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Domestic gains on this side

Updated March 08, 2019

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The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

THE escalation on the borders inevitably brought Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s domestic politics into sharp focus. On the other side of the border, Prime Minister Imran Khan was hailed by his supporters as rising in international stature. This cannot take away from the fact that Prime Minister Khan’s politics in the country, which related most basically to his dealings with the opposition parties, was also greatly helped in the wake of the latest adventure on the LoC.

The case most affected by imminent war was undoubtedly that of Mian Nawaz Sharif. He had been the most talked about politician in Pakistan, doing the jail-to-hospital circuit with a lot of urgency.

There was a bigger controversy surrounding the ‘official inability’ to provide him with proper treatment than the government would care to acknowledge. It was thought in political circles that this apparent refusal to find Mian Sahib the right doctor was benefiting him and his party whose workers would be regularly drawn to the entrance of the Kot Lakhpat prison for a glimpse of their leader.

There is an explanation which says that actually it was the denial of the bail by the court which dampened the spirit of those holding aloft the banner for Mian Sahib’s release from confinement. But the spectre of war against India also played a role in temporarily removing him from centre stage and for days relegating him to a position where his health was no more the main national issue. In contrast, Prime Minister Khan, without having to resort to too much roaring, apparently made tremendous gains in public as the true, strong alternative to the previous top leadership of the country.

Mr Chohan arrived with a bang, but, unfortunately, with time it was realised that the ruling party needed to make idiomatic adjustments.

This was consistent with the scenario that many in Lahore believe in — even if they may not be ready as yet to discuss it openly. They may be waiting for more signs to flash before they can confidently predict a deeper, more profound presence for Prime Minister Khan in areas that are long considered to be a stronghold of the Sharifs and their PML-N.

The scenario is based primarily on Prime Minister Khan’s position as the leader of choice of players who are believed to have the powers to make or break a government. It is supported by other facts such as the PTI leader’s own popularity in these areas.

Against a PML-N refrain which insists that the Sharifs are and will be unconquerable in their old territory, this pro-PTI theory projects Prime Minister Khan gradually gaining ground against his opponent in parts of central Punjab that are so used to wielding power due to their long-standing backing of the PML-N.

One prediction is that these areas will ultimately fall to the skipper because, one, they will continue to want a share in the power pie, and two, there will eventually be no one to challenge him here once the Sharifs are sent packing.

There were issues that needed to be sorted out for this forecast to come true. A setup in Lahore that could effectively complement Prime Minister Khan’s effort for supremacy in central Punjab was essential and it was crucial for the party to have something in place that reflected the PTI’s own claim to power as the biggest party to challenge the PML-N dominance without alienating allies such as the PML-Q.

The PTI was to avoid the old PPP formula under which Ms Benazir Bhutto allowed allies to take the lead over her party in a joint attempt to keep the PML-N out of power. The real beneficiaries of these arrangements were opportunistic actors such as Manzoor Ahmed Wattoo who are again hovering over, waiting to strike and secure a slice of the pie by aligning themselves with the PTI.

The type needed to be kept out but, unfortunately, there was no one in the PTI who could be deemed an automatic choice for the Punjab chief minister slot. The candidate considered closest to the PTI requirement, with all his baggage, was Aleem Khan, who because of unavoidable circumstances, had to be content with the senior minister’s portfolio in Chief Minister Usman Buzdar’s cabinet.

The PTI desperately needed to put its own stamp on the proceedings. It probably thought that one way of letting people know who was in charge was by employing the most vocal. As the torrents of verbosity delivered at relentless pace were let loose on all within hearing distance, one prime beneficiary of this strategy to overwhelm the debate was a gentleman named Fayaz Chohan, who became Punjab’s minister for information and culture.

Mr Chohan arrived with a bang, but, unfortunately, with time it was realised that the ruling party needed to make idiomatic adjustments. It was thought that consistent hardcore combative posturing could cost the PTI government at a time where it could use this energy in a more disciplined manner.

On the other hand, there was no easy exit for these firebrand men who held some appeal for followers who found ready solace in these quick-on-the-draw variety within the party. It was a difficult proposition, withdrawing these wordy warriors and replacing them with more sedate choices. Until the prospects of a war against India provided Imran Khan with an easy opportunity to let Mr Chohan go. This could well count among the gains that have come Prime Minister Khan’s way because of the escalation of tensions between Pakistan and India.

An emotional Mr Chohan was finally held guilty of crossing the red line while commenting on the freedoms the creation of Pakistan bestowed upon the citizens of this new country. He was forced to resign and his position was duly taken by Sumsam Bukhari.

A pir from Okara, unlike Mr Chohan who was considered a Jamaat-i-Islami youth gone wayward, Mr Bukhari has a PPP background. This once again betrays Imran Khan’s tendency to rely on known names from other parties for appointment to vital posts under his watch. Besides, the new choice could mean a shift to more sedate elements.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, March 8th, 2019