It was an hour to midnight and in Doongi Ground, the thousands who had gathered for Nawaz Sharif’s final bid for the May 2013 elections were beginning to disperse. Yawns replaced the cheers as rumour spread that Sharif was not coming. He was exhausted from a long day of campaigning, someone said. “So are we,” said another, as families began to leave. Many had been waiting for five hours.
At forty minutes to midnight, reporters began to nudge one another as someone noticed activity on stage. They straightened their cameras as the crowds began to stir. Those who were exiting stopped in their tracks. Those on their way home turned around as word began to spread. Sharif had arrived.
The superstitious would say that Doongi Ground is the PML-N’s trump card in NA-122, but residents of Samnabad claim it was the Arains of Ichhra who saved the day
“On May 11, God willing, the Muslim League will form a government. It is not long now,” Sharif told his supporters a few minutes before his campaign ended. A deafening roar met his words and standing next to Sharif, Ayaz Sadiq could not help it. He fixed his hair, raised his chin and broke into a smile.
At that moment, in 2013, Sharif was proven correct. But in October 2015, the Pakistan Muslim League (N) and the Pakistan Tehreeki-i-Insaf found themselves once again locked in an electoral battle around Doongi Ground and its environs: as Ayaz Sadiq was de-seated amid allegations of rigging in NA-122.
Boys come to Doongi Ground to play cricket. The park is located in Samnabad, one of the seven neighbourhoods in the constituency of NA-122. There are several patches of grass but there are no flowers, benches or shades. On ordinary days, it is an unremarkable plot of land. During elections, it transforms into an arena for politicians to battle for votes.
In the campaign for the October 2015 by-elections, it was Hamza Shahbaz from the Sharif family who featured in Doongi Ground for PML-N’s grand finale. One after the other, party heavyweights took the stage to vouch for for Sadiq, but it Hamza who was the main attraction because he was speaking for Sharif.
PTI Chairman Imran Khan had addressed a public meeting in Doongi on October 4. Party campaigners say that the PTI attempted to organise a last-minute gathering in the park as the PML-N picked up steam in the final days of campaigning but the space was unavailable due to N-League’s bookings. In the 2013 general election, Imran Khan had addressed a public gathering in the park, but his campaign had ended abruptly in Ghalib Market when he fell from the stage and sustained injuries.
The superstitious would say that Doongi Ground is the PML-N’s trump card in NA-122, but residents of Samnabad claim it was the Arains of Ichhra who saved the day. “It was the biradari vote that made the difference,” says Nadeem, a party worker who ran an election office in the neighbourhood.
For Imran, an NA-122 victory may have meant vindication but for the former speaker, it was about redemption
“The PTI had begun approaching locals to open election offices almost immediately after Sadiq was de-seated”, he explains. “The [PML-N] leadership activated their contacts in the constituency after Eid with less than three weeks to the election.”
An assessment on the ground revealed that second-time voters were not too keen on voting Sadiq again. Party workers say he had made no contact since 2013. Grievances had piled up during his continued absence. More importantly, during the time the election tribunal was hearing the NA-122 case, Sadiq had managed to alienate his constituency by offering no reassurances to his contacts on the ground. “He simply disappeared,” Nadeem says.
This time, Nawaz Sharif was not going to make a last-minute appearance and the constituency was drowning in the cash Aleem Khan was spending on his campaign. Hundreds of PTI election offices had opened up – with loud music and posters bearing Imran’s face. Why wait for 2018? Voters were seeing an early opportunity for change.
And so Hamza, who has run several successful by-election campaigns for the PML-N since 2013, decided to call former MPA Mian Muhammad Nauman. In 2013, the PML-N had preferred former hockey captain and Olympian Akhtar Rasool over Nauman for the PP-148 ticket (one of the two provincial seats under NA-122) even though he had been successful in the 2008 election. Rasool lost to PTI’s Mian Aslam Iqbal, purportedly because the PML-N lost Nauman’s Arain biraderi support. This time, it was decided that keeping Nauman on board was important and after several meetings, he was coaxed into joining Sadiq’s campaign.
“Nauman joining Sardar sahib was very reassuring,” says Khalil, an MSF activist. “Nauman is popular among locals. He always listens, even if he cannot do anything [to help immediately]. Sardar sahib and Mian Nauman spent a large part of the campaign hearing the problems of the people that had not been heard before. He also brought with him support from Icchra and helped on the campaign in Garhi Shahu.”
Some voters wanted safe drinking water, others demanded schools in their neighborhoods. Residents had been complaining about dysfunctional transformers and the sewerage system. Ayaz Sadiq was told in no uncertain terms that addressing day-to-day issues was essential for goodwill with voters.
Meanwhile, the PTI’s campaign consisted of large public gatherings featuring the party chairman. Aleem’s financial support meant that the music never stopped at the PTI election offices.
“Our job was to maintain robust activity around our offices,” says Sajid, who also ran an election office. “Aleem Khan told us that we should not worry about expenses and he was true to his word. Every day, the bills at election offices piled higher but he never hesitated from paying them.” He believes many who opened election offices on Aleem’s cash pocketed the money, kept the music loud and voted Sadiq. “Sardar sahib is from the ruling party. He was their best bet after the elections.”
As for Ayaz Sadiq, he appeared as a changed man after his re-election. For Imran, an NA-122 victory may have meant vindication but for the former speaker, it was about redemption.
“The victory margin shows how close it could have been,” says Bilal, a party worker who hosted Sadiq at his house after his victory. “Sardar sahib visited several houses and met scores of people and thanked them for their support. He had not done so after the 2013 election. The voters gave him a tough time so perhaps he knows better now.”
Nauman’s support has earned him the post of NA-122’s caretaker as Sadiq prepares to return to the National Assembly. Nauman has confirmed to newsmen that he will be looking after the constituency’s affairs for Sadiq. This will include, “maintaining contact with voters and opening offices in union councils to hear everyday problems.”
On his part, Hamza has offered N-League supporters direct access to his secretary. “He told us that we could call his secretary any time and Hamza would call a meeting to address our issues,” Bilal says.
In 2018, NA-122 will have transformed because of the number of voters registered there. The October by-election was based on the 2013 voter list with 347,762 registered voters. According to the Election Commission of Pakistan, nearly 162,501 new voters have registered in NA-122 since 2013 elections and will be eligible to vote in the 2018 general election.
These new voters will bring fresh challenges for the constituency and the political parties seeking to woo it. Accusations of rigging, perhaps, will not yield much political mileage for the PTI next time. As for the PML-N, one wonders if it has learnt its lessons from the whole episode.
Aima Mansoor is a journalist based in Lahore and tweets at @aimamk