Cracking under pressure

Updated 25 Nov 2019


The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

PUNJAB politician and PML-Q leader Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi’s decision to speak, after holding his peace for some 14 months, coincided with Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s Azadi March and the significance of his words was not lost on anybody.

Read: PML-Q in damage control mode after Pervaiz’s assertions

Although some of Mr Elahi’s words got considerable traction in the media, to my mind the most important part of his statement did not. I quote it here: “Yahan apne loag dil chhor chukey hein, bahar se kaun investment karney aayega (when our own people have lost heart, which foreigner will come to invest in Pakistan).”

These words were spoken in a GeoNews interview with Saleem Safi earlier this month. The former Punjab chief minister and current speaker of the provincial assembly was alluding to the political environment marred by the confrontation triggered by the so-called accountability drive of the PTI.

He said he told Prime Minister Imran Khan as much, while counselling the latter to help reduce political temperatures in the country as a prelude to creating the right kind of environment for economic development or great harm could come to the government.

Given its 15-month record, the PTI need only fear itself.

Viewed against the backdrop of the military leadership’s view on how vital a thriving economy is to national security, it was no small matter that the PML-Q leader owned up to warning the prime minister that the latter’s confrontation with the opposition was like a lead weight around the economy.

Mr Elahi has also been very open about how he earned the ‘trust’ of the military by taking the back seat, and even taking losses, in decision-making, policies when he would have been justified in raising his voice as the grievances were ‘legitimate’ such as electoral losses.

This ‘trust’ must have been the motivator when in 2007 Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi made a public pledge to support the election of Gen Pervez Musharraf in uniform as the president of the Islamic Republic. At the time, the general was the all-powerful chief of the military.

On this occasion too, any observer would have guessed that Pervaiz Elahi was speaking not just for himself. Like him, the powerful backers of the PTI-led coalition were also fearful of the political fallout in Punjab of something happening to Nawaz Sharif because he was being denied the best possible medical care.

The prime minister and his senior party members seemed either unaware of the perils to their own government or were deliberately playing high-stakes poker. It was apparent that those who’d help them reach the finish line, carried them over it after the last election were not on the same page.

They may have been part and parcel of the so-called accountability and humiliation of the main opposition leaders and their continued incarceration, but were now displaying more awareness of the public sentiment, despite the self-assuredness that comes with an extended tenure for their leader.

The latest Punjab public opinion surveys were a pointer that the perceived persecution of the PML-N leadership was creating a sizable bulge of popular support and if any electoral exercise were to have taken place now there would be only one winner in Punjab.

It is difficult to say whether Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s Azadi March, which was a shot in the arm for the sagging JUI-F, was part of the pressure mounted on Imran Khan — to convince him that his political vendetta may backfire — just as the public statements of the PML-Q, the MQM and other allies that sustain the PTI in office demonstrably were.

Equally, it is impossible to say whether it is their own reading of the situation or a briefing by informed sources that a number of influential journalists, who are also TV personalities, have written columns, using varied story-elling tools, this week, referring to a major crisis for the PTI government because, in their view, it could no longer take for granted the support of its potent backers.

If you ask me, I’d say I don’t know. However, to me that sort of a climbdown by the security establishment, after it has made public declarations of support to a government it worked hard to usher in, seems unlikely especially if the PTI can somehow raise its game.

But to be able to do that the prime minister and his team need to focus on the real issues of the people (read economic), with a public opinion survey showing concerns over the inflation (53 per cent) and unemployment (23pc) are more important to the people than corruption (4pc). (Gallup, Oct 29, 2019).

The PTI may have made its anti-corruption campaign one of its major vote-getters, it is time to create an above-the-board, credible accountability (which is a must) system/process and then leave the job to it so the allegations, some with justification, of a political witch-hunt are obviated.

Against this backdrop, what does the prime minister actually do? Betray signs of cracking, losing his composure, possibly given the pressures he has been under for several weeks and forgetting that he is the country’s leader now; not an opposition figure atop his container.

His tirade against Nawaz Sharif where he said the latter did not seem ill as he watched him climb up the (imaginary) stairs to the Qatari plane was not prime ministerial in the least and factually incorrect. (Sharif boarded the plane via an ambulator, a lift).

He questioned Mr Sharif’s medical reports and multiple illnesses when