Red or dead

The Mardan case has split the ANP at a crucial time ahead of the elections

Red or dead
A group of politicians, including clerics from religious parties, mostly from Mardan city, has called for the release of those who were arrested in the Mashal Khan case. At a rally on Friday April 27, leaders from the Muttahida Ulema Council demanded the release of the suspects, saying that they were innocent. Local leaders from almost all parties except the Awami National Party took part in the procession.

This is one development in the Mashal Khan case which has exposed fault lines. One particularly interesting one is based on district lines. Mashal’s university, Abdul Wali Khan University, is located in Mardan city while he himself hailed from Swabi district. The people involved in the case are believed to be from Mardan. Mardan is also the home district for most of the university staff, especially the administration and junior ranks. They were in one way or the other given jobs there when the university was set up in 2009. The ANP came to power in the province in 2008.

The Mashal Khan case, it appears, has pitted the left wing of the ANP—ideologically postmodernist professionals from academia and NGOs who are strong advocates and cling to a secularist point of view—against its right wingers who draw from the propertied and business classes and tend to lean more towards mass and electoral politics. This is unfamiliar turf for the party as it has dragged it into a covert war within the ranks, but has also opened a gulf between the districts of Mardan and Swabi, both party strongholds.

Events took a turn when members from the ANP and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-F were able to block a move from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf to offer Fateha (prayers/condolences). When the resolution was tabled in the district assembly, councilors from the ANP, JUI-F, Pakistan Peoples Party and other parties set it aside. It became clear that District Mayor Hemayatullah had prevailed instead of party policy.

Party left wingers such as Bushra Gohar and Afrasiab Khattak were vocal. ANP president Asfandyar Wali Khan said in an address, subsequently: “No culprit, no matter who he is, should be spared punishment. Even if my son is involved ... he must be hanged.”

The ANP has made a name for itself standing up against the Taliban at whose hands it has suffered. But this does not mean that the party does not have right wing and conservative elements. Before the 2008 elections, for example, the party was also joined by businessmen like Haji Hidayatullah, a former member of the Jamaat-e-Islami. Remember when the ANP’s senior leader and former federal minister Ghulam Ahmed Bilour announced a $100,000 bounty on the head of the Egyptian Nakoula Basseley Nakoula in 2012. (In 2012 during violent demonstrations, his properties, including a cinema, were set ablaze in Peshawar.) And in February 2015, Bilour announced $200,000 in head money for a satirical magazine’s owner.

The ANP is already facing a tough competition from right-leaning and centrist parties such as the JI and PTI. It has produced some results in Mardan and Swabi districts in the last local bodies elections. However, it was just reaching a strong position ahead of the 2018 elections when the Mardan case changed the landscape.

Since 1970, the ANP has historically formed governments in coalition with the JUI, PPP, Pakistan Muslim League and individual members of all colours and stripes in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. While its postmodernist thinkers have strongly adhered to the party’s secular image, the right has always been ready to sacrifice principles whenever the opportunity arises. And much as with any other party’s leadership, the ANP’s wants to keep both wings in its orbit of influence, even if they vacillate and on occasion side with other groups.

A coalition of right wing and centrist parties in Mardan district might produce a challenging front for ANP party leaders, especially for provincial president and former chief minister Haider Khan Hoti. If Hemayatullah resigns from the party, for example, he could become a strong contender for Hoti’s position, a development that party leaders are not likely to welcome. The liberal-left has made a comeback after a long time. It wants to seize the opportunity and build on this: The Mashal Khan case is a litmus test.

The reality is, however, that most of the liberal-left intelligentsia are not in a position to contest the elections as they are not among the ‘electables.’ The party has to consider electoral politics for which it has to depend on electable elites. This unusual torsion gives an edge to ANP’s opponents (PTI, JI and JUI). The party will need to do much soul-searching if it wants to produce some results in the coming elections.

The writer is an independent researcher