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Naya Pakistan: The changing change

Updated January 01, 2019

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Imran Khan spoke and spoke and spoke through the year; first as an opposition leader and then as the prime minister. To walk the talk is likely to be part of his plan for 2019.
Imran Khan spoke and spoke and spoke through the year; first as an opposition leader and then as the prime minister. To walk the talk is likely to be part of his plan for 2019.

THE year 2018 lived up to its billing of being the year of change. In August, Imran Khan was sworn in as the prime minister. The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) won the right to set up a government in Islamabad and it retained power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. For a province that has been sending governments packing every election, a party winning twice in succession was a feat worthy in itself.

The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) — seeking to modify itself in its own unknown if not mysterious ways — managed to do well in interior Sindh. However, there was a drastic change in the old rural-urban equation in the province. As its counter in the urban and increasingly uneasy Karachi, the PPP now had to contend with a bunch of PTI lawmakers emboldened and strengthened by the fact that their party was in power in Islamabad. This was something new.

Balochistan by and large appeared to retain its old aura where the influential people enjoying the right patronage were kept going. Having said that, some new players were introduced in the mix and some well-known parties reined in, in favour of the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) and other more useful current choices.

The biggest bang of the election of course came in Punjab. Many districts in the province stood fast by the Sharifs but on the whole Punjab gave in to the Khan campaign. The clouds of uncertainty hanging over the Sharifs and their lieutenants who now faced persecution in courts did help to tilt the balance in PTI’s favour.

The PTI victory had some remarkable features indicating that change also dictated many compromises.

The election victory for Khan capped a proud ‘22-year-long’ struggle that had begun with the launch of the PTI in a not-so-fancy Lahore hotel in 1996. The installation of the first PTI government as a result of the general election held in July was hailed by many as just the start of the reform train which was to bring in wholesale changes in Pakistan. But this didn’t stop the Khan backers from breaking in celebrations to mark a big electoral victory against the might of those who had been clinging to power for many decades.

The PTI victory had some remarkable features indicating that change also dictated many compromises. One, the win came about after the party had gone on a grand hunt for the ‘electable’ wherever it could find them. Two, as it turned out, quite many of the talented souls thus delivered to the Khan doorstep happened to belong to the pool Gen Pervez Musharraf had established to serve his interests after his coup against Mian Nawaz Sharif in 1999. The same ambitious lot that had undergone some basic training in power politics was now so prominently available to do Mr Khan’s bidding, the main slogan still staying the same as it was back then: Cleansing the system and taking the corrupt to task.

There was definitely a ‘Q-ian’ quality to the new setup in power. Apart from the known names that had been a part of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q) governments under Gen Musharraf, many of those brought to the helm in the provincial government had first expressed an interest in vying for a role in government via politics in the same (Musharrfian) era.

This was most starkly true for Punjab where a virtual unknown soul from Dera Ghazi Khan was installed as the chief minister who took more than a hundred days to hold his debut presser. Usman Buzdar was hailed by the PTI as the ‘new Wasim Akram in the Kaptaan’s side’. To more probing minds he was there as the Punjab chief minister to counter any pressing calls for a new province in southern Punjab – something that the PTI had promised in its election manifesto.

By and large there was a sense of a turnaround in Lahore that had been the impregnable bastion of the Sharif family for the last many decades. The new government took some initiatives to signal tough times ahead for its opponents, mainly the PML-N in the context of proceedings in Lahore and the whole of Punjab.

There was a lot of tension in the ranks of the bureaucracy also, amid whispers that many of the senior government employees were reluctant to work with the PTI. The Khan camp on its part put down this hesitancy among the senior bureaucrats to the long period during which the government officers had been made to serve the Sharifs and their interests.

The PTI in the opposition had whipped up emotion in a manner that had created quite a lot of energy in the ranks of government servants, among others. That the party could become a victim of the same sentiment once it took power was pretty much a possibility. There were incidents soon after the election which suggested how careful the Khan government now needed to be to prevent the unease in various sections of society – including the bureaucracy – from reaching a point of frenzy.

Soon after the election, the refusal by a senior police officer in Pakpattan to bow to external pressure by the influential people set the alarms bell ringing, signifying just how serious the grievances of those working the system were, let alone the plight of the outsider that the system routinely victimised. The reading was corroborated without much delay when officials in a couple of districts in Punjab resisted the newly-elected lawmakers who insisted on having people of their choice working in important administrative posts.

Similar rumours that the ‘afsar shahi’, or the bureaucracy, was not cooperating with the PTI ministers emanated from Islamabad. However, like the disturbing murmuring campaign of disapproval run against Mr Khan elsewhere in the country, these whispers, too, died down with time. It emerged that the PTI had total support from the institutions – perhaps the kind of support that the governments over the last many decades were lacking. This in mind, the focus naturally shifted from the usual concerns about whether a party could survive in government to what kind of an impact the PTI, more specifically its leader with the clear backing of all-important institutions, was capable of leaving overall on the country.

The election of July 25, 2018, had landed the PTI support from the unlikeliest of places – in the sense that the parties in power before the PTI did not enjoy such expansive presence. For instance, the 14 seats that the PTI won in Karachi in the latest general election was a huge, potentially path-defining shift in itself, even though in its current safe value it fell well short of bringing a long-desired anti-PPP transformation in Sindh.

A majority of Karachi MNAs belonging to an all-Pakistan outfit in power at the federal level, together with the power in Punjab and KP, and a friendly setup in Balochistan, definitely gave the new setup the wholesome look that all parties in power in the country have craved but few, if any, were blessed with. This has left Prime Minister Khan with that much less room for not faltering compared to the purported saviours who came to the nation’s rescue before him.