, Okara and Islamabad. It is unlikely that he would have won anywhere else except Chitral.
The APML’s Chitral chapter had rejected the party decision to boycott the polls after Musharraf was house-arrested and put on trial on his return from four years of self-exile. Another reason for the boycott could be the realisation that the APML didn’t have any chance of success at the polls. The Chitral unit of the party was confident of victory and it went ahead with its decision to contest the election despite the displeasure of the APML leadership. According to MNA-elect Iftikharuddin, who qualified with a degree in business administration from abroad and worked for 13 years with the USAID, politicians should never run away from the electorate.
Musharraf provided funds for building the Lowari Tunnel and a few other projects in Chitral and won the hearts and minds of the Chitralis. They repaid the favour and elected his party candidates in the 2013 general election. As a powerful military ruler, Musharraf doled out much bigger funds to mega projects in Karachi and elsewhere in Pakistan and obliged thousands of people through all kinds of favours during his eight years rule. However, it is only the simple mountain people of Chitral who remembered Musharraf’s favour when he was in trouble and paid him back with votes. Musharraf may or may not have remembered when and how much money he gave for the Lowari Tunnel project, but the Chitralis are unlikely to forget it.
For almost 40 years earlier, the Chitralis had often elected PPP candidates, including Nusrat Bhutto once, because they remembered the kindness of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who had started work on the Lowari Tunnel, introduced a helicopter service for the snowbound Chitral valley in winters and once ordered airdropping food for the people when heavy snow blocked all supply routes for weeks. The 8.75 kilometres long Lowari Tunnel is still incomplete as the PPP-led federal government failed to sanction the required funds for the project. However, the people of Chitral remain forever grateful to Musharraf for reviving the long-delayed project.
Neither Bhutto nor Musharraf gave any money from their pocket as public funds were sanctioned for the Lowari Tunnel project. Still in the eyes of the people of Chitral they were better than other Pakistani rulers who ignored a project that meant so much to them.
Lowari Tunnel is critical for the needs of the people of Chitral. The road crossing the 10,230 feet high Lowari Top used to be blocked for months by the snow in winter and the people were stranded. They had to drive through Afghanistan’s volatile Kunar province to travel to and from Chitral or take the irregular PIA flights on the Peshawar-Chitral route depending on the weather. The flights are subsidised but the fare is still unaffordable for most passengers from Chitral. Some risked their lives to walk through the snow and blizzards at the Lowari Top peak to reach their destination.
Chitral is a pretty place and a major tourist destination. It has many attractions such as its pleasant summer weather, green valleys and the unique Kalash people living in the Rumbur, Bamboret and Birir valleys. It is the largest district area wise in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa occupying 20 percent landmass of the province. It has one of the highest literacy ratios in the province and the lowest crime rate. And in the recent polls, Chitral achieved the highest turnout in the country with 63.26 percent. There is no militancy in Chitral and the Sunnis and Ismailis live in peaceful coexistence.
The Chitralis are a peaceful and friendly people and also loyal to their benefactors. They deserve a better deal from the state of Pakistan. The least the state could do is to complete the Lowari Tunnel project so that the people of Chitral are no longer cut off from the rest of Pakistan in winters and their bonds with the nation are strengthened.
The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. Email: [email protected]