The wars within

February 26, 2019

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

THE end of winter usually signals spring cleaning time — but for the government, the change of season has brought an opportunity to air dirty laundry instead. The one hung out by Sheikh Rashid had barely dried when Fawad Chaudhry and Naeemul Haq brought out a ‘fresh’ load, so to speak.

Their bickering on Twitter (where else would naya Pakistan slug it out?) began over PTV. By now, anyone who pays the least bit of attention to news and Twitter must have figured it out that the information minister isn’t happy with the chap heading PTV, while Naeemul Haq disagrees and feels the people heading PTV are in line with the ‘vision’ of the prime minister.

The Twitter spat finally ended up in media reports (based on unnamed sources) of the resignation of the information minister, which he denied on Sunday. But by adding that he was going to see the prime minister on Monday about his ‘reservations’ (always a polite word used by politicos to refer to full-blown wars behind the scenes), he didn’t douse the fires completely. By evening, at least one senior ‘analyst’ on a weekend talk show had predicted that the Chaudhry was on his way out of the information ministry.

Regardless of whether Chaudhry stays or not, the incident highlights two aspects of which perhaps the first is rather unique to the PTI government.

Dissenting voices within a party are different from dissenting voices in a government.

Khan’s administration is perhaps the first to have so many ‘cooks’ for media management. Chaudhry may be the information minister, but he is not the only one calling the shots as far as the ‘media’ is concerned.

Khan himself has Iftikhar Durrani as his special adviser on media, while Nadeem Afzal Chan is also a ‘spokesman’ who is rumoured to see the prime minister very, very regularly for a tête-à-tête. Two news channel owners too are busy managing affairs for the prime minister; one of them has been the brains behind the PTI economic team’s informal interactions with journalists and anchors while both are said to be arranging meetings with the owners.

Some of Khan’s men are not averse to admitting that the prime minister is not happy with the general coverage of his government — ‘worried’ is a word that also creeps in at times — and that this is why the team is ever expanding.

Some of these appointments are said to have made the information minister not too happy, but he was pragmatic enough to have only struck where he had the technical upper hand in PTV. However, it is too soon to say whether this is a round he will win.

Second, differences between cabinet members are not new to Pakistan though the PTI wallahs bring a certain je ne sais quoi to their spats.

The PML-N rivalries were no less well known in that party’s time in power. Khawaja Asif and Chaudhry Nisar’s breakup was rather public —everyone in Islamabad knew that they had sent each other to Coventry — and the former had no qualms about coming on television and admitting to his differences with Shahbaz Sharif, who was working on his promise to fix the electricity problem, the portfolio of which was officially with Khawaja sahib.

Beyond the cabinet, the fissures were legendary. Abid Sher Ali’s differences with Rana Sanaullah were as well known in Punjab as the folklore of Sohni Mahiwal.

During the PPP tenure, when the Haj scandal erupted, the rather public rupture between Azam Swati, who was then a minister as the JUI-F was a government ally, and the PPP’s Hamid Saeed Kazmi forced the then prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to sack them both from the cabinet as damage control, after giving warnings to the two. The name-calling had come to the point where Swati had submitted a statement to the court accusing Kazmi of involvement in the 2010 Haj scandal.

In some ways, Sheikh Rashid and the Chaudhry-Haq spats have merely followed an old tradition of politics, Islamabad style. It is more severe only in that, instead of leaking stories against each other, the two combatants took to social media for their bout. This is perhaps where the PTI beats its rivals hollow. However, if the PPP example of Swati and Kazmi is a lesson, one can say that differences can exist and even be an open secret, but if they turn into verbal jousting, this doesn’t bode well for the people involved.

This is why Haq and Chaudhry should be concerned. But so should the prime minister.

One reason the differences appear stark in the PTI is because Imran Khan is said to be tolerant of them in a way unfamiliar to other party heads. For some, the old sportsman in the politician is said to enjoy the competition among his ‘boys’. For others (including those within the party), Khan is less inclined to stamp out dissenting voices and noises and he makes a conscious effort not to do so. He feels it is ‘democratic’ and that the PTI should not be like other parties where a difference of opinion is not tolerated.

But the problem is that dissenting voices within a party are different from dissenting voices in a government or a cabinet. The first is indicative of openness and the second is simply chaos.

A cabinet works on the principle of collective responsibility — its members must publicly support all government decisions in public even if they do not agree with them. Differences can be aired in private, but not publicly. Hence, ministers cannot and should not disagree or ridicule each other and this is why it is still tolerable for Sheikh Rashid to clash with Asad Qaiser, but not for Haq and Chaudhry to do so. And it is up to Khan to realise this and impose discipline within his government rank and file. Cabinet ministers fighting it out is not democratic; it’s just unseemly.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, February 26th, 2019