Sadiq Sanjrani, the new Senate chairman, is seen at the Balochistan Assembly in Quetta, Pakistan. Photo: Reuters/ Naseer Ahmed

A week after becoming the first Senate chairperson from Balochistan, Sadiq Sanjrani called a press conference in the provincial capital of Quetta to clarify that he was “not backed by the establishment” – a common euphemism for Pakistan’s all-powerful Army.

“Senators from across Pakistan were in favor of me being elected as the chairperson of the Upper House of Parliament,” Sanjrani said in the press conference on March 18. But he reserved special appreciation for the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the country’s two largest opposition parties that had agreed to back him for the post.

The little-known politician’s victory was a significant blow to the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party, which has been put in a tough spot by a number of corruption cases against its leadership.

Sanjrani received support to prevent the ruling PML-N candidate Zafar-ul-Haq from being elected as Senate chairperson, leaders from both PTI and PPP told Asia Times. While they deny any “active involvement of the Army”, leaders from both parties concede they had tacit support from the establishment, given the move directly opposed the PML-N.

A senior journalist who attended a briefing by the Chief of Army Staff last month for an exclusive contingent of media personnel also said the Army leadership appreciated Sanjrani getting the position.

“The Army chief was nonchalantly dismissive of Nawaz Sharif and in turn the ruling party in the briefing,” the journalist told Asia Times. “So it’s natural that any move that comes at the expense of the PML-N will serve their purpose.”

For many locals it is a ‘no-brainer’ that Sanjrani’s election was backed by the Army. But they are more perturbed by the common assertion that the election of the first-ever Senate leader from Balochistan is a move designed to help the province.

He can’t help Balochistan: Mama Qadeer

“[Sanjrani] doesn’t represent us at all,” activist Abdul Qadeer Baloch, who led the long march for Balochistan’s thousands of missing people in 2015, told Asia Times.

“For those that are under the delusion that a Senate chairman from Balochistan can address the province’s problems, let me tell them that a president or prime minister from Balochistan can’t resolve it either,” added Baloch, who is fondly known as ‘Mama Qadeer’. “Our issues – especially that of the missing persons and human rights breaches – are in the hands of the Army and Intelligence agencies alone.”

Adnan Aamir, the editor of Balochistan Voices, says it’s not just the Baloch nationalists who are alleging the election of the Senate chair was orchestrated by the Army. “I would say that the way Sadiq Sanjrani got elected to the top slot in Senate out of nowhere can’t be possible without some help,” he wrote to Asia Times.

“The PPP and PTI did not vote for him for the love of Balochistan. It was just used as a pretext in a larger game to sideline PML-N.”

Activists claim that no representation from Balochistan would be able to address the human rights abuses orchestrated by security agencies or the political alienation at the hand of the civilian governments. And, many are casting doubt over the credibility of Sanjrani himself.

“Sanjrani’s presence in one of the powerful democratic seats of Pakistan has already been much under the radar. While many have considered it as an outer body’s conspired efforts, there is much that this young senator from Nok Kundi has to prove,” digital journalist Maleeha Mengal said.

“His meeting with PTI chairman [Imran Khan] and PPP’s [Asif Ali] Zardari [in the immediate aftermath of the Senate chairperson election] is questionable, for instance. Sanjrani’s [success] was possible due to [Balochistan Chief Minister Abdul Qudoos] Bizenjo ’s vital role in persuading the opposition to support independent candidates,” she said.

‘Not a good omen’

Mengal believes Sanjrani’s role in the upcoming general elections could be crucial in determining if he even has the province’s best interests at heart. “It is important to see how Sanjrani balances his independent role without joining or influencing any political party while giving equality and protection to the people of Balochistan, especially in the CPEC [China Pakistan Economic Corridor] projects,” she said.

Aamir said the Senate chairperson would have his work cut out. “Sadiq Sanjrani might take some steps to respond to the barrage of criticism against him. However, in the bigger picture, the election of someone from Balochistan in such a controversial manner is not a good omen,” he said.

“In Balochistan, the coalition of rebel members of PML-N along with PML-Q have certainly gained mileage. The way this group has scored political victories in toppling the Zehri government, securing six Senate seats and its own Senate chairman, it hints that they will be a force to reckon with in the upcoming general elections. This group looks likely to remain in power even after the elections,” Aamir said.

Even so, Abdul Qadeer Baloch maintains that ‘no good can come out’ of Sanjrani’s election.

“What has happened is wrong, because when the three biggest parties can’t get one of their members elected [as the Senate chairperson] it is naturally an outside force that is behind the independent candidate,” he said. “And hence [Sanjrani], an Army stooge, will be at the mercy of those forces and will do as he is told,” he said, adding that there was no reason to believe that the situation in the volatile province was any closer to changing.

“The Balochistan issue hasn’t been resolved for over 70 years. Why should we expect that to change anytime soon?”