Remembering Wali Khan
By Rahimullah Yusufzai

The passing away of Khan Abdul Wali Khan at the ripe old age of 89 offers an opportunity to analyze the life and times of this remarkable man. No doubt he was paid the rich tributes he rightly deserved but we in Pakistan are in the habit of praising a person and discovering their hidden qualities only after death. Wali Khan’s late father Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, an iconoclast in his own right, was referring to this trait when he observed that his Pakhtun people love their heroes once they are dead.
Wali Khan had many qualities. Unlike most politicians, he never sought power through the back door. There were temptations galore and offers were made to lure him but he made it clear time and again that he wasn’t interested. In the truest sense of the word, he could neither be bought nor cowed down. He wasn’t tempted even when his political party won enough seats in the NWFP to form the government in coalition with other parties and Wali Khan as the head of the National Awami Party (NAP), and subsequently the Awami National Party (ANP), was in a position to claim a lucrative government job. In fact, Wali Khan had become such a familiar figure as a perennial opposition leader that even the thought of him serving as prime minister or chief minister would have appeared odd. Like the late Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, he chose to do what he did best, and that was opposing dictatorial rulers and fighting for democracy. The difference between the two men was that Wali Khan, unlike the Nawabzada, had the political strength and clout to reach the corridors of power and even then he opted not to do so.
Another quality was Wali Khan’s commitment to his ideals and principles. No amount of political victimisation, coercion and temptation could make him abandon his views. For him going to jail, character assassination and financial losses were the price that principled politicians like him had to pay while upholding a stand that had been willingly taken. There was no regret or remorse because that is the way his politics had been shaped by his father Bacha Khan, who spent more than two decades of his life in prison but refused to make compromises. Like his father, Wali Khan went to jail both before independence and after Pakistan’s creation in 1947 and lost almost ten precious years of his life as a prisoner of conscience.
Wali Khan’s democratic credentials are also worth emulating. Under his leadership, the ANP regularly held party elections and discussed policies in a democratic way. Despite his stature, Wali Khan wasn’t in the habit of throwing his weight around. He also stopped contesting elections when voters in his native Charsadda rejected him and instead voted for his rival Maulana Hasan Jan in the 1990 polls. For him it was time to make way for others even though his tally of votes was quite impressive and his defeat became possible due to an anti-ANP alliance of every other political party active in Charsadda. Wali Khan also gave up his office as the ANP president and gracefully faded out of politics. His followers created a new position for him by the name of Rahbar-i-Tehrik so he could continue as patron of the ANP but he stopped playing an active political role and let his successors, Ajmal Khattak, Nasim Wali Khan and Asfandyar Wali Khan, run the party. He stopped issuing political statements and refused to interfere in party affairs. As a true democrat, he set up an example for politicians to practice what they preach.
There was no scandal, monetary or moral, involving Wali Khan. He was elected to the legislature on quite a few occasions and also remained leader of the opposition to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, probably the only Pakistani prime minister with the status and power that should go with this position. He could have made money and benefited his family and friends in so many ways but there is no instance that he used his position for self-interest. One reason that he lost the election from his Charsadda constituency was his lack of interest in solving the personal problems of voters. It was his belief that lawmakers should make laws and debate national policies in parliament instead of getting money from the government to carry out small development schemes.
However, Wali Khan was a human being and he had his shortcomings. He had succeeded his father as the leader of the Pakhtun nationalist movement and parties like the NAP, NDP and ANP that came out of its womb, and he let his family to take control once he opted to give up politics. Though poet-politician Ajmal Khattak remained the ANP president for some time, there was no doubt that the Wali Khan family continued to run the party. First it was his wife Nasim Wali Khan who controlled the ANP and in the process came to be known as the iron lady of the party. Later, eldest son Asfandyar Wali Khan took over as the party leader. It has been argued that the party rank and file would not accept anyone other than a member of the Bacha Khan family as head of the party and inheritor of his political legacy. However, political parties ought to grow on the basis of policies and performance instead of the popularity of a family or a leader. It was sad that a movement and party that had set up praiseworthy examples of democratic traditions also fell prey to the charms of dynastic politics. Though it wasn’t the ANP alone that adopted this non-democratic course, it would have been in character to resist the trend and live up to expectations of being a truly democratic and disciplined party.
Wali Khan also failed to stem the falling popularity of his party. Starting with the 1970 general elections, the party’s electoral performance has gone down or remained static. In 1970, the ANP emerged as the single largest party in the NWFP and Balochistan and was the senior partner in coalition governments with the JUI-F in both provinces. By 1988, it had to accept the position of junior partner to the PPP in the coalition government in the NWFP. In subsequent elections, it won extra seats by becoming part of electoral alliances and entered into coalitions with the IJI and PML. And by the time the 2002 elections were held, the ANP was almost wiped out by the pro-MMA wave that swept the NWFP and parts of Balochistan. In fact, the ANP became a marginal player in Balochistan politics after the parting of ways between the Pakhtun and Baloch leadership of the nationalist movement.
One could argue that the ANP’s declining popularity was due to extraneous factors and on account of manoeuvrings by the all-powerful military and the use of money and religious agendas. But political parties and their leaderships should be adapting to changed circumstances and strengthening their organisations to meet new challenges. In any case, refusal to move beyond the single-point agenda of Pakhtun nationalism at a time when other issues had become important and relevant wasn’t going to fetch more votes. A leader of Wali Khan’s caliber could have guided his party and his dedicated followers to alter priorities and maintain its primacy in electoral politics. Still this failure shouldn’t take away from Wali Khan what is his due as a great politician. He was one of the last freedom fighters in the subcontinent and his legacy will continue to inspire generations of Pakhtuns and other oppressed peoples.
(The writer is an executive editor of The News International based in Peshawar. Courtesy The News)


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.