Imran’s distant partners

Updated September 20, 2019

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

IN August 2018, as Mr Imran Khan took charge of the country, the more discerning in the crowd were confronted by the sheer emptiness that separated the PTI chief from the provincial power centres. There was him, the leader, and there were the masses who believed in him and his cause. Sorely missed were the Khan lieutenants — politicians — who had the competence and status to look after his political interests in crucial centres away from Islamabad.

Especially jarring was the absence of worthy enough PTI politicians in Karachi and Lahore. This was manifest, for example, in the PTI’s inability to name any worthwhile challengers in its camp to the chief minister’s office in these provinces prior to the 2018 polls. Thirteen months later, this crisis of sharp, capable individuals, working as close associates of a larger-than-life Khan, persists.

There have been no reliable cousins or sons or daughters or a dutiful wife stepping out of the shadows to fill the vacuum, in defiance of the ‘normal’ course that political careers of the big politicians take in Pakistan. There have been no close friends who are charming — or available — to apply for the vacancy, and the effects of their absence are showing.

Karachi made Imran Khan the prime minister. In a kind of coup that has never gone beyond the city, Karachi ensured that it gave Imran Khan the seats without which he would have struggled to form the government. The PTI chief had been denied a similar courtesy elsewhere in the country, especially in the Punjab areas surrounding Lahore — despite the best efforts of his strong backers.

There have been no reliable cousins or sons or daughters or a dutiful wife stepping out of the shadows to fill the vacuum.

The 14 national seats for the PTI in Karachi were crucial, and one analyst wrote at the time: “In fact, the extra 20-25 seats that the PTI got in the National Assembly (as compared to the party’s performance in the 2013 election) appear to have come primarily from Karachi and Fata, and to an extent north Punjab and KP…”

One consequence of the surprise show in Karachi was the selection of Dr Arif Alvi from the city for the grand post of president of Pakistan. This also marked the continuation of a tradition where the exalted office has been entrusted to an individual belonging to, or at least residing in, the biggest city of the country, its commercial capital, by far the biggest urban catch of the PTI in the 2018 election that called for some earnest consolidation.

All through these months, there were few signs about the emergence of an individual who could be truly trusted to connect the ruled here to their able ruler. Imran Ismail was once the PTI’s choice to fight a crucial by-election. Post-power in Islamabad, the gentleman has been used rather sparingly as a motorcyclist to flaunt Karachi’s famous free spirit, or as some kind of a counter to the rare moves the PPP government may be planning during its bouts of relative awareness and lucidity.

The images of other PTI leaders offering some kind of local leadership here have been equally fleeting. Faisal Vawda jumping to the literal defence of the people, gun in hand and everything, passed too quickly — mercifully for the audience. It was left to Ali Zaidi, another ruling-party MNA from Karachi, to actually confirm just how great the scatter was in the teeming megapolis. But that great initiative to clean up the city has also faded since. Instead, it fell to a non-PTI minister, Senator Farogh Nasim, to hog the headlines over what kind of special future he wanted to impose on Karachi.

To be honest, there would be so many in the city wishing exclusivity, utterly fed up as they must be with all the bad governance they have been subjected to for long. But those who have been waiting for the prime minister to reach out to the people by using the local PTI leadership — meaning those following the conventional scheme — will hardly be pleased. They should actually be offended by the ‘vice-regal’ solution that Senator Nasim appeared to suggest. Instead, maybe they should be insisting the party use its current influence in building and preparing its cadres for representing the people at the local government level, whenever that opportunity arrives.

The PTI could be advised to do the same in Lahore, another extremely important power centre it is struggling to have some leadership in, except that the Imran camp here is faced with rather serious threats that need to be dealt with swiftly. These dangers emanate from the fact that the PTI has been in power in Punjab since fall last year. Sardar Usman Buzdar, the prime minister’s choice as the chief minister for Punjab, was thought to have one trait that distinguished him from many other candidates. With his low-profile, silent existence, he was not going to come in the way of the people of Punjab and their prime minister.

The prince of change was to frequently descend from the hills, chair a provincial decision-making meeting in Lahore, and then be drawn back by the capital. The desired impression was that of an Imran Khan closely overseeing the working of his chosen Punjab chief minister, while simultaneously Mr Buzdar was allowed to advertise the PTI’s promotion of new, deserving leadership among the ignored and underprivileged. That arrangement was doomed from the beginning, especially in a province so used to having a busy high-octane administrator based in Lahore.

In recent times, this brilliant formula that envisioned direct Imran Khan rule in Punjab has come under a cloud. There have just been too many fronts open for Mr Buzdar and his aides in Lahore to deal with. After the recent events, including the removal of two prominent provincial government advisers, the chief minister is certainly on notice to perform, or risk his own ouster. But his speed is just too slow. The pace has to be picked up considerably to inspire the remaining members of the shrinking group that once believed in Sardar Usman Buzdar’s potential to be a worthy Imran Khan protégé.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor on Lahore.

Published in Dawn, September 20th, 2019