Drums of war

The PML-N and the PTI have locked horns in the Punjab as political temperatures rise ahead of the general elections

Drums of war


ll is set for the final showdown between the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) in the Punjab ahead of the next general election. The two sides have vastly different strategies to counter each other’s influence in the largest province amid rumours of Nawaz Sharif’s return, and disqualification of Imran Khan in the wake of the foreign funding ruling.

The PTI has changed its face in the Punjab by replacing its chief minister Usman Buzdar with Parvez Elahi of the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q). Former Punjab law minister Rana Sanaullah holds the interior portfolio in Shahbaz Sharif’s federal cabinet. Bitterness between Elahi and Sanaullah is now almost two decades old. Over the coming days, it risks being reflected in the Punjab politics.

Elahi was once PML-N stalwart and speaker of the Punjab Assembly. Sanaullah had left the PPP and joined the League from Faisalabad in 1997. When Gen Pervez Musharraf took over after overthrowing Nawaz Sharif’s government, Elahi and his cousin, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, along with several other PML-N stalwarts like Lt Gen Abdul Majid Malik, Sheikh Rashid Ahmad, Gohar Ayub Khan, Humayun Akhtar Khan and Ejaz ul Haq remained silent. Sanaullah chose to support Sharif and sided with Raja Zafar ul Haq, Pervaiz Rashid, Saad Rafique, Khawaja Asif, Ahsan Iqbal, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Tehmina Daultana. For his vocal support to the Sharifs and making remarks against Gen Musharraf he was apprehended and tortured. He has been consistently opposed to the military ruler and military rule.

Before the 2002 elections, the Shujaat-Elahi duo formed the PML-Q, known during those days as the king’s party, with Mian Azhar (father of Hammad Azhar) as its president while other leaders (mentioned above) joined the newly formed party. After the 2002 elections, the PML-Q formed governments in the Centre, the Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan. Elahi became the Punjab chief minister where he had to deal with a strong joint opposition of the PML-N and the PPP in the Punjab Assembly with Sanaullah as the deputy opposition leader. Sanaullah also kept criticising the military ruler. For this, he was picked up by unidentified people and tortured. His head, eyebrows and moustache were also shaved. If this was meant to make a mellower politician of him, it failed. For making harsh remarks about Gen Musharraf and those supporting him, the then speaker Afzal Sahi banned his entry in the Provincial Assembly for 10 days.

On the other hand, Elahi supported the military rule. When Gen Musharraf wanted to be elected president by the parliament and provincial assemblies and to retain his two offices – the army chief and the elected president of Pakistan, Elahi made his historic statement, “We will elect Musharraf in uniform as the president of Pakistan 100 times”.

In the 2008 elections, the PML-Q was reduced to a small group with only a couple of dozen seats in the National Assembly. After some time Elahi joined the ruling coalition and became the deputy prime minister in 2011.

His longtime ally and cousin, Chaudhry Shujaat, has now joined hands with the Sharifs. Elahi, however, has opted to support Imran Khan. Shujaat has apparently sensed the deficiency of second tier leadership in the PTI ranks in the Punjab.

A new tug of war has begun in the Punjab with Elahi taking over as chief minister. He has changed almost the entire senior bureaucracy in the Punjab. While he publicly speaks of reconciliation under his chief ministership, the police have arrested Nazir Chauhan, a PTI dissident and the PML-N candidate in the recent by-election. Police have also raided the house of former Punjab home minister, Ata Tarar. Tarar escaped arrest and has since remained in Islamabad. Elahi is clearly spoiling for a fight.

Drums of war

“We believe that Khan will win all constituencies. If the speaker accepts more resignations and by-elections are held in those constituencies, Khan will contest those too. This tactic will force the government to hold fresh elections,” a PTI leader tells The News on Sunday.

The Islamabad Police have, meanwhile, registered a case against Imran Khan’s close aide, Shahbaz Gill, for making uncalled-for remarks against the army and spreading hatred in the society. Some PTI leaders and Elahi did not initially react to his arrest and denounced his statement. Later, Imran Khan asked them to support Gill and some PTI leaders visited him in the police lock-up and jail. Some of the PTI leaders alleged that Gill was tortured in jail. However, Home Minister Hashim Dogar later met Gill in Adiyala Jail and denied this. His statement was refuted by some people in his own party.

Drums of war

On Wednesday, the situation worsened in the Punjab after an Islamabad court granted two-day physical remand of Gill. He was sent to Adiyala Jail where the Islamabad police took him into custody for further interrogation. Elahi sent the Punjab Police to Adiyala for the same purpose. Two different orders from the Centre and the Punjab thus brought two police forces in conflict. The federal government called the Rangers and the Frontier Constabulary. The jail administration finally handed Gill over to Islamabad Police, who took him to the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences in Islamabad for a medical check-up.

The tension between the PTI and the PML-N continues in the Punjab and Islamabad. The Election Commission has announced the schedule for by-elections in 11 constituencies for the National Assembly in September after Speaker Raja Pervaiz Ashraf accepted the resignations of as many PTI MNAs. Interestingly, Imran Khan, who had asked his party for resignations from the National Assembly has filed nomination papers as the PTI candidate in nine constituencies across Pakistan. In Faisalabad, his papers for NA-108 were rejected by the returning officer.

A PTI leader, speaking on condition of anonymity, tells The News on Sunday, “It is a deliberate move. We believe that Khan will win all constituencies. If the speaker then accepts more resignations and by-elections are held in other constituencies, Khan will contest those too. This tactic will force the government to hold fresh elections.”

Besides increasing pressure for fresh elections, Khan’s victory will also demoralise the Pakistan Democratic Movement. “It will lay the foundation for a great victory in the next elections”, he adds.

On the other hand, the PML-N has its own strategy to counter Khan’s moves.

First, the PML-N will try to regain the Punjab once the court hears the review petition filed by former Punjab CM Hamza Shahbaz, against its order through which 10 votes cast in favour of Hamza were discarded.

Second, the PML-N will try to get Khan disqualified through the courts using the foreign/ prohibited funding ruling of the Election Commission of Pakistan.

Third, it will file a review petition against the disqualification of MNAs in the Supreme Court. Justice Ejaz ul Ahsan is the only judge who was part of the bench that gave the verdict and is still serving. The rest have retired. A new bench will therefore hear the petition.

Fourth, Nawaz Sharif may announce his return to Pakistan. This might charge the disgruntled supporters of the PML-N.

Coming days will test Imran Khan, Nawaz Sharif, the PTI and Parvez Elahi. The by-election results may provide an indication of the things to come.

The writer is a senior journalist, teacher of journalism, writer and analyst. He tweets at @BukhariMubasher

Drums of war