Thursday, 6 July 2017

Azam Hoti: The Machiavelli of Mardan

It was in the early years of the Musharraf Government that the elderly Ajmal Khattak, acolyte of Bacha Khan, polymath and former president of the Awami National Party (ANP), sat in a press conference and thundered, “Accountability must be enforced even if it is someone’s brother.” Sitting not far from him was Naseem Wali Khan, provincial president of the ANP and sister to Azam Hoti, the ‘brother’ being referred to. It was an insult that would not be forgiven, and soon enough, Ajmal Khattak was expelled from the party to which he had dedicated his entire life. This story is one of the many that would earn Hoti his reputation. A highly polarising figure, Hoti was to his supporters a loyal Pashtun nationalist who bolstered the party in his home district and helped forge alliances that rehabilitated it. To his many detractors, however, he was one part of the Azam-Naseem duo, an unaccountable and manipulative politician whose only claim to office was family connections. Other than Wali and Asfandyar Khan, the son and grandson of Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the ideologue of the party (then known as the National Awami Party – NAP), it is Azam Hoti who has cast a long shadow over its image.


 Hoti’s father, Ameer Muhammad Khan, was a Khudai Khidmatgar (servant of God) and a minor tribal chief from the Hoti area of Mardan. He was also a close companion of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (better known as Bacha Khan) and served as a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). It was Azam’s father who arranged his daughter Naseem’s marriage to Ghaffar Khan’s widowed son, Wali Khan. It was this marriage that would give his son access to the party rank and file and transform the family’s future. Pakistan’s post-independence era was marked by a brutal crackdown on any expression of Pashtun nationalism. It was in this scenario of the changing nature of Pashtun identity politics and socio-economic dynamics that Azam Hoti joined the Pakistan army. He was commissioned in 1967 and became a captain in the Armoured Corps, serving in the 1971 war between Pakistan and India. His career in the military was cut short due to the increasingly violent rivalry between the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the NAP (the successor to the political wing of the Khudai Khidmatgars) which culminated in the infamous ‘Liaquat Bagh’ massacre and resulted in the death of dozens of their activists. Fleeing the crackdown that ensued, Azam Hoti remained in exile in Kabul from 1973 to 1979. It was during this period that he served as salaar (commander) of the Pakhtun Zalmay. By many accounts this was a difficult time for him and he had little by way of financial support. Little of any worth was achieved during his time in exile and he returned to Pakistan as part of an amnesty deal with Zia-ul-Haq. He was awarded a party ticket for the 1988 election, but was defeated by the local PPP candidate. In 1989 the former NAP, now retitled ANP, formed an alliance with the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) of Nawaz Sharif. This proved fortuitous for Azam as many senior leaders quit in protest of the alliance, thereby removing any serious challenges within the party.


And allied closely with his sister Naseem Wali Khan, who had taken over the party’s provincial presidency following the resignation of Afzal Khan, the Azam-Naseem duo were increasingly seen as untouchable within the party. The 1990 elections proved a watershed moment for Hoti: he was elected a member of the National Assembly from Mardan. But this victory was not without controversy. There were widespread allegations of ‘ticket selling’ in the election, and many critics within the party placed the blame on Azam. In the 1993 election Hoti lost his seat at the hands of the PPP, only to be rewarded with a Senate ticket by the party. And in 1997 he would again stage a comeback, winning his National Assembly seat, and becoming the ANP’s sole federal minister in Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s new cabinet. Appointed to the powerful and lucrative Ministry of Communication for a second time, Hoti found himself facing a barrage of criticism. He was accused of being promoted as minister out-of-turn at the expense of many more experienced colleagues, and additionally, there were allegations of a large-scale misappropriation of funds.

His reluctant resignation from the ministry, following the collapse of the ANP-PML (Pakistan Muslim League) alliance, would be followed by further bad news for Azam Hoti. After Pervez Musharraf took over, Hoti was charged and convicted on two counts of corruption by the National Accountability Bureau. One conviction was on account of contracts handed out on the Lahore-Peshawar motorway, and the other regarding assets ‘disproportionate to income.’ The ANP’s rout in the 2002 election caused anger within the party, as many cited the politics of the Azam-Naseem duo as the cause of defeat. To save himself, Azam sided with party leader Asfandyar Wali Khan against his own sister. The end of the Azam-Naseem alliance revived some hope within the party that it would return to its ideological roots. However, this hope proved to be short-lived, as Azam’s support did not come without a price. Still in prison at the time he entered the new alliance, he was inexplicably released on ‘health grounds’ by the military government. This would again lead to another series of allegations that his support for the party leader was in exchange for a deal securing his release. Hoti’s release came at a providential time, as the ANP was staging a comeback and Azam held the chair of the ticket-awarding parliamentary committee. The party won its biggest-ever electoral victory in the 2008 election, and for the first time since 1947, the post of chief minister of the province was conceded to the ANP. It was widely expected that party veterans Bashir Bilour or Mian Iftikhar would be chosen for the post. But at this crucial moment, Azam Hoti was alleged to have used his influence to impose his son Ameer Hoti as chief minister. His son’s time as chief minister was marked by a wave of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) attacks in the province and against the ANP. It was also marked by a multitude of development projects in Azam Hoti’s home district, but his Machiavellian reputation persisted and allegations of nepotism and corruption continued to be hurled against him. Yet, despite these changes, he was again elected as a Senator on an ANP ticket in 2012. By 2013, the ANP was crippled by TTP attacks in the run-up to the general elections, and it also faced a tirade of attacks on its record of governance by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI). The PTI’s victory and the ANP’s rout in the 2013 election led to another family split. This time it was due to anger within his family at Azam Hoti’s personal life and his fourth marriage. In a reversal of circumstances from a decade earlier, Azam Hoti’s son allied with Asfandyar Wali Khan against his father. Hoti’s humiliating ouster from the party ranks would mark the end of his political career as a self-styled ‘Machiavelli of Mardan,’ but not without leaving an indelible imprint on the party he remained associated with throughout his political life. Azam Hoti died on April 15 in Peshawar. He was 69 years old.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s June 2015 issue.
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