COMMENT: Nawaz Sharif’s Balochistan visit —Malik Siraj Akbar
COMMENT: Nawaz Sharif’s Balochistan visit —Malik Siraj Akbar
Sharif has surely won the confidence of key Baloch tribal elders by now and will continue to do so in the coming days but he still has a long way to go to win the hearts and minds of the disillusioned Baloch people with his deeds
Mian Mohammad Nawaz Sharif, the head of Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), did not return home empty-handed from his two-day long visit to the volatile Balochistan province. The twice-elected prime minister notched ample scores to become confident to achieve the ‘required run rate’ before the next general elections or, say, the mid-term polls. The biggest achievement of Sharif was the decision of two highly influential Baloch to join his party.
First, Sardar Sanullah Zehri, the extremely powerful chief of Jhalawan tribe and the provincial minister for services and general administration, stunned everyone with his utterly unpredictable decision to join the PML-N. Zehri had been regarded as a diehard Baloch nationalist. He was a member of the landmark Baloch Jirga that was convened by the Khan of Kalat Mir Suleman Dawood in September 2006. In that particular event, which was organised one month after the killing of Nawab Mohammad Akbar Bugti, enraged Baloch leaders announced to move the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague against the State of Pakistan for violating the territorial integrity of the Kalat State (now Balochistan). Ironically, the Kalat Jirga was also attended by Nawab Zulfiqar Ali Magsi, the incumbent governor of Balochistan and Nawab Aslam Raisani, the current chief minister.
Zehri left the National Party (NP) of which he was the senior vice president on the issue of boycott of the general elections of February 2008. Having founded his own one-man National Party Parliamentarians, Zehri won the elections and joined the Raisani government as a minister and softened his nationalistic rhetoric. Now he becomes the most influential Baloch tribal elder to join a centrist party. If the PPP boasts of enjoying the support of the chief of Sarawan, Nawab Aslam Raisani, the PML-N, on the other hand, has now got reasons to be proud of having managed to bring the chief of Jhalawan into its camp.
Second, former corps commander and governor Balochistan, Abdul Qadir Baloch, also announced along with Zehri to join the PML-N. Qadir is the only Baloch in history to serve as a corps commander in the country’s Punjabi-dominated military. After retirement from the army, he was appointed as the governor of Balochistan but was soon removed from that key position because differences broke out between him and former president Pervez Musharraf on the latter’s antagonistic Balochistan policy. When he decided to jump into politics, General (retd) Qadir told this scribe, “[Nawab Akbar] Bugti is my hero and his vision is my vision” (Daily Times, July 1, 2007).
Qadir contested the general elections of 2008 for a seat of the National Assembly from NA-271 Panjgur-Kharan-Washuk. According to the initial results, he was declared victorious but the results were immediately altered against him, presumably on the instructions of Pervez Musharraf.
Sanaullah Zehri and General Qadir’s decision to join the PML-N is remarkably reassuring for Sharif and his party. Nawabzada Jangiz Marri, son of veteran Baloch nationalist leader Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri, is another member of a much-respected political family, who is supporting the PML-N in Balochistan. While Jangiz Marri staunchly supports the policies of PML-N, his father and brothers, ironically, are the biggest supporters of armed struggle for an independent Balochistan. Despite ideological differences between the father and son, Jangiz Marri will still manage to get elected from his native Kohlu or Quetta city if he is overwhelmingly backed by the Pakistan Muslim League and the ‘invisible powers’ opposed to Zardari but sympathetic to the PML-N.
The junior Marri may not be very popular among the nationalist supporters of his father who support an independent Balochistan; his presence in the PML-N will at least give Sharif an opportunity to claim that he enjoys the support of a member of the most powerful Baloch tribe, the Marris.
Another significant individual visited and taken into confidence by Sharif during his visit was Nawabzada Talal Akbar Bugti, the head of the Jamhoori Watan Party (JWP). The former prime minister strongly condemned the killing of Nawab Bugti — a man, as Sharif put it, who was willing to die for the preservation of the constitution of Pakistan. Insisting that practical measures not mere assurances were urgently needed to mitigate the Baloch anguish, he called for a judicial inquiry into Nawab Bugti’s murder. He rightly opined that Baloch would not be satisfied until the murderers of Nawab Bugti were brought to justice. Contact between Sharif and the son of late Nawab Akbar Bugti is expected to lead to development of mutual trust and political cooperation in future. As contacts between them increase, the ruling PPP will confront more detractors.
That done, the PML-N has almost gained support among the Marris and Bugtis. As far as the Mengals are concerned, Sanaullah Zehri is most likely to be pitted against a Mengal candidate of the Balochistan National Party (BNP-Mengal) in his native Khuzdar district. Political pundits believe Sharif has learnt nothing from history. He is once again intentionally or unintentionally endeavouring to divide the Baloch tribes and prepare to rule in the future. Many believe that he deliberately snubbed Nawab Khair Baksh Marri, Sardar Attaullah Mengal and Nawabzada Bramdagh Bugti, the chief of the Baloch Republican Party. Thus, he has made up his mind to ignore the more prominent members of these families or areas and take the relatively insignificant ones in his team.
Why did Sanaullah Zehri choose to join the PML? According to a senior political expert, Zehri is desperate to become the next chief minister of Balochistan. After all, most of his contemporaries, such as Nawab Zulfiqar Ali Magsi, Jan Mohammad Jamali, Sardar Akhtar Mengal, Jam Mohammad Yousaf and Nawab Aslam Raisani have already served in the coveted position. In order to materialise his dream, Zehri understandably needs the backing of a strong federalist party. Another bitter truth about Balochistan is the fact that the office of chief minister was never awarded on the basis of strong political credentials. Tribal influence has normally been a defining benchmark for the election of the chief minister.
More leaders and tribal elders are likely to join the ranks of the PML-N as the dust on the country’s uncertain political scenario settles. Except for the nationalists, no political group in Balochistan has ideological foundations. For example, PML-N and PPP are normally dominated by powerful tribal individuals who keep changing their political loyalties with the change in every government. Another two relevant political forces, the Jamiat-i-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) and the Balochistan National Party (BNP-Awami), which approximately clinch around 30 percent of the seats in the Balochistan Assembly, habitually become part of every coalition government.
Sharif’s visit has at least drawn the sketch of the future government in Balochistan. The next government, just like the previous one led by the PML-Q, is certain to comprise PML-N (consisting of defectors from the PPP), JUI, BNP and some nationalist parties like the Awami National Party, NP and JWP.
Despite all these recent gains, Sharif’s approval ratings are still very low among the Baloch. They often complain that the former prime minister did not call for a long march to condemn the military operation in Balochistan, as was done for the reinstatement of the Chief Justice of Pakistan. The situation in Balochistan did not improve during the PPP government, they grumble, as the number of missing persons increased and more Baloch leaders, though less prominent than Akbar Bugti and Balaach Marri, were target killed. In the meanwhile, the PML-N adopted the role of a friendly opposition and did not take a harsh stance on Balochistan.
Sharif has surely won the confidence of key Baloch tribal elders by now and will continue to do so in the coming days but he still has a long way to go to win the hearts and minds of the disillusioned Baloch people with his deeds. His trip to the country’s poorest province would have definitely impressed more people if he had visited the families of the missing persons and the internally displaced persons. The trip did not include any such activities nor did it provide Sharif a chance to meet the masses of Balochistan due to ‘security reasons’. His first trip in the last 12 years was, sadly, confined to drawing room discussions with the political and tribal elite only.
The writer is a staff member and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org