Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Mengal stands alone

Akhtar Mengal finds himself caught between the devil and the deep blue sea after his return to Pakistan to contest the coming elections. Both the military and the Baloch separatists – the two key stakeholders in the current conflict in the province – seem out to prevent the former chief minister and son of veteran nationalist leader Ataullah Mengal from participating in the electoral process.

Baloch militant groups have threatened all parties in Balochistan against participating in the elections as they see that such a move could jeopardise their cause for an “independent state.” They have attacked Election Commission officials as well as gatherings of political parties, including the National Party, PPP, PML-N and BNP-A, to discourage election campaigns. These militant groups believe that Mengal’s participation – more than anyone else’s – will cause more harm to their cause because of his reputation as a respected nationalist in and outside Balochistan.

As Mengal still enjoys some support among the cadres of radical nationalist groups, the militants have yet to openly target BNP-M’s men. However, tensions are escalating between the BNP-M and separatist groups, which may lead to an open confrontation soon. In an interview with an English-language daily last month, the Balochistan Liberation Front’s commander acknowledged that the Baloch have a soft spot for Akhtar Mengal, but he accused him of playing into the hands of the military.

On the other hand, the military too considers Mengal a threat to its counterinsurgency strategy and does not relish the prospect of seeing him as the next chief minister. Unlike Aslam Raisani and Jam Yousuf, as chief minister, Mengal would face severe pressure from his party cadre to take concrete steps to stop the alleged ‘kill-and-dump’ operations in Balochistan.

Many expect Shafiq Mengal, a shadowy figure accused by his opponents of running a “death squad” against Baloch nationalists, will be Akhtar Mengal’s first target if the latter comes to power. In Mengal’s absence for the past few years, his tribal and political rival Shafiq not only encroached upon Mengal’s strongholds of Khuzdar and Wadh – with the military’s support – but Shafiq’s Mussalah Difai Tanzeem also claimed responsibility for killing several BNP-M workers in the past. Akhtar Mengal has reportedly claimed in private gatherings that he is still not personally convinced about participating in the elections when ‘his people’ are being abducted and killed by security forces, but he is contesting only to contain Shafiq Mengal.

Meanwhile, Shafiq’s brother, Attaur Rahman Mengal, is pitted against Akhtar Mengal on a provincial assembly seat from Khuzdar in the coming elections. Therefore, if elected, Akhtar Mengal will go for a direct confrontation with Shafiq to regain control over his strongholds. In such a situation, however, analysts fear that the security establishment may not play the role of silent onlooker: as things stand, the nationalists accuse the establishment of having allied with Shafiq in the fight against the separatists. (Incidentally, one of the men arrested for trying to attack a recent BNP-M rally was a close aide of Shafiq.)

To compound these pressures, Akhtar Mengal also proved short of options in forming an electoral alliance with other forces. National Party leaders, especially Senator Malik Baloch, played a key role in persuading Akhtar to return and participate in the elections. The National Party believed that without BNP-M’s participation it could not stand alone against the militants. However, after Akhtar’s return, the National Party has formed an alliance with the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam instead of the BNP-M. Thus Mengal has been left with no choice but to form an alliance with his father’s old friend Mahmood Khan Achakzai’s Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party.

The PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif, who holds Akhtar Mengal in high esteem, may support him in his bid for the chief minister’s slot. However, one of the OML-N’s top leaders in Balochistan, Sanaullah Zehri, remains Mengal’s fiercest tribal and political rival. Zehri, who is unlikely to serve under the BNP-M chief, demonstrated his willingness to sabotage any alliance between the PML-N and BNP-M by naming Mengal and his father in the FIR he registered against the attack on his convoy last month. The BLA had claimed responsibility of the attack. Therefore, PML-N-Mengal agreement is unlikely, given that Nawaz would have to ditch one of his party’s influential leaders in Balochistan to do so. Meanwhile, the rift between Mengal and Zehri has widened as a consequence of the latter’s decision to support Attaur Rehman Mengal.

So while Akhtar Mengal remains the only surviving leader of his stature in Balochistan, ironically, he stands virtually alone.

This article was originally published in The News on May 9, 2013.

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