Southern sensitivities

Updated April 05, 2019

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

MORE evidence has emerged of the PTI’s democratic makeup — a culture where its members are able to debate, and indeed fight, over issues. This is a tradition that cannot be unconditionally opposed.

For a whole day earlier this week, two groups within the PTI clashed with each other in full public view until prime ministerial intervention ushered in a ceasefire. The issue at heart was the old rivalry between Shah Mahmood Qureshi, the party’s senior vice president, and Jahangir Khan Tareen.

Read:Cracks in the ranks

Now Mr Tareen might have been incapacitated by a court ruling that bans him from holding formal office in government, but as far as embodying the PTI’s promise and its ambition is concerned, he ranks right at the top along with Asad Umar and a few other successful people. This was so long before many other big politicians, including Mr Qureshi from Multan, closed ranks with Mr Imran Khan. He is the man with the resources.

It was a by-election in Multan that ignited the latest round in the old battle that by all appearances ended in a victory for Mr Tareen. It will now take some work from his rival in this case to claw back to a position in proximity to the prime minister. Maybe some talk about the Qureshi murids or faithful in Sindh could help revive expectations.

For a whole day earlier this week, two groups within the PTI clashed with each other in full public view, until the prime minister intervened.

Mr Qureshi may be a big name in southern Punjab, but as choices — and a lack of them — go, the PTI chief has relied heavily on his appeal as a spiritual leader to create the initial cadres inside the province of Sindh. There’s no one else with the same influence available to the PTI in the area.

Back over the main course where Shah Mahmood Qureshi would obviously want to dominate, he has managed to stay strong enough against strong internal opposition. He has been recognised as a senior PTI leader, a veteran since the 1980s, but in crucial moments, the party’s inner voices have spoken against him. It could well be his feudal-spiritual leader background that gets him into trouble in moments when his comparison is with Mr Tareen, renowned as a new-money success story despite early hobnobbing with the old system.

The onus has been on Mr Qureshi from the beginning to prove that he is sufficiently divorced from his past politics to be an efficient, and clean, part of the new-wave PTI. The pir has tried and has been apparently frustrated by the setbacks he has had to encounter on the way — which has forced him to lose his characteristic Foreign Office poise.

Everyone knows how Mr Qureshi had to face the humiliation of being defeated by a young man who took him on as an independent on a provincial seat in Multan after being denied a PTI ticket. This time, too, the outburst in which Mr Qureshi accused Mr Tareen of being an outsider and a convict has been directly linked to a Multan by-election. Mr Tareen has denied any role but his intra-party rival from southern Punjab obviously has his reasons to be openly against a popular PTI leader at the risk of exposing his own position.

It has resulted badly for Mr Shah Mahmood Qureshi. Imran Khan’s foreign minister who, unlike some of his cabinet colleagues, could maintain a good personal profile, has been led by the heat of the moment to send the wrong message across: it is obvious that he stands absolutely no chance of taking on Mr Jahangir Khan Tareen in an internal trade-off. There is just too much support for ‘the progressive farmer’ as Mr Tareen is hailed by many among those PTI members who were on their toes in opposition to their own foreign minister.

Apart from lifting the PTI lid, last week’s provincial by-election inside the national constituency which Mr Qureshi would contest from in the past provided a good quick insight into the politics of southern Punjab, which is a little different from the state of affairs in the upper parts of the province.

For one, the PPP has a presence in the area, and it was from the PPP that the joint PPP-PML-N opposition put up its candidate against the PTI in the by-poll. The PTI won amid the usual allegations that the government machinery was used to tilt the balance in favour of the king’s candidate. The PPP, which got the right to contest the vote because it was the runner-up here in the 2018 general poll, amassed an impressive tally of approximately 40,000 ballots. That shows the pressure the PTI, above all Mr Qureshi, had been under.

This was a keenly contested by-poll, not free from a stand-off or two in the street, leading to an emotionally charged press conference each by the Gilanis and the Qureshis. Mr Qureshi only carried some of the sentiment that was generated by his candidate’s victory in the by-poll into his speech in which he raised objections to Mr Tareen’s attending official ministerial meetings.

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Apparently, he thought the victory against Yousuf Raza Gilani and the PPP provided him with his moment. In the event, he created a huge splash and ensured an embarrassing debate in which a large number of PTI colleagues sided with Mr Tareen. It was a mistake unless, far from continuing gracefully in his own right as a PTI stalwart, Mr Qureshi had been, even if momentarily, overcome with the grandiose projections about his career.

There is no shortage of those who have been telling us to keep a close watch on Mr Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a dark horse that was to eventually overtake all others, including Imran Khan of course, to make it to the topmost slot that politicians wish for. A resurgence of the theory at this tough moment for Mr Qureshi is a credit to their fertile imagination and a tribute to their belief in conspiracy.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, April 5th, 2019