A revolt within Ghotki’s most influential political feudal Mahar tribe has brought landlords face to face in confrontation before the July 23 by-election for NA-205.
Unlike a majority of the rural areas of Sindh, Ghotki has not been a happy hunting ground for the Pakistan Peoples’ Party in the recent past elections due to the dominance of the Mahars. The PPP’s decision to award a ticket to the 27-year old chieftain Sardar Muhammad Baksh Khan Mahar has, however, been a smart move precipitating the first electoral face-off between the Mahars themselves.
Last year, in the 2018 general elections, the young Sardar’s nomination papers were rejected by the Election Commission of Pakistan. And so, this will be the first time in the electoral history of Ghotki that the Mahars will be contesting against each other.
The retaliation, led by seasoned politician Ali Gohar Mahar, fielded young Ahmed Khan Mahar as their candidate. Ahmed Khan Mahar is the nephew of Muhammad Baksh. He is also the son of the late former minister Ali Muhammad Khan Mahar whose death in May opened up this MNA seat. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-led federal government and Pir Pagara-led Grand Democratic Alliance are supporting Ahmed.
While the Mahars have locked horns for Tuesday’s contest, an encounter has raised a question. Can a cornered, liberal chieftain defeat a politically sound conservative rebellion? Also, in a post-election scenario, will this contest put a strain on his chieftainship no matter what the result? People are also asking why the PPP-led Sindh government and PTI-led federal government are so desperate to win this one-seat proxy battle?
Ghotki’s political story
Ghotki is a mineral-rich district that borders India via a desert in the east and north in Punjab’s Cholistan. It is the most upper riparian district of Sindh at the River Indus.
Feudals have long dominated the scene here. This is why the vote bank has always been in their control. Along with Mahar, other feudal tribes the Lunds, Pitafis, Dharejas, Bozdars, Dahars, Chahchars have fought out electoral politics.
Because of the wildlife in the desert, Ghotki feudals have always enjoyed cordial relations with Arab rulers who regularly visit for the hunt. By virtue of Arab influence on Pakistani corridors of power, the low-profile Mahars have enjoyed a privileged standing in Sindh’s politics.
It is well-documented that in 2002 then president General Pervez Musharraf made Ali Muhammad Mahar the youngest chief minister of Sindh on the intercession of an Arab ruler.
Mahar feudals are known for hospitality and dastarkhan. On the other hand, they are also traditionally known for following some conservative rituals. For instance, at the residence of a Mahar chieftain, no one is allowed to enter the house with their shoes on except the chieftain’s family. Also common people are not allowed to sit with the chieftains on the sofa.
Upon the death of chief Ghulam Muhammad Mahar in 1995, his son Muhammad Baksh Khan Mahar was made sardar even though he was just six years old at that time. Pir Pagara Shah Mardan Shah played an influential role in the nomination of the young sardar.
Baksh is known as a liberal thinker; He is against the sofa rule and has rejected the rule that you can’t wear shoes inside the residence.
Since 2002, the Mahars have kept their separate identity alive in electoral politics in Ghotki. They formed alliances from time to time with parties or contested as independents. They have been unbeaten on NA-205 since then.
Overall, their track record shows that they have leaned towards the rulers, be they a political party or dictator.
For instance, in the 1970 elections, then chief Sardar Ghulam Muhammad Mahar contested on the seat of Muslim League (Qayyum) but lost. In 1973, he joined the PPP and became a senator.
In Zia’s era, Ghulam Muhammad became a federal minister. In 1988, he lost the elections on the ticket of the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad, a right-wing conservative alliance formed to oppose the PPP. In 1993 the Mahars rejoined the PPP and won.
In the 1995 by-election Ali Muhammad Mahar won on a PPP seat as a consensus candidate. In the 1997 general election, he again won on the PPP ticket.
In 2002, the late Ali Muhammad Mahar reportedly declined the PPP’s ticket on the advice from the powers that be and stood as an independent on both the National Assembly and Sindh Assembly seats. He was later made chief minister of Sindh.
In 2008, Ali Muhammad won on a PML-Q seat. In 2013, the Mahars again joined the PPP and won this seat.
In the 2018 elections, the Mahar family contested the elections with different strategies. For the Sindh Assembly Ali Gohar won on the GDA ticket whereas his brother Ali Nawaz won on the PPP ticket. Another brother, Ali Muhammad Mahar, won as an independent on the National Assembly seat 205 and later joined the PTI to be later made a minister in Prime Minister Imran Khan’s cabinet.
The PPP managed to win one national assembly and two provincial assembly seats. One Sindh Assembly seat was also won by a PTI candidate.
During the 2018 general elections, on NA-205, winner Ali Muhammad Khan Mahar received 71,943 votes, followed by PPP’s Ahsanullah with 41,843 votes and Abdul Qayoom of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal with 36,956 votes.
NA-205 is among the two National Assembly seats for Ghotki. The district also has four seats in the provincial assembly of Sindh.
According to the Election Commission, there are 339,699 registered voters at NA-205.
According to locals, in NA-205, it is estimated that there are around 50,000 votes for the Mahar clan and under its influence. Similarly the anti-Mahar and pro-PPP vote is around 40,000. The MMA or Jamiat-Ulama-e-Islam Fazl (JUI-F) has over 26,000 votes.
Strategies for the by-election
The PPP has sought the support of the JUIF whose candidate received the third highest votes in 2018.
Senior PPP leadership has shown a deep interest in the election campaign. Chairman Bilawal camped in the area. Minister Syed Nasir Hussain Shah resigned from office after the party assigned him the role of leading the campaign for July 23 because the code of conduct says sitting ministers cannot take part in campaigning for any candidate.
PM Imran Khan visited the Mahar family on June 19 to condole the death of former federal minister Sardar Ali Muhammad Khan Mahar. By then, the ECP had fixed the by-poll date for July 23. Later, the ECP issued a show-cause notice to the PM for visiting Ghotki and violating the code of conduct ahead of the NA-205 by-election. PM Imran denied the charge by saying he did not participate in any political programme.
According to the media, the PM offered Ahmed Khan Mahar to join the PTI but he declined saying he would join only after winning.
“This is very interesting. The Mahars are cautious with the PTI as well,” remarked Sohail Sangi, a political analyst and columnist while speaking to Samaa Digital. “The challenges the federal government is facing, especially in the form of price hikes, is making even coalition partners adopt a cautious approach.”
Tough competition ahead
According to Ghotki journalist Allah Warayo Bozdar, there will be no easy competition for either side. “In 2018 provincial assembly seats were won by Mahars but with different party affiliations,” he said.
“On paper, the situation slightly favors Muhammad Baksh because the PPP has sought the JUI-F’s support. However the Ali Gohar group is likely to get more support from its clan.”
The stakes are high for the Mahars, PPP and PTI. This could impact the future political scenario in Sindh. This by-poll could change the political demography of Ghotki district.
Last month, Bilawal met Ahmed Khan Mahar and offered he join the party. According to unconfirmed reports Bilawal also offered him the party ticket for the NA-205 by-election. They did not, it appears, reach a final agreement.
Bozdar believes that this could be because of a rift between former president Asif Zardari and Ali Gohar as they are not on the same page. “A possible future political scenario is also one of the reasons,” Bozdar wagered. “In case of any attempt by the federal government to make a forward bloc within the PPP parliamentarians in the Sindh Assembly, the Mahars’ role will be vital in its formation.”
This explains the PPP’s extraordinary interest in this by-poll. “It’s not a matter of one seat. Losing is not an option for the PPP given uneasy relations between the PPP-led Sindh government and the federal government,” said Bozdar. “It is already in hot waters. Defeat will send the wrong signal to certain quarters. Defeat can increase problems for the PPP while dealing with Islamabad. It can be problematic for maintaining discipline within party ranks.”
Sohail Sangi agreed that the by-poll is a litmus test for both Mahar groups. “The winner would turn the tables in his favour for future politics and the Mahar vote bank,” he said. If the Ali Gohar group wins, this could lead to an attempt to topple Muhammad Baksh’s chieftainship or they could run a parallel chieftainship.
“In recent history, the Mahars have always been challenging for the PPP. So the PPP also wants to neutralize them as it did other influential tribes in Sindh like the Jams and Arbabs,” Sangi said.
“A victory from a coalition partner is equally important for the PTI. It will maintain the numbers game in the national assembly for (at the time of Ali Muhammad’s demise) it was already facing a tight numbers game in the lower house. It could also be a catalyst for Islamabad to form a future strategy for Sindh.”
Zulfiqar Kunbhar is a Karachi-based multimedia journalist @zulfiqarkunbhar