Politics and ‘naya’ Pakistan

November 13, 2018

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

THE conversation between Jehangir Tareen, Pervez Elahi and others leaked over the weekend was more a storm in a teacup than real news.

Who doesn’t know that Punjab operates with a weak chief minister and multiple power centres? And that the Chaudhries of Gujrat are one power centre, and an important one at that? And given that Tareen was in their party once, it’s no surprise that they would be talking to him about their differences with Chaudhry Sarwar.

But the leaked conversation has highlighted the real story from Punjab — news stories following the controversy explained that the complaints of the PML-Q’s Tariq Bashir Cheema were about the interference of the governor in ‘transfers and postings’.

However, the PTI government wasn’t going to be doing the politics of transfers and postings. That is what we had been promised. And this is the real story of Punjab — the PTI’s struggle to balance its reform agenda (which, according to some, paid dividends in KP) and power politics.

The PTI may have formed the government in Punjab but its victory in the province is far from complete.

Imran Khan wants to deliver local government and an independent, autonomous police force to Punjab but those around him fear that in the process, the party may lose its tenuous grip on the province. For the PTI may have formed the government in Punjab but its victory in the province is far from complete. And this is not just about the numbers in the provincial assembly where the PTI and PML-N are neck and neck; it’s about how the party will be able to maintain these seats and win more in the next election.

July was more a case of the PML-N losing the election in Punjab than the PTI winning it. Nawaz Sharif’s friction with the military, his efforts to up the ante and the conflict that followed (such as the disqualifications, the accountability campaign and the electables’ departure) sent the message that the party was in no position to win — despite this, the PTI just about managed to form a government in Lahore (with the help of allies).

And no one can guarantee the PTI can repeat this ‘act’ come the next election because the PML-N may or may not be facing a similar assault from the powers that be. This is evident to not just the outsiders but also the PTI. And this, perceived by the PML-N, might just end up being the reason the reform agenda is slowed down, or worse.

Take the issue of development funds. Imran Khan has consistently argued that development funds should be spent through local governments and not parliamentarians. This is a principle he tried to establish in KP also while his party was in power from 2008 to 2013 and was to be implemented in Punjab too post-2018.

The resolve lasted but a couple of months.

According to news reports, recently the prime minister agreed (after a meeting with the parliamentary party) that the MPA development fund in Punjab would be renewed. Skittish parliamentarians, it is said, convinced Khan that without generous spending of state funds, they were in danger of losing the war to the PML-N, despite having won the 2018 battle.

For Pakistani politicians, winning hearts and minds (and hopefully votes come election day) cannot happen without doling out state funds for facilities that should traditionally be the headache of the local government. And in the case of development funds, this purani soch won over the dreams of naya Pakistan.

And some feel that the purani thinking may also prevail as far as the local government system is concerned.

Here too, the PTI is said to be struggling between its idealism and boring, old political challenges. The current local government system is dominated by the PML-N and its cronies. And many in Punjab, in government at present, are not sure if the party would be able to win the local level elections if a new local government system is introduced. What if the PML-N (which continues to be far more election-ready than the PTI) sweeps the local government set-up? This fear is left unsaid; publicly, we are told that the party is figuring out the finer details of the new system, and its senior leadership points out that it may not have the numbers to get the law passed in the face of a big and hostile opposition.

Some go so far as to say that the purana fears have already out-argued the naya idea of empowered local governments for the time being. That for the time being, the old system of parliamentarians spending on local affairs should continue till there is greater confidence that the elections at the local level will yield a naya Pakistani.

It is hard to pooh-pooh such accounts because politicians have never been comfortable handing over spending and thana-katchehry matters to the local level. Even Pervez Musharraf failed at this. Local government was one of his ‘achievements’ but the moment he held general elections, devolution was rolled back.

Hence, it is not hard to believe that if such a debate is going on in the PTI, its proponents will eventually win over Khan because this is how political parties function. Power or rather winning power — more than once — takes precedence over reform. After all, Khan first opted for this principle when he chose ‘electables’ to win the elections.

No wonder then that little has been heard of police reforms, another PTI mantra. Since the fiasco called Pakpattan, the transfer of IG of Punjab (which followed a little later) and the subsequent resignation of Nasir Durrani from the Punjab Police Reforms Commission, the party seems to have put the issue aside. When asked, government officials mutter that it will happen but have few details to offer. Perhaps, here too the exigencies of power have convinced Khan to wait a while to build naya Pakistan.

But the challenge will be to balance the needs of power with the reform agenda, instead of picking one over to the other. To abandon the latter entirely will not help Khan in the long run. If he doesn’t lay down a brick or two of naya Pakistan, he might not continue to win elections in a purana Punjab.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, November 13th, 2018