THE new Pakistan was flashed in Lahore on Wednesday when senior Punjab minister Aleem Khan was arrested by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). The step was not unexpected but still a little raw for a country where the government is avowedly seeking to create fresh optics to restore popular belief in a democracy with zero tolerance for corruption.
The Aleem Khan arrest may go a long way to vindicate the PTI claims about everyone being equal before the law. But this one explanation is not going to prevent other theories being paraded right now.
Mr Aleem Khan’s landing in the NAB lockup was thought to be inevitable. This is thought to be one hurdle the resourceful property tycoon has to pass before he can lay genuine claim to bigger positions of power. He was tipped to be Prime Minister Imran Khan’s first choice as chief minister of Punjab. His well-wishers would now be hoping that he is close to being cleared so that he can take up some more powerful future assignments soon.
There are counter scenarios, not least because the so-called substitute chief minister everyone argued Mr Khan had invented out of necessity has since acquired a life and significance — even a presence — of his own. Usman Buzdar has so far failed to really shine as a true all-round fulfilment of the dream the prime minister often says he has seen him revel in. Yet it is said the quiet sardar from the south has collected enough support of his own in the party as a rather natural consequence of his surprise selection by the kaptaan. He is not going to be easily replaced.
At best, Mr Aleem Khan has worked in spurts, a couple of quick bursts, not quite managing any breakthrough.
Mr Imran Khan is known for working through his close associates sitting in a huddle with him. The kind of fight he put up to retain his Britain buddy Zulfiqar Bukhari in the cabinet is a manifestation of just how dependent the prime minister is in his personal relationship with his aide in carrying out the work of his government. This is an Imran Khan trait that will give a lot of heart to those who have been pushing Mr Aleem Khan’s credentials as the first-choice chief minister pending a clear chit from NAB.
This is why all this talk about Mr Aleem Khan being of an expendable variety is summarily dismissed: it runs counter to the prime minister’s image of collecting good men around him and then standing by them. In this case, our hero does it on merit and plenty of flair. The only problem is, how does he go about it if and when he has to choose between two friends he appears to be equally fond of.
Mr Aleem Khan is now an old Imran Khan lieutenant, having entered the PTI through the PML-Q route. He has been in the middle of some of the fiercest, the most vicious PTI battles, quite often recognised as the man with the finances that are absolutely essential for long sustained battles.
During these pre-2018 days, Mr Aleem Khan emerged as the only viable candidate for Punjab chief minister’s office from the urban parts of the province — of course with the condition that he is cleared by law.
His candidature received a boost after other well-known choices for the post, such as Jahangir Tareen and Shah Mehmood Qureshi, both with a rural southern Punjab background, dropped out of the race for one reason or another.
Mr Usman Buzdar has his own claims on enjoying the complete trust of his leader. His selection as chief minister may have been accidental but he has in his resumé a series of statements by the prime minister declaring his to be a real find for the people of Punjab.
Mr Buzdar has been promoted as some kind of an epitome of the empowered common man who is in charge of his own affairs, and has consequently shed some of the allegedly sheepish manners he was criticised for earlier. He may still not be the most in-your-face chief executive of a province, but then, that is basically the relief many in Punjab were craving after long years of the intense Shahbaz Sharif rule.
The more relevant question here is: does or does not Mr Buzdar have a profile that a leader known for persevering with his choices will find hard to ignore should we have some competition for the chief minister’s post in the near future? Going by the available evidence, Mr Buzdar will have reason to feel secure in his position, his case strengthened by the fact that he is in possession of the office. As the saying goes, possession is half ownership.
There is one other important reason that goes in favour of Mr Buzdar if it is to be presumed that he is being challenged for the chief minister’s post by Mr Aleem Khan. An evaluation of Mr Aleem Khan’s performance as the senior minister in Punjab hadn’t quite catapulted him to heights where it would appear impossible to deny him overall charge of the province. At best, Mr Aleem Khan has worked in spurts, a couple of quick bursts, not quite managing any breakthrough that truly distinguished him from others in the party.
Whatever the signs of his continued importance in post-election PTI there might have been, these by the looks of it have been limited to intra-party rumblings. Mr Aleem Khan has remained a most influential leader of the party, heading his own group within, but there has been little by way of good governance measures taken by him that would bolster his claim on the chief minister’s chair. Where current performance is concerned, the part of the senior minister, with the due blessing of his leader, seems fit enough for Mr Aleem Khan to prosper and mature in.
Perhaps the best public relations act he could manage was when he brusquely told city government staff to clear Lahore of the heaps of trash that had been building up for months. Life is full of surprises but the follow-up to his call was not quite worthy of a chief minister in the making.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
Published in Dawn, February 8th, 2019