23 December 2011
Islamabad, Once a godforsaken land, southern Punjab suddenly appeared on the political chessboard about a year ago.
It has now become a major battleground for the local heavyweights as well as the main political parties of the country with their eyes on the next general elections.
Never before, the region and its downtrodden people had received the attention as today, helped, of course, by the vibrant media. After all, the backward Seraiki belt, as the agrarian region is known, returns 50 representatives to the National Assembly.
Historically, the landed gentry have represented the area in the national and provincial assemblies. Political families
thrived on captive vote and so always controlled the outcome of elections. But things started changing with the advent of unfettered media.
Because of the 24/7 television channels, the political parties have not only to fish for heavyweights but have to seek votes, instead of demanding them, and to think and talk about the political rights and development needs of the oppressed farming community of the area.
It is in this background that the ruling PPP is planning to move a bill in the Parliament for a separate Seraiki province.
Its rival PML-N which rules Punjab, from which the Seraiki province would be carved out, is making special efforts to strengthen its not so healthy electoral presence in the southern belt.
It has extended its yellow cab and small loans schemes, so far concentrated on the mainland Punjab, to the Seraiki people also.
Last weekend, Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif laid the foundation stone of Ghazi Medical College and Ghazi University during his visit to Dera Ghazi Khan. The medical college alone would cost Rs2 billion. Leaders of its break-away faction PML-Q, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and Chaudhry Pervez Elahi also are seen making regular trips to the area.
Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf of Imran Khan is the latest to enter the arena with some significant success. Last Monday, some 30 notables mainly from southern belt joined PTI. Analysts consider it a major breakthrough for the PTI which until recently was being dismissed as a “one-man show”.
Politics in the southern districts of Punjab is all about political families and not political parties, according to a senior bureaucrat hailing from a constituency of the area, NA-177 Muzaffargarh-II, represented by Hina Rabbani Khar.
Unlike the politically-developed central Punjab, the Seraiki peasants are uneducated and bound to rural culture of serfdom.
Here people only follow established political families bothering least about whether their landlord or leader of a certain tribe is contesting election on PPP or PML-N ticket.
Take for example Ms Khar, who was close to former prime minister Shaukat Aziz in previous government but in 2008 elections, her family decided to go with the PPP, and she again won the seat and now is serving as foreign minister of the country.
The civil servant, who requested not to be named, pointed out the presence of right wing elements like Malik Ishaq, firebrand leader of the banned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, who, with support in the Seraike belt, could call the shots in next elections.
According to a local journalist, the PTI made inroads into the politics of the belt with the joining of Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Jahangir Tareen, Sikandar Bosan and Leghari brothers who have their own vote banks.
Despite that it was still uncertain if PTI would be able to dent PPP and PML-Q in the region.
In the current National Assembly, the PPP and PML-Q have an overwhelming representation from the southern districts of Punjab. Together PPP and PML-Q`s representatives outnumber the PML-N in the region: they have 36 seats compared to PML-N`s 12.
As of today, it looks certain the PPP and PML-Q are going into next general elections in an electoral alliance as both the sides have been saying so repeatedly since May this year when they joined hands in the centre. In this scenario, the ruling coalition is better placed to maintain its lead in the region over the PML-N and the PTI.
But lot depends upon how the issue of Seraiki province shapes up before next general elections. This week during an informal chat with media persons when asked, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said his government would bring into play all the institutions including Parliament to give identity to Seraiki people.
Last Sunday, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain also chaired a meeting of its lawmakers hailing from southern belt of the province calling upon the PPP leadership in unequivocal terms to bring a constitutional amendment in the National Assembly or the Senate for the formation of a new province in the south.
Though, without the PML-N support, it is impossible to pass such an amendment because a two-third majority is needed from the concerned province for creation of new province from within its boundaries, the PML-Q leadership believes while highlighting the issue, they have the chance to sideline the PML-N in southern belt.
Therefore, it will be interesting to see how the politics shapes up in the region in coming months before next elections, which, if are held on time, will be falling in March or April 2013.