by Tony Cross
Article published on the 2008-05-11 Latest update 2008-05-14 14:41 TU
Commuters pass by a PML-Q billboard - with Chaudhry Shujat Hussain depicted in the centre - in Gujrat
( Photo: AFP )
Gujrat, Pakistan, 15 February 2008
In a small room at the back of a vast, white building in the centre of the Punjab city of Gujrat, Chaudhry Shujat Hussain, former Interior Minister, president of the outgoing government party and leader of its group in the National Assembly, meets visiting journalists, party activists and family members.
A large, hawk-faced man, with a broad, bitter-looking mouth, he shows signs of age. He wears sunglasses indoors, presumably to protect sensitive eyes, and speaks in a faltering voice.
He says that his local party workers told him to attend to national party duties rather than campaign in his own seat, so confident are they that he will be re-elected.
The confidence flows from the Chaudhry family’s notorious hold on the town and its surrounding district.
Chaudhry Shujat Hussain’s brother, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, is also an MP and expects to be prime minister if his party wins. Chaudhry Shufaat Hussein, who is also in the room, is the district administrator, the nazim. He didn’t get a National Assembly seat because he is the youngest brother, he explains. Pervaiz Elahi’s son, Moonis, is standing for a seat in Lahore.
“People like us, they keep electing us. What’s wrong with that?” says Shufaat. He puts that support down to the family's good administration of the town.
Shujat’s son, Salik (he’s in the room, too) explains that the family’s influence goes back to before the creation of Pakistan.
His great-grandfather went into politics before partition, while his great-uncle looked after the business side by running a handloom factory in India.
For the next generation, Salik’s grandfather, Zahur Elahi, carried on the political tradition. That was when the family’s hostility to the PPP seems to have begun. Zahur became an Amnesty International "prisoner of conscience" when he was jailed when Benazir Bhutto’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was prime minister.
Zahur was later murdered. The Chaudhrys blame the Bhuttos for that, too.
Benazir’s brother, Murtaza, was running a radical armed group at the time, what Shujat calls “the first terrorist organization in this region”. The Chaudhrys say that he claimed responsibility for the killing the same evening. Murtaza himself later fell out with his sister and was gunned down near his home in mysterious circumstances, a killing that his daughter, Fatima, blames on her aunt.
But Shujat insists there’s no bitterness. As Interior Minister in the 1990s he says he refused to bend the law so as to get her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, extradited to Britain. He says he went so far as to allow Benazir and Zardari to stay together when they were jailed under Nawaz Sharif.
After this February's election there could be a coalition between the two parties. “If they win, they should co-operate. If we win, we should co-operate,” says Shujat.
There’s widespread suspicion that the governing party will resort to electoral fraud as it--and all the other major parties--are alleged to have done in the past.
There are no such plans, says Shujat: “Definitely we will accept the results, whatever they are because I know that there will be no rigging. There are two types of rigging – one is the individual rigging and one state rigging, and I know that the state is not going to rig the election.”
Outside, night falls. Police and party workers lounge on the building’s veranda. Suddenly the street outside is filled with the sound of revving and honking motorbikes and chanting voices. A gang of about a dozen youths sweeps into the compound, waving PML-Q flags and shouting party slogans.
They twist and turn their motorbikes as if they were Arab stallions, chant and chatter in front of the house, then head back out to race around the streets in support of the Chaundhry’s cause.