It took ANP three years to hold a public gathering in Karachi – a city where it had secured two provincial assembly seats in the 2008 elections before its downhill journey began.
Imtiaz Khan Faran, a political analyst and veteran journalist covering the party’s activities for the last two decades, believes the 12th May gathering of Awami National Party’s Sindh chapter was “a good comeback” considering the ordeal the party had gone through in the recent past.
The left-leaning ANP had been warned by the Taliban against political activity in the port city, and many of its leaders and activists were killed. “Leave Karachi, change loyalty or leave this world,” was the message from militants.
Ismail Mehsud was among many ANP activists who left the city. Those like his comrade Din Muhammad Wazir, who defied the warning, were ruthlessly murdered, he recalls. Several others opted to change loyalties, leaving the ANP confined to Mardan House – the residence of Senator Shahi Syed, president of the party’s Sindh chapter.
“What could the followers of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan – the greatest advocate of non-violence – do, other than suspending our activities?” asks Younis Buneri, the party’s provincial general secretary. “We could not have picked up guns. We are followers of Bacha Khan.”
The threat was formidable. ANP’s offices were hit, two election candidates – Bashir Jan and Amanullah Mehsud – narrowly survived bomb attacks, and one – Sadiq Zaman Khattak – was killed along with his son on his way out of a mosque in Korangi area.
According to a report published in February 2013, in some areas of the city, voters were “advised” to vote for ANP’s rivals.
When I visited the Sultanabad neighborhood in the Manghopir area of Karachi – then a Taliban bastion – the same month, a CD shop was seen open, but there were no signs of any ANP activity in the vicinity where its flags once fluttered everywhere.
An internal rift that led to the formation of the party’s Wali faction, and the anger of its own student wing did not help. Other political parties and sectarian groups began to occupy the political space that had been left open.
That is perhaps why the party decided to rehearse its May 12 public meeting, by holding a gathering to commemorate the death anniversary of Sadiq Zaman Khattak on May 9.
“Although we are still vulnerable to threats, we have decided to stand up for a cause – to serve our people,” Younis Buneri told me before the gathering. “We have organized more than 36 small gatherings since the new party setup was formed in June 2014, and soon we will hold a public meeting to commemorate the death anniversary of the martyrs of May 12 – the day when our workers had rendered sacrifices for the restoration of judiciary eight years ago.” He acknowledged the rally might also determine the party’s future after it has decided to contest the upcoming local government elections.
“The party succeeded, to a great extent, in showing its strength,” says Faran, “and the rally was seen as a moment of hope by ANP supporters who had been waiting eagerly for the party’s rebirth in Sindh.” It will be a challenge for ANP to regain its previous strongholds, he adds.
Speaking to the gathering on May 12, Shahi Syed, Younis Buneri and ANP’s central vice president Kamila Khan asked workers to get ready for the local elections. The site they chose for the rally was City Railway Colony, a neighborhood adjacent to I.I. Chundrigar Road, and not Banaras, Landhi, or Sohrab Goth – former bastions where the party has either lost grounds or still under threat.
“The space left open by ANP in Landhi has now been filled by Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) and PPP – the former has taken its voters, and the latter, its former lawmaker Amanullah Mehsud,” Faran says.
Other office bearers, including Iqbal Kakar, Khalid Khan, Ali Buneri, Noor Mehsud, and Zaman Chagarzai, also joined PPP. Gul Umar Dad Hassanzai joined the JUI-F, and several others joined PTI and Jamaat-e-Islami. Former ANP Sindh president Lala Fazal Karim and Qasim Jan defected to Begum Nasim Wali’s faction.
Pashtun journalist Wakeelur Rehman believes most ANP supporters will not be lured by its rivals, but they are disappointed in their leaders. As the demography of Karachi continues to change, he says, ANP might become the city’s second largest party.
Last month, former president and PPP co-chairman Asif Zardari visited Keamari to meet Pashtun elders and tasked former minister Akhtar Hussain Jadoon to woo Pashtun voters, including sympathizers of ANP, for the upcoming local elections polls.
Earlier, hundreds of ANP supporters attended a jirga organized by Jamaat-e-Islami to condemn the killing of pashtun men in fake police encounters. All the speeches were made in Pashto.
Analysts say the party will try rally support on the basis of ethnicity after a similar strategy worked for the MQM in the NA-246 by-polls.
Qasim Jan, who had left the party to join Begum Naseem Wali’s faction earlier this year, said even the two seats the ANP won in the 2008 elections were secured because the party played ‘the Pashtun card’ violating the principles of its founders. The move even surprised Altaf Hussain, he claimed, who had never heard the ANP speak against any ethnic community before. “They are using a similar strategy this time,” he alleged.
The ANP leadership claims otherwise. They say the 12th May rally reflects the party’s contribution to a national cause – the restoration of judiciary – which changed the political landscape of the country. And it says it is ready for a new beginning in Karachi. “The May 12 rally is a start of a new campaign,” Buneri says.
Although cautious, the party is making a desperate effort to come out of Mardan House and regroup in the Pashtun localities where it once held sway, and beyond.
The writer is a freelance journalist