It takes 15 WhatsApp messages and at least 30 calls to Sushil Malani before this correspondent gets to speak to his uncle, Mahesh Kumar Malani, to schedule an interview with him. “Call at 11 am tomorrow,” Malani senior said. At the appointed hour, in a voice resonating with pride, he explained why he was unable to take my calls. “So many people, they are coming from all parts of my constituency to congratulate me,” he said.
Felicitations for Malani began pouring in ever since it was announced that he had won from the National Assembly constituency of Tharparkar II, Sindh, in the Pakistan general election of July 26. The National Assembly is Pakistan’s equivalent of the Indian Lok Sabha. Malani’s triumph was historic – he is the first non-Muslim to have been elected to the National Assembly from a general seat through a direct election. He contested as a candidate of the Pakistan Peoples Party.
From 2002, Pakistan has had a joint electorate system in which non-Muslims vote and can contest from any of its 272 National Assembly constituencies. In addition, there are 10 seats reserved for non-Muslims in the National Assembly, which are assigned to political parties in proportion to the number of general seats they win, subject to the minimum qualification of polling 5% of the total votes cast. Political parties decide who occupies the non-Muslim seats allocated to them.
Until the July 26 election, non-Muslims in the National Assembly had all been nominated. This is why the English daily, The News, gushed over Malani’s triumph. “This is an important win in a time when extremism is on the rise and violation of the rights of non-Muslims increasingly rampant,” it said.
Malani perceived his historic triumph not as a glimmer in the darkness of religious extremism that shrouds Pakistan, but as a shining symbol of his country’s ethos. “I want to tell the international media that my victory shows that there is inter-faith harmony and humanity in Pakistan,” Malani said.
His paeans to Pakistan’s religious harmony conceal the wafer-thin majority the Hindus enjoy in Tharparkar II.
Malani polled 19,379 more votes than his nearest rival, Arbab Zakaullah, of the Grand Democratic Alliance, which had an electoral understanding with Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf in Sindh. In the fray were 12 other candidates, all Muslims, who together polled 28,696 votes.
Theoretically, it can be argued that Hindus consolidated behind Malani and Muslim votes split, consequently giving Malani the seat. This point was made by Tehreek-e-Insaf’s Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, a nominated Hindu member of the outgoing National Assembly. “Had I stood, Hindu votes would have been divided and Malani would not have won,” he said. Vankwani said that he had told Khan that he wished to stand from the Tharparkar seat that was given to the Grand Democratic Alliance.
But elections are rarely just about arithmetic. Chemistry, lineage, experience and resources play a role as well. On all these counts, Malani scores quite high. “From the 1980s, my family has had links with Benazir Bhutto and [her] Pakistan Peoples Party,” he said.
Mahesh Malani’s elder brother Jagdish Malani was a member of the Sindh Provincial Assembly. Another brother, Motiram Malani, had been a member of the National Assembly. When Jagdish Malani died in a road accident in 1993, Mahesh Malani resigned as a pediatrician in a government hospital in Hyderabad, Pakistan, and returned to Tharparkar to enter politics.
As in India, dynasticism is a vital factor in politics. Even Zakaullah, whom Malani vanquished, is a cousin of Arbab Ghulam Rahim, Sindh’s chief minister between 2004 and 2007. Like most political dynasties anywhere, Malani belongs to a wealthy family that is engaged in business and agriculture. He is a Brahmin in a constituency in which “70% of Hindus are [from the] Scheduled Caste”.
To disabuse me of the salience ascribed to identity, caste or religion, Malani said, “People vote for a candidate because of the party he represents and the work he has done.”
Malani said he got an opportunity to work for the people when he was elected to the Sindh Provincial Assembly from the general seat of Tharparkar I in 2013. “I had reverse osmosis plants set up in Tharparkar, where the water is brackish,” he said. “They voted for me for my work, even Muslims did. The politics in my constituency was not driven by religion.”
