The cost of Jhang by-poll
By Shafiq Awan
Ronald Reagan once said politics is supposed to be “the second-oldest profession ... I have come to realise that it bears a very close resemblance to the first”.
Just as the first profession welcomes everybody – whether a gentleman or a cad, a lawmaker or a law breaker, a rich man or a poor beggar, a labourer or an industrialist, an intellectual or an illiterate – politics is also following a similar rule. In fact, it is a step ahead. The Punjab government’s recent handshake with the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) for the Jhang by-polls may have been aimed at mustering a few thousands votes, but it has also achieved something else: the administration’s move has pumped life into the banned outfit in Punjab, especially Jhang. Members of the organisation are moving freely and being welcomed and accommodated by provincial law-enforcement agencies, police stations and other government offices. All were previously no-go areas for the outfit. When Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah led a rally, along with the banned outfit, in Jhang, what message did he want to send to the administration? Obviously, the PML-N government in the province has a new ally and the support would not be limited to by-polls. The administration was clearly directed to accommodate the SSP. Why does the law minister always find himself in the middle of such controversies? While the Sharifs have bigwigs in their fold, Sanaullah is an easy prey. The perception is he often crosses the limits to please the bosses who order him. His treatment of the Interior Ministry’s warning over a possible terrorist attack in Lahore to the Punjab Home Department is an example. Commenting on the information, Sanaullah said he could not trust the Interior Ministry. Had he taken the information seriously, the loss in the Model Town blast could have been limited, if not averted altogether. There have been reports that suspected terrorists Talib alias Qiamat and Siddiq alias Jappo – who were released a few weeks ago – were also kept at the Model Town office of the Special Intelligence Agency that was targeted.
A PML-N grey head disclosed that the SSP leaders met the party leadership in Raiwind, as they wanted some guarantees for long-lasting relations. Defending the meeting, he said it was a political strategy to have a new political ally: the argument was while an organisation could be banned, the thousands of followers and voters could not. He said the party leadership was only convincing the followers of the organisation to vote for its candidate. But he conceded the process was being routed through the banned outfit’s leadership. He said even during the local government elections, the SSP would be a PML-N ally – “whenever and wherever required”. In the next general elections, the PML-N would adjust seats with the organisation in Jhang. He dispelled the impression that the PML-N government decided not to confront the SSP after an assassination attempt on Nawaz Sharif in 1997. Then prime minister, narrowly escaped an attempt on his life when a powerful bomb exploded on a bridge he was due to use. The SSP was accused of planting the bomb, but no proper action was taken against the outfit. The PML-N official admitted that the Sharifs were careful, as during their last regime, Gujranwala SSP Ashraf Marth was assassinated by SSP assassin Riaz Basra. Marth was married to then Punjab Assembly speaker Chaudhry Pervez Elahi’s sister and was the brother-in-law of then interior minister Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain. Then SSP chief Azam Tariq was charged and arrested for involvement in Marth’s murder. Ironically, the case was not pursued, and Azam Tariq was released. A senior government official, defending ties with the SSP, said orders had been given to “deal with the outfit with a soft hand ... they are to be introduced in mainstream politics”. But is it the job of government officials?
The organisation is even being consulted for demarcation of constituencies and other arrangements for the next local government elections. While the officer refused comment, he did not deny it. The Punjab government’s blatant support to the SSP could further widen the sectarian gulf in the province. The other sects feel insecure and deprived. They say they have been shocked by the Punjab government’s support for the group. The recent violence at an Eid Miladun Nabi procession in Faisalabad by a subsidiary of the SSP and Punjab government’s view of the case speaks a lot about the relationship between the outfit and the PML-N. The party may win the Jhang by-poll, but at what cost?