ONE would think that the relentless heat and a last-minute announcement would culminate in a mediocre turnout at a political rally. But even as the mercury soared past 40 degrees Celsius in Mianwali on Sunday, exuberant hordes showed up at the Tariq Hockey Stadium to dance, chant and catch a glimpse of their leader, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf chairman Imran Khan.
The music was catchy and the sound system crisp. Chilled soft drinks kept in large troughs with ice were a balm to men standing under the piercing sun. No women supporters were present, however, which one party leader explained was due to lack of space for a dedicated area for them.
“We requested only males because when there is rush, there is a possibility that there will be disrespectful or bad behaviour towards women,” said PTI’s Ataullah Shadikhel.
Emotions and excitement ran high in the field. “We have accepted Imran Khan as prime minister,” said one supporter, Waheed Khan. “The upcoming election is just a formality.”
Another young supporter, Bilal Khan, said: “I used to support other parties before, but when I found out that those leaders stole all of the country’s wealth, I voted for Imran.”
Like Bilal, many of Khan’s supporters at the rally were young men who voted for the first time in 2013.
Dozens of participants echoed this sentiment, saying they support Khan’s ideology and are convinced 2018 will be his year. And even though majority are new voters, many participants coming in caravans from across the district said they feel immense pride that Khan’s first election victory was from here and vowed to vote him to victory again on this NA-95 seat in July.
The love for Khan here is palpable but not surprising. It is, after all, the hometown of the cricketing legend; the city where his paternal grandfather, Dr Azeem Khan Niazi, built the family’s ancestral home and the place where his extended relatives still reside. In the opening of his speech, Khan talked about why he kicked off his campaign here and acknowledged that it was the solitary 2002 Mianwali victory which bolstered his confidence. “If I hadn’t won from here in 2002, God knows if I would have remained in politics,” he said.
While Khan enjoys overwhelming support in his hometown as seen in previous elections, his decision to launch his own party in 1996 is interesting, especially given that members of the Pashtun Niazi tribe which his father and uncles hail from have largely supported PML-N in that area.
Ironically, even today, the family home ‘Azeem Manzil’ functions partially as a local office for the PML-N as Khan’s estranged first cousin, PML-N leader Inamullah Khan Niazi has the property.
Instead of pictures of Khan, his ancestral home bears posters with faces of Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif. Inside the drawing room, old photos of Nawaz and other family members adorn the walls. There is none of Khan.
The rift runs deep and has left his paternal cousins quite bitter. Inamullah, an N-league supporter for nearly two decades, briefly joined the PTI before the 2013 election but quit and went back to the PML-N when he was snubbed by Khan during ticket distribution. Khan gave the ticket to Amjad Ali Khan, the son of Sher Afghan Khan Niazi who enjoyed considerable support in Mianwali. The snub cost Khan, as Inamullah and his brothers — one of whom is married to Khan’s sister — parted ways with him and heaped scorn on him in the media.
Khan was reluctant to criticise his cousins, and in a 2013 interview said: “What should I say? It is a family matter. They are my brothers, Hafizullah and Saeedullah, and their contributions to PTI are great. Inamullah was new to the party… but I did [what I thought was fair].”
The numbers in this constituency have gradually gone in Khan’s favour. In 2002, Khan won his Mianwali seat, NA-71, with 66,737 votes, just a few thousand more than the runner-up PML-Q candidate; in 2013, he won the same seat by bagging 133,224 votes — an astounding 59,851 votes more than the runner-up PML-N candidate. However, Khan gave up the seat after the general election, and the by-election was won by a PML-N candidate, indicating that voters in Mianwali vote for specific candidates over political parties.
This year, Khan and PTI’s district leaders are confident he will win NA-95 (Mianwali I), and that Amjad will bag NA-96 (Mianwali II). PTI has also fielded four candidates for provincial assembly seats PP-85, PP-86, PP-87 and PP-88 in Mianwali. However, even these candidates were not finalised without controversy.
Seated on the stage in wait of Khan on the day of the rally, some PTI leaders admitted they were disappointed over ticket distribution.
“I was hoping to get a ticket for PP-86 but it was given to Aminullah Khan Niazi,” said Amir Khan Niazi. “I am disappointed but I believe in Imran Khan and will continue to support him.”
When asked to share his thoughts on the PTI protesters demanding redistribution of tickets outside Banigala, Amir said, “They are not from Mianwali. They are from Multan. I’m not so upset with Imran that I will leave him if he doesn’t give me a ticket.”
Another local leader Jamal Ahsan Khan said he too is disappointed about not being awarded a ticket. “I bagged 32,000 votes for PP-43 in the last election but I was not awarded a ticket this time,” he said. “The PTI candidate who was awarded the ticket instead is my worst enemy, but still I am here for Imran Khan. He is the son of the soil.”
Moments before Khan took the stage, PTI leaders took the microphone one by one and reminded the crowd how important Mianwali is in Khan’s success story.
“You were the first to recognise Imran Khan, don’t forget that!” chanted one leader.
As Khan made his entrance around 6pm, the crowd went wild. Chants of “Prime Minister Imran Khan” echoed through the stadium. It was difficult to tell how Khan felt at that moment. He took a seat next to party leaders on stage and smiled every few minutes, not speaking much, but shaking hands with excited members of his party.
After the rally, a dinner was hosted in Khan’s honour by his cousin and head of security Ahmed Khan Niazi. At his uncle’s home, Khan and senior party leaders were served lamb (dumba) roast, salted beef (namkeen gosht), mutton pakoras, desi murghi, mutton biryani and Kalabaghi halwa.
Soon after, Khan sped off to PAF Base M.M. Alam to board a private jet for Islamabad to prepare for his next rally.
By this time, the stadium had cleared out and PTI supporters — some of whom had listened to Khan’s speech from the rooftops of nearby shops — were making their way home and chanting: “This time, the prime minister will be from Mianwali.”
Published in Dawn, June 26th, 2018