AT first glance, Punjab House hasn’t changed. The courtyard outside is just as impeccable and the main hall inside is as grand and gilded as ever. The reception room where the ones in power meet the journalist looks no different but the man on the sofa has changed.
He sits in the same corner which Nawaz Sharif occupied last year, when he interacted with journalists once he had been disqualified and was travelling regularly to Islamabad for the court proceedings.
The latter was one of the most recognised men in the country, head of a political party and the patriarch of a political dynasty. In his place now sat Usman Buzdar, whose name few had heard before he was picked by Imran Khan to head Punjab, the largest province of Pakistan and the jewel in the Pakistani political crown, so to speak. Tabdeeli has come to Punjab House.
Three months on, the disbelief on his nomination and the scepticism about his capability hasn’t died down, despite Khan’s assurances about his choice. And the questions being thrown towards Khan’s new ‘Waseem Akram’, early Tuesday morning, were filled with the same scepticism and doubt.
The multiple power centres; the interference of others in his domain; his vision or its absence; the intransigence of the bureaucracy and the downside of being a shadow of Imran Khan — there wasn’t a hard question that affected the placidity of Buzdar.
He didn’t bother to deny obvious truths — there were power centres in Punjab and when asked about them, he simply pointed out that he was comfortable with all the people being named, be it from the PTI or from its ruling partner, the PML-Q.
Do you have to deal with JKT? He smiles and calls him ‘my senior’.
When pressed on his perceived lack of power he simply says that he is the chief minister and every file and every order ends up in his office. But once the questioning moves on to his plans for Punjab and his governance vision, the chief minister’s answers acquire a touch of vagueness. His priorities, he says, are health, education and infrastructure. The first two are comfortably part of naya Pakistan but the third is reminiscent of the purana chief minister. But beyond that, he insists that he is there to implement the party’s policy and the vision of Imran Khan. And he is not provoked by questions about how he appears to be no more than his prime minister’s postman in Punjab.
Claiming that his government will soon lay nearly multiple pieces of legislation in the provincial assembly, he admits that forming a southern Punjab province is next to impossible with the current numbers in the assembly; but he is quick to assure that his government is determined to take administrative measures to provide relief to the inhabitants of the southern districts. Apart from the administrative decisions, he says his cabinet will soon hold meetings in Multan and other cities of Punjab.
But what good will that do? How did it help Balochistan and Gwadar when then prime minister Yousuf Raza Gillani held cabinet meetings in Gwadar. It raised awareness about the area; when we hold cabinet meetings in the smaller cities, it will help people learn about these smaller places, he says.
Learning about the province is close to this chief minister’s heart who candidly admits that he has not seen much of the Punjab he is ruling. “I don’t know much about Lahore. Unless someone tells me, I wouldn’t know if it is DHA or Mall Road.” He expresses his interest in getting to know Punjab better — to travel to its various cities and understand them. When asked how much of the province he has seen, he avoids giving a clear answer and says he needs around six months to travel around and understand Punjab.
But for all his claims of being the prime minister’s man, the chief minister’s views about governance are rather ‘traditional’ — similar to what Punjab has witnessed in the past. He says he no longer has time to visit his constituency but the bureaucrat he has posted in Dera Ghazi Khan is doing a good job and hence he is not worried about his voters. When asked about his abrupt decision to change the deputy commissioner and the district police officer of Sialkot, he says that he wanted to ‘see’ the city as he hadn’t visited it before and the ‘haalat’ of the city were such that as soon as he got back into the plane, “I told them to change the DC and the DPO and there and then I also told them who the replacements would be.” The chief secretary and the IG were in the aircraft with him when he issued the orders.
As the meeting ends, the casual conversation among the small group of journalists walking out reverts to the prevailing perceptions about the chief minister. A journalist ends the discussion by commenting that “a man who ends up as chief minister despite having entered the PTI a mere two months earlier” should not be underestimated. It is a perceptive comment. For around two hours, Usman Buzdar faced a barrage of questions about his perceived lack of power and the various “centres of power” in the province he rules but he didn’t lose his cool or boast about the power he enjoys or exercises. This is unusual in our power-driven political culture. Such complete lack of ego and humility can either indicate great simplicity or great ambition. And at the moment, it is hard to tell which of the two personality traits defines CM Buzdar.
Published in Dawn, December 5th, 2018