KUBEY CHAK: In an area dominated by men and the PML-N, Firdous Ashiq Awan is a double anomaly: a woman on a directly elected seat and a PPP MNA. But in this solidly rural constituency, adjacent to Sialkot city and hugely influenced by birdarism and thanna-katchery politics, Awan has fought her way to the top in the most old fashioned of ways.
Since her maiden victory in 2008 — she entered parliament as a PML-Q MNA on a reserved seat in 2002 — Awan has adroitly meshed state resources and personal politics to establish herself as the woman to beat in NA-111.
Her home and office are in a massive complex festooned with PPP flags and banners that dwarfs every other structure in the village — the very same complex whose front houses a Nadra and passport office, a signature accomplishment of Awan’s last term.
Across the street are parked the dozen or so buses donated by former Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani that shuttle between Sialkot city and this rural constituency, a free service provided to Awan’s constituents. Painted on the sides of the buses are portraits of PPP leaders, a handy mobile advertisement for Awan.
Sui gas connections, a phenomenal number of Benazir Income Support Programme recipients, a relentless focus on accommodating her constituents, helping them navigate the fraught world of the thanna and katchery, and cannily courting the dominant Gujjar and Arain biradiris are further elements of Awan’s recipe for success.
“Bibi has done a lot of work in her constituency and she will be the hardest to beat,” said Arif Mehmood, a local journalist. “She spent a lot of time in her constituency during the last parliament, is always accessible to the people and works very, very hard.
“Getting someone caught or getting someone freed. That’s it,” is how Firdous Ashiq Awan explained the imperative of a successful politician in NA-111. It took little more than a minute to witness an illustration. A young man with tears in his eyes walked in and took a seat across Awan. Thugs had barged into his home drunkenly the night before and roughed up the young man and his family because they had voted for Awan at the last election instead of their own Gujjar biradiri candidate.
Immediately, Awan got on the phone, and for the next five minutes she spoke to police officers and sundry officials, demanding that an FIR be registered and the young man’s family and neighbourhood be protected.
Since the caretaker Punjab government had just replaced the entire district administration, Awan had to alternately coax and be severe with the new voices on the other side of the line.
Once done with working the phones, she turned to the young man and gently told him not to worry and that his family would be safe. Then she turned to an aide fervently scribbling in a notebook. “Get me a list of all the new SHOs, their names and their numbers and have it placed here,” she said, pointing towards the underside of the glass top on her desk.
“I’m not expecting a tough fight, I’m comfortable,” Awan said when asked about her re-election prospects. “For 22 years, Chaudhry Ameer Hussain (the former PML-Q strongman) just focused on the politics of biradiri, not on facilities to the people.”
“The people finally got a rescue in the form of my face. No one has to come to me through anyone, they have direct access to me and I listen to everyone,” claimed Awan.
The PML-N, which won the other three National Assembly seats in Sialkot in 2008, is not giving up without a fight in NA-111.
The party has drafted in Armughan Subhani, a scion of the once-powerful Variyo family, to challenge Awan, replacing the 2008 challenger who was deemed too weak and unlikely to win.
Subhani has never contested the seat before and is known to have preferred another Sialkot constituency, but as a Gujjar from a well-known family and claiming ancestral roots in NA-111, he believes he will give Awan a tough time on her PPP ticket.
“Just look at the bad governance, the loadshedding, the unemployment, the inflation. It’s been an awful performance by the (federal) government over the last five years. People know this and they know who is responsible,” Subhani said.
In a constituency otherwise regarded as indifferent to a candidate’s party affiliation, Subhani also believes the PML-N factor across Punjab will provide a fillip in NA-111. “Not at all, it’s not true the party doesn’t matter here. It’s an overall thing and it will have a role,” Subhani said.
Awan, though, is already covering her flanks. She has drafted in a former PML-N MPA as her running mate on a provincial assembly seat, thus helping secure the Arain vote that traditionally goes to the PML-N. And while she regards Subhani as her main rival, she is counting on the Gujjar vote being split between Subhani and Ameer Hussain, the once-powerful politician whose son may contest on a PTI ticket.
Yet, while Awan is a formidable candidate, a second victory is not a foregone conclusion. According to Arif Mehmood, the local journalist, “In a couple of weeks, if a PML-N wave materialises across Punjab, Subhani will give Firdous Ashiq Awan a very, very tough time.”
Awan herself admitted the dangers of being a personally popular politician affiliated with a desperately unpopular party in central Punjab. “Loadshedding and gas shortages will hurt, it will cause damage,” Awan said. “I can only give hope but no one has a solution.”
“What I can do, I have done: provided (gas) connections, fixed transformers, installed power lines. But if there’s nothing filling those pipelines and connections…” Awan continued, her voice trailing off.