ISLAMABAD - The dissident PML-N lawmakers who had recently formed Junoobi Punjab Sooba Mahaz decided on Wednesday to merge it with Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and contest the 2018 general elections under the PTI banner.

The leadership of two sides reached an agreement a day earlier and made their merger official at a joint press conference in Islamabad — a major development ahead of the elections that is being seen as a big blow to the ruling PML-N in South Punjab.

According to the MoU signed by PTI and JPSM, both the sides agreed that the division of Punjab on administrative grounds had become indispensable for sustainable socio-economic development, better governance and fair distribution of resources.

On April 9, an estranged group of PML-N lawmakers, including MNAs and MPAs announced to form the JPSM while quitting their party to strive for the formation of South Punjab province. The group was led by MNA Makhdoom Khusro Bakhtiar. It made former caretaker prime minister Mir Balakh Sher Mazari as its chairman. They also announced to quit the assemblies; most of them, however, have yet to tender their resignations.

Under the MoU, a committee, including chairman, president and secretary general of the JPSM, will be formed that will give its recommendations to remove hurdles in the way of creation of South Punjab province.

Under the deal, PTI will initiate the process of creation of the new province within 100 days if it forms the next government.

PTI also issued a list of 20 leaders of the JPSM joining the party. An office-bearer of the media department said the list included five MNAs, 11 member of Punjab Assembly and four former lawmakers belonging to the area.  All five MNAs belonged to PML-N. Most of members of the Punjab Assembly also hailed from the same party. Most of these lawmakers remained part of PPP, PML-Q and PTI in the past also.

The list included  Khusro Bakhtiar (Rahim Yar Khan), Tariq Bashir Cheema (Bahawalnagar), Tahir Iqbal Chaudhry (Vehari), Rana Qasim Noon (Multan), Makhdoomzada Basit Bokhari (Muzaffargarh), Sardar Nasrullah Khan Dreshak (Rajanpur), Samiullah Chaudhry (Bahawalpur), Asghar Ali Shah (PP-202), Syed Iftikhar Hussain Gilani (Bahawalpur), Alamdar Ababs Qureshi (Muzaffargarh), Zeeshan Gurmani (Muzaffargarh), Ghulam Murtaza Raheem Khar (Muzaffargarh),  Sardar Khan Muhammad Jatoi (Muzaffargarh), Muhammad Jamil Shah (Khanewel, Karam Dad Wahla (Khanewal), Sardar Qaisar Abbas Magsi (Layyah), Sardar Muhammad Khan Leghari (DG Khan), Maqsood Khan Leghari (DG Khan), Sardar Fateh Muhamad Khan Buzdar (DG Khan)and Ch Muhammad Aslam Gujjar (PP-245).

Addressing a joint press conference along with PTI Chairman Imran Khan, JPSM President Khusro Bakhtiar responded to his critics for forming the group and then their decision to merge it with PTI. He said the merger took place after PTI included the formation of the new province in their election manifesto. “We presented our case of the new province on April 9 and within one month it became possible that the party which would create a new Pakistan made creation of South Punjab as a new province part of its manifesto,” he added.

He said there was a need to bring a balance in the provincial units. Bakhtiar hoped with the creation of the new province, the provincial units would become stronger and the country would make progress.

Criticising the ruling PLM-N, he said, injustices were made to South Punjab and the party which ruled the province for 35 years ignored the federation as they wanted to keep South as part of Punjab only to rule it. “The people of South Punjab do not want to live as slaves,” he asserted.

He said they had ray of hope only in the form of Imran Khan who had struggled for 22 years. “If we could not implement 11-point reforms agenda of PTI, which also included the demand for formation of South Punjab as a new province, Pakistan will lose its potential to grow, he remarked. We had no other option except merger with PTI. Tell me what other option we had,” he questioned.

Bakhtiar also questioned what the PPP which remained in power for many times did for South Punjab. He also talked about problems of the area and said no one resolved these issues.

Imran Khan welcomed the leadership of JPSM, including former caretaker prime minister Mir Balakh Sher Mazari into PTI fold. “I want to make it clear that demand for South Punjab as a separate province is not my political move, but my conviction. We had been holding discussion over the issue within the party for several years,” he said.

Imran Khan said his party would expedite the process of creation of South Punjab province and Fata’s merger with KP after coming to power. “This will be our cause,” he affirmed.

Imran Khan said PTI wanted devolution of power in real terms by creating new federating units, adding 18th Constitutional Amendment devolved powers to the provinces, but the provinces did not further devolve these to local government representatives.

“Concentration of power in Lahore has generated a deep sense of deprivation in the people of South Punjab. East Pakistan separated due to such policies,” he said. He announced the party would form a committee to prepare a complete plan to undertake this task.

Imran suggested reopening of the Asghar Khan case to identify ‘aliens’. In fact, aliens were those who gave money to Nawaz Sharif, Shehbaz Sharif and Javed Hashmi, he averred.