What does the future hold for the ANP, in the absence of Afrasiab Khattak and Bushra Gohar?
When the Awami National Party (ANP) notified the suspension of the membership of two of its former parliamentarians, Afrasiab Khattak and Bushra Gohar, on November 12, it was seen as a belated effort to enforce discipline in the party by silencing the voices of vocal critics of its policies.
A week earlier, the two known ANP politicians had been served with show cause notices that accused them of carrying out activities against the party policy and discipline. The notices said they were spreading confusion among the ANP ranks and causing irreparable loss to the party.
The charges were serious even if somewhat vague. Both replied within the one-week period given to them. As expected, the replies failed to satisfy the party leadership and their membership was suspended.
The suspension was as good as expulsion. Under the party constitution, the decision would have to be ratified by the ANP central executive committee whenever it meets. Needless to say it would be a mere formality.
There was almost no chance of acceptance of the demand by Afrasiab Khattak and Bushra Gohar for discussing the allegations against them in the relevant forums of the party. That stage has passed and it is apparent that the parting of ways between the party and the two dissidents is now complete.
Afrasiab Khattak is the former ANP President for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa while Bushra Gohar was the senior vice-president. The former had remained a Senator and the latter Member of the National Assembly. They were senior and experienced enough and had held important positions in the party not to know about the ANP policies and requirements of discipline, but the two pushed the limits due to their belief that the issues being highlighted by them were in line with the party’s principles. It is possible they weren’t expecting such a tough action against them. To their credit though, they have generally refrained from criticising the ANP leadership.
Afrasiab Khattak was circumspect in his reply to the show cause notice as he didn’t go into details in the absence of a charge-sheet detailing the allegations of breaching the party discipline against him. Nevertheless, he used the opportunity to mention his 50 years long association with the Pakhtun Students Federation and the ANP to argue that this gave him a fair idea about the party’s policy and discipline.
Bushra Gohar raised pertinent questions in her reply to the show cause notice. She questioned the transparency of the decision-making within the party at the highest level and wondered why the issue wasn’t taken up in the recent ANP central and provincial councils’ meetings. Bushra Gohar maintained that she followed late freedom-fighter Bacha Khan’s philosophy and worked for democracy, human rights, merger of Fata with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, demilitarisation of the state and society, justice for Pashtuns and other oppressed nations and campaigned against Talibanisation, religious extremism, patriarchy and tribalism. A section of the media quoted her comment that ANP took action against them due to ‘external’ pressure. It wasn’t elaborated, but it could mean certain powerful state institutions.
This must have been a very difficult decision for the ANP as it meant losing two stalwarts and risking further rift in the party ranks. However, the decision was made in the hope that keeping them in the party and allowing them to say things not liked by the ANP leadership wasn’t a good option. The ANP parliamentary party leader in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly, Sardar Hussain Babak, was quoted as saying that the opinion of Afrasiab Khattak and Bushra Gohar was known to everyone and it was clearly not in line with the party policy. He made it clear that there would be no negotiation for their return to the party as the decision against them was final.
Though the ANP President Asfandyar Wali Khan had the power under the party constitution to take action and suspend the membership of Afrasiab Khattak and Bushra Gohar, he was abroad visiting Russia when the action was taken on his behalf by the party’s central General Secretary Mian Iftikhar Hussain. This point was highlighted by Bushra Gohar in her reply to the show cause notice when she questioned the directions issued from outside the country by the party president, particularly when the ANP at the time was supposed to be led by an acting president.
Afrasiab Khattak tweeted after his suspension from the ANP that "Political workers can be unfairly expelled from political party but they can’t be expelled from politics. We shall steadfastly continue struggle against all forms of oppression, suppression and exploitation."
Though he thanked all his friends for expressing solidarity with him in his tweet, he didn’t immediately respond or accept the request by some of his supporters to create a new political party. Afrasiab Khattak knows pretty well that running a political party isn’t easy as it requires resources and big names. He had fallen out with the Wali Khan family in the past as well and founded the Qaumi Watan Party, which was later merged with the Pakhtunkhwa Qaumi Party before rejoining the ANP.
Tweets are the favourite form of expression nowadays for Afrasiab Khattak, and also for Bushra Gohar. In fact, their frequent tweeting was the main reason for them to earn the anger of the ANP leadership. Both have been hyperactive on social media, tweeting the whole day on issues close to their heart.
The suspension notification issued by the ANP mentioned this point when it noted that the two continued to violate the party discipline on social media despite being cautioned.
Many of the tweets by Afrasiab Khattak and Bushra Gohar have been in support of the Manzoor Pashteen-led Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), which is seen by the ANP leadership as a potential threat to the party and a rival for seeking support from the ethnic Pashtuns. Asfandyar Wali and other party leaders have been emphasising the point that the ANP is the original and oldest Pashtun nationalist party with a history of unmatched struggles and sacrifices. His son, Aimal Wali, has been particularly critical of the PTM and even alleged that Manzoor Pashteen is being used as bait by the state institutions to identify and eliminate anti-state elements.
Though some ANP activists were saddened by the suspension of Afrasiab Khattak and Bushra Gohar’s party membership, only one known party leader, former lawmaker Jamila Gilani, publicly protested the move and resigned from the party’s position of central deputy general secretary. She was quoted as saying by a section of the media that expulsion of progressive members of the ANP would damage the party. However, she didn’t quit the party, preferring to adopt a wait and see approach.
It is interesting to note that all three had been elected members of parliament on reserved rather than on general seats. Afrasiab Khattak, Bushra Gohar and Jamila Gilani owed their positions to the party which guaranteed their victory by nominating them to contest election on reserved seats. Afrasiab Khattak had once contested for the National Assembly seat from Karak district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 1990 but was defeated. The other two didn’t have any constituency and were accommodated on seats reserved for women.
One may ask as to what does the future hold for the ANP, still led by a member of the late Bacha Khan family, and Afrasiab Khattak and Bushra Gohar. The ANP has been on the decline in its Khyber Pakhtunkhwa stronghold since the rise of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). In particular it has failed to attract the young people who have been flocking to the PTI banner. Though the ANP gave an improved electoral performance in the 2018 election compared to 2013, it still lagged far behind the domineering PTI. The ANP would have to work really hard and keep the party intact and motivated to be able to mount a serious challenge to the PTI in the next polls.
For Afrasiab Khattak and Bushra Gohar, there aren’t many parties that would suit them or would accept their strong nationalist, progressive, secular and liberal views on various issues. Both are intellectuals in their own right and have their admirers, but the one party that suited them the most in the prevalent circumstances was the ANP. That option is now closed. Is the PTM an option? Perhaps they could continue supporting it, largely through social media, but formally joining it would require some serious thinking.