Imran Khan’s headache in Punjab

September 24, 2019

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

PUNJAB is in the news — for all the wrong reasons. From an unimpressive chief minister to child abuse cases to dengue and stories of how nothing is moving in the province, there is little news to suggest that the PTI has been able to make a success of its one-year rule in Punjab.

In fact, the promises of ‘Wasim Akram Plus’ remain unfulfilled to the extent that speculation is now rife about a split between Imran Khan and those who matter. And as we are masters of extremes, there is less talk of a difference of opinion and more of a divorce: a new (or older) option is being considered; some are excited enough to report or predict Shahbaz Sharif might make a comeback, for in recent decades, he is the only adept ruler the province has seen! The unscheduled visit of Shahbaz Sharif along with senior PML-N leaders to the jailed Nawaz Sharif last week is being seen in this light (among others).

The veracity of the rumours should and will be left to those with ‘sources’.

But the various reports highlight a number of aspects of our politics, or themes which tend to get repeated ad nauseam, in the soap opera that is our politics.

It proves once again that the friction between the civilians and the uniformed ones is inherent to the relationship and not one limited to personalities. It is not about this prime minister and that chief and how they cannot agree on the pulao versus biryani debate. It is about power — one has the legal right to make decisions, and the other the power to hold an opinion about the former’s decisions. And the difference of opinion leads to friction, in some ways. Personalities and the origins of the civilians (ie, how they got to Islamabad) are and will be sideshows to the main issue.

If the PTI does not deliver, its ability to weaken the PML-N in its stronghold will remain just a promise.

Second, Punjab is and will continue to be the main political prize — partly for its size and partly because it has not been and will not be a single-party province. The PPP-PML-N rivalry of the 1990s has been replaced by the PML-N-PTI competition. The size of their vote bank may vary and one party may be stronger than the other, but both do have a vote bank and this competition is what causes concern for the PTI’s inability to govern Punjab.

The PTI is a claimant to the throne the Sharifs have sat comfortably on — this five-year term will determine how strong a challenge the new kid on the block can provide. But if it does not deliver, its ability to weaken the PML-N in its stronghold will remain just a promise. And how long can voters just count on a promise?

This factor is what will hinder any plans to remove Punjab from Imran Khan’s hands.

Good governance on its own does not seem to be enough to secure a vote; if this were the case, the Chaudhries should have emerged as a provincial-level player after the 2002-2008 period. By most accounts, they did not do a bad job of governance. But one election later, they were irrelevant beyond Gujrat, while Nawaz Sharif dominated the province. His only challenge, in recent years, has come from Imran Khan — without ever having governed or delivered — as Nawaz Sharif once was the focal point for the anti-PPP vote.

And if this challenge is to remain in place, the PTI and Imran Khan need to find a way to deliver in Punjab. If the province is handed over to someone else, be it the Chaudhries, there is the risk of them governing well without proving to be a personality to reckon with. Five years later (or whenever the next election is), chances are that little will be able to stop the Sharif juggernaut from running over Punjab. Whoever is planning to rid the province of Usman Buzdar should be taking this into account, if they are planning any chess moves.

Third, the failure of Buzdar will, unfortunately, strengthen the notion of Punjab needing a strong, centralised leadership. Shahbaz Sharif may have his good points, but he lent credence to the idea that good governance is about a good administration, where only one personality mattered (and decided). And it was an overly centralised governance model, which was heavily dependent on Shahbaz Sharif and bureaucrats.

Imran Khan, on the other hand, had introduced a different style in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which it seemed he was going to duplicate in Punjab — where a team of ministers and others who reported to him would run or look after different departments. No less managerial in a way than Shahbaz Sharif’s, it at least distributed power instead of centralising it in one man.

However, this seems to have not worked in Punjab, and the nostalgia with which Shahbaz Sharif is being remembered means that few are going to now question the idea that Punjab needs a strong man and not institutions.

Last but not least, this once again highlights the inability of our parties to create a second-tier leadership. In all the years that Benazir Bhutto’s PPP was active in Punjab, she never had a personality who was big enough and strong enough to provide a face for Punjab. And now it seems the PTI is struggling with the same problem. It does not have anyone competent enough and trusted enough to run the province. Nawaz Sharif was fortunate in having his brother — who lacked the elder’s charisma and hence was no threat, but was trusted enough to run the province. His relationship with his brother meant that few would risk criticising him or undermining him.

Even if Khan finds someone he trusts enough (and who proves to be more capable than Buzdar), the rest of the party will not stop trying to undermine him in the hope of landing the position. The party culture of infighting makes it impossible any other way. Even if Jahangir Tareen had not been disqualified and landed the position, he would have faced a constant struggle. And this search for the ideal number two to replace the real life number two (aka Shahbaz Sharif) will be Khan’s constant challenge while he is in power.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, September 24th, 2019