November Issue 2015

By | News & Politics | Published 4 years ago

Umerkot is not a typical electoral district in Sindh. Rajesh Malhi, whose brother Mahesh was running for general councillor in the local government elections from the district as an independent candidate, says, “Umerkot is a district where over half the registered voters belong to the Hindu community.” But this, he complains, did not throw up any new candidates, with all the parties, including new entrant PTI, relying on the same old, tired faces. Rajesh says that while it was expected that the established political parties would opt for career politicians with no record of working for the welfare of the community, they expected better from the PTI, which ended up fielding a candidate who is 80 years old.

“This,” says Rajesh, “is why we decided to field a candidate who represented the youth and agreed on my brother.” The All-Sindh Bheel Panchayat, an organisation of scheduled caste Hindus, pledged their support to Mahesh Kumar, as did the Sindh United Front. But he had to face a lot of pressure from influential people and threatening calls from other candidates, all of whom wanted Mahesh to withdraw from the race. However, he remained undeterred by the threats. He says, “People from unknown numbers kept calling me and insisted that I  withdraw as I would divide their vote.”

Such strong-arm tactics, used by forces aligned with the PPP, PML-F and other local alliances, were not restricted to Umerkot. Accusations were pouring in from all over Sindh, with the ruling PPP being named in most of them.

The PPP was accused of using state machinery to promote its candidates and the police and other government departments to pressurise others into withdrawing their nomination papers in favour of the PPP.

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Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, deputy chairman Senate and secretary general of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazlur Rehman group (JUI-F), visited Sukkur and held a press conference where he accused the PPP of pre-poll rigging by transferring and posting officials of its choice and appointing its own people as returning officers and presiding officers. Mumtaz Bhutto of the Sindh United Front, meanwhile, lashed out at the PPP for registering FIRs against political opponents and rival candidates. He referred to a recent incident in which the  home of Sardar Khan Jarwar, a candidate for a municipal committee chairmanship and convener of the Awami Ittehad in Shahdadkot, was raided by four DSPs and 12 SHOs in 12 police vehicles.

But the PPP itself was not spared either. In Shikarpur, an attack on the family of a candidate, Amanullah Abro, killed his mother while his father was seriously injured. In Khairpur, Ghulam Qadir Chandio and Rafiq Chandio, both of whom were union council candidates, were convicted by an anti-terrorism court for an alleged attack on policemen four years ago.

To counter the perceived unfair advantage of the PPP, in various districts political parties formed anti-PPP alliances. In Shahdadkot, all the parties, including the Jamaat-e-Islami, JUI-F, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) PML-N, Jamaat Ahle Sunnat and even the militant Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ), who have rechristened themselves as the Rah-e-Haq Party, joined hands against the PPP and PML-F by forming the Shahdadpur Awami Ittehad. A similar alliance emerged in some other areas as well. In Khairpur, one such alliance against the PPP even included the PML-F.

Additionally, the PPP was also mired in infighting in many districts, as the local leadership, party veterans and the senior leadership often had conflicting interests and supported different prospective candidates. As a result, various groups associated with the PPP ended up running against each other. Most of the parliamentarians and influential party members wanted to get their brothers and sons elected as members of district councils so that they would be eligible to run for the district chairmanship.

Senior PPP leaders like Faryal Talpur and Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah were trying to accommodate newcomers but veterans like Agha Siraj Durrani, Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani and Sardar Ahmed Chandio were campaigning for their brothers, Manzur Wassan for his son-in-law, Nisar Khuhro for his daughter and the Mehar family for their own relatives. Sardar Khan Chandio had to face candidates fielded by Nadir Magsi. Similarly, Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani’s brother had to contest against a candidate backed by Gul Muhammad Jhakrani. In Sukkur, Khurshid Shah’s son was facing Islamuddin Shiekh’s son but they came to a  settlement with the former going for the post of district chairman and the latter contesting for a seat on the municipal committee in Sukkur. Both have been elected unopposed.

The first phase of the local bodies elections were scheduled for October 31 in eight districts of Northern Sindh: Sukkur, Khairpur, Ghotki, Larkana, Shikarpur, Jacobabad, Kashmore and Qamber Shahdadkot. What was striking about the campaign was how it had, once again, been dominated by the presence of a strong feudal hierarchy, the influence of powerful clans and families and the utter neglect shown towards the interests of the public by the mainstream political parties.

To a question about the lack of political alternatives to the PPP and PML-F  in this region, Faisal Memon, a social activist who frequently travels to these areas as part of his community work with Aurat Foundation, responds, “None of the mainstream political parties has been willing to take the pain to undertake political activities at the grassroots level. These areas are left at the mercy of these powerful electables, mostly tribal chieftains and heads of clans. It is more convenient to get political support of a few individuals and give them a free reign in their areas of influence.”

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He continued, “Sadly, these are the territories which have the highest rate of ‘honour’ killings, intra-tribal violence and organised crimes against Hindus, which has resulted in their migration from Pakistan and displacement to other cities.”

Urban-centric politics and a resultant lack of interest in the rural areas have made this whole political exercise a farce which deprives the public of genuine representation. This state of affairs has created a political void which is being filled by right-wing religious parties, who are the only force organised enough to make inroads in the fiefdoms of entrenched forces.

The growing strength of these parties can be seen in the rising number of religious seminaries, most of which are owned and run by the JUI-F. They serve as a breeding ground for radical ideas and provide a sanctuary to hardcore sectarian militant groups like the ASWJ.

To make matters worse, the political parties have taken two steps backwards by depriving women and minorities of a chance to directly contest seats allocated to them. Instead, these seats are to be filled by nominations from the party leadership. Such candidates invariably have no constituency of their own and hence are unable to spend development funds where they are most needed.

“I hate it when media coverage of the local bodies elections is dominated by headlines about people being elected unopposed. It makes the whole process a joke” says Faisal Shah, a political worker.

Amar Sindhu, an academic and activist from Hyderabad, in a consultative forum organised by the Democracy Training Institute and the Sindh’s Women Parliamentary Caucus, summed it succinctly when she said, “Political parties must understand that their bid to make the people powerless through these tactics will eventually make the political parties themselves powerless.”

This article was originally published in Newsline’s November 2015 issue.

Ali Arqam main domain is Karachi: Its politics, security and law and order