Tharparkar II constituency did indeed snub the Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek and Tehreek Labaik parties, whose two candidates could muster just 3,025 votes.
But Malani’s historic victory has not clinched the debate whether a joint or separate electorate is more beneficial for Pakistan’s 3.5% non-Muslims. The 1973 Constitution had provided for a joint electorate. But this provision was amended in 1975 to give six seats to non-Muslims, whom the National Assembly members were to elect.
Separate electorate vs joint electorate
In 1978, President General Zia-ul-Haq adopted a separate electorate system. Non-Muslims were assigned 10 reserved seats in the National Assembly – four each for Hindus and Christians, one for Ahmadis and one for other non-Muslim communities. Hindus could only vote for Hindu candidates, whose constituency was the entire country. The top four candidates were elected to the National Assembly.
In 2002, President Pervez Musharraf switched from separate to joint electorates. Pakistan voted under this system on July 26. Since non-Muslims have a slim chance of getting elected from a general seat, Musharraf reserved, as before, 10 seats for non-Muslims in the National Assembly, all of whom political parties nominate. Critics say these members lack independence as they are dependent on the political parties who nominated them.
Malani supports the joint electorate system. “A candidate had to travel to all places in the country where his community had a presence for campaigning [under the separate electorate system],” he said. “A victorious non-Muslim candidate lacked in prestige and authority. He was known as alhaida [separate] member of the National Assembly.”
Unlike Tharparkar, though, no other constituency in Pakistan has Hindus in majority. There are 11 districts that have 50,000 or more Hindus, and 14 districts that have 50,000 or more Christians.
It can be argued that it is possible to consolidate non-Muslim voters and compel political parties to serve their interests. But not only is this a gargantuan task, it is impossible that every non-Muslim would cast their vote, let alone do it for one party.
These truisms have Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s Vankwani float a suggestion. “Non-Muslims should have two votes – one to be cast for the general seat and one for the reserved seats, whose occupants would enjoy the mandate of their community,” he said. The double vote system will promote national consciousness and yet compel non-Muslim representatives to represent their communities’ interests. “Imran Khan has promised to me that he would introduce the dual voting system,” he added.
The dual-voting system has the advantage that non-Muslim representatives, dependent on the votes of their communities, can better balance their demands with those of their party leaderships. It will also improve the political chances of subaltern groups among non-Muslims. For instance, none of the 10 Hindus in the outgoing National Assembly belonged to the Scheduled Caste, which, at least anecdotally, is the most numerous among the Hindu community. They neither have the resources nor are networked with the parties to be considered for the reserved seats.
A non-Muslim representative elected through the dual voting system will not feel as constrained as one elected from a general seat, from speaking of their community’s interest lest it polarises Muslims and non-Muslims in their constituency.
This compulsion becomes palpable during the conversation with Malani. “I have never, ever felt discriminated [against],” he said. “We celebrate Eid and Diwali together. They do not even slaughter cows openly, in respect of our sentiments.”
But what about events he has glossed over – unconscionable incidents of Hindu women being abducted, forcibly converted to Islam and married to Muslim men. “These incidents are on the decline and occur in rural areas,” said Malani. “Some conversions are also voluntary.”
Will he raise this issue in the National Assembly? “I have raised it in the past,” Malani said, a fact testified by media reports on his comments.
This correspondent wanted to quiz him on discriminatory laws in Pakistan, such as the one on blasphemy, but the line went dead. Malani did not respond to 10 messages and another 25 calls.
A Pakistani journalist friend explained Malani’s silence. “They fear saying the same things to Indian journalists as they do to Pakistanis,” he said.
These remarks reminded me of my experience of writing a weekly column for Pakistan’s Daily Times. It had some people on social media question my loyalty to India for being critical of the country in the Pakistani media. Truth always falters at the India-Pakistan border, doubly so for the minorities, as true for Indians as it is for Malani.
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