The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has finally extended its wing to Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) under the leadership of former prime minister and People’s Party’s top leader Barrister Sultan Mahmood Chaudhary, who joined the PTI after a long intra-party feud over the premiership. It is the third largest mainstream political party, which has entered into AJK and eying the upcoming local assembly elections which are due next year in July.
Pakistan’s national parties have made a footprint in AJK’s politics over a long time. The history of PPP in AJK goes back to 1976 when the then prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto travelled to Muzaffarabad and formed the Pakistan People’s Party. Stalwarts of the then local politics such as Sardar Ibrahim Khan and K.H. Khursheed joined the PPP. The Pakistan Muslim League-N too opened up its chapter in 2010 when Nawaz Sharif reluctantly dashed to Muzaffarabad to inaugurate its party with former prime minister Raja Farooq Haider as its regional head.
Although a few years ago some of the local political activists, particularly young and aspiring political actors, had established the PTI in the region, Barrister Sultan Mahmood’s addition to it has immense potential to turn it into a major political force. He is notorious for frequent swapping of his political loyalties to gain power, but he is also largely known as one of the rare politicians who has not indulged in any financial corruption even during his premiership from 1996-2001.
He comes from an affluent political family of the Mirpuri Jatts who migrated to the United Kingdom en masse in the 1960s. Until the1980s, Jatts played an obsequious role in the power corridors, but their momentous economic success in the United Kingdom created a collective consciousness about their identity and social status back home. Therefore, Mirpuri origin British diaspora started heavily influencing the AJK’s politics in many ways.
Initially, they used to fund their relatives in the elections, but subsequently they directly joined politics, thanks to their dual nationality. Now all major political parties and candidates get monetary support from the Kashmiri diaspora of Mirpuri origin. To make it further lucrative, a new assembly seat was created for overseas Kashmiris in the mid 1980s. This move also generated a lot of enthusiasm among the diaspora settled in different parts of the world, particularly in the Britain, to play an active role in politics.
Of all the overseas Kashmiris, those settled in Britain dictate the AJK’s politics. Barrister Sultan Mahmood has successfully used his family connection in Britain to further his political objectives since 1980s. The Kashmir issue is one of the major strums, which has consistently been used to enhance his image at domestic politics and gather support from the conservative civilian-military bureaucracy which loves to play a zero-sum game with India over Kashmir.
Recently, two events were organised by the warring Mirpuri leaders of the People’s Party Azad Kashmir chapter led by Barrister Sultan Mahmood and Chaudhary Abdul Majeed in the United Kingdom. The two are at loggerheads since long and hardly leave any stone unturned to undermine each other, of course under the pretext to promote the Kashmir cause. People’s Party Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was also invited by both the groups, but factional rift and nationalists Kashmiri youth forced Bilawal to cut short his speech and leave the stage in the million march organised by Sultan Mahmood.
To counter Barrister Sultan, Prime Minister Chaudhary Abdul Majeed also arranged another event in Birmingham, which was called off by the police citing security reasons as the UK-based Kashmiri groups were adamant not to allow Bilawal Bhutto to speak over Kashmir.
The wealthy and ambitious politicians from the Mirpur region have overpowered the entire AJK’s political landscape and made AJK’s politics an enterprise only meant for the rich and well-connected people and tribe. Common people, particularly youth, cannot even think about entering into politics. The PTI has at least introduced a number of new faces in the political sphere.
Unlike Pakistan, most of the youth in AJK lives in rural constituencies where the biradari politics is the currency. Literacy rate stands at 72 per cent, which is higher than other provinces. Young people are highly frustrated with the current state of affairs due to rampant corruption, nepotism and inept state machinery.
Pakistani politicians and establishment put people of AJK at the mercy of their local cronies. For instance, the current AJK government is being run by Asif Zardari’s younger sister Faryal Talpur. Chaudhary Majeed has virtually become a dummy prime minister who is not even allowed to appoint his own advisor or transfer an official. It is widely believed that the entire administration dance to the tunes of Zardari House.
Likewise, the PML-N AJK is not free to make decisions on its own. Now, Barrister Sultan has taken the PTI to AJK where people are quite sensitive about their identity and political autonomy due to contested nature of the area between India and Pakistan. In this context, Imran Khan has pledged that decisions about AJK will be made in Muzaffarabad and not in Bani Gala.
The prevailing master-client relationship has caused huge rift among the educated middle class and ruling elite, which is strictly controlled by the mainstream political parties and the establishment. This frustration has generated immense void for the pro-independence parties, who want to make the entire Jammu and Kashmir an independent and sovereign state.
There are several issues which hardly come up in the mainstream media for discussion. Recently, Raja Farooq Haider claimed that AJK had never seen free and fair elections since 1970. All elections were either rigged or pre-polling rigging was engineered. The AJK’s Election Commissioner is short of necessary administrative and financial powers to conduct transparent elections.
The twelve refugee’s seats, mostly located in Punjab, are becoming a major source of political discard between the people of AJK and the federal government. Strangely, there is no discussion about holding free and fair elections in AJK. Additionally, since 1992, local bodies’ elections were not held. Developmental funds and jobs are being distributed through the member assembly, who in most cases accommodates his kin or party workers to strengthen his political base at the cost of merit.
Youth comprises over 60 per cent of the AJK’s population and job market is not able to cater even for five percent of them at present. Relations between Islamabad and Muzaffarabad are highly lopsided and need a drastic change to make them respectable and acceptable to both parties. But the current ruling and opposition parties do not pay any attention to these issues of public interest.
If the PTI takes up the above-mentioned issues, it might draw a huge number of people, including activists from the nationalist parties, to its fold. Anti-incumbency factor can help it build on current government’s failures. However, it has to accommodate into its rank people from the middle class so that it could look like a moderate and democratic party, and not a club of the wealthy people.
A number of political activists and second tier leaders of other parties seem quite interested to join the PTI if change and transparency become its motto. The PTI has chances to establish its solid network in AJK before next elections and Barrister Sultan can be a valuable asset for it if he gets a free hand from the Bani Gala to run day-to-day affairs independently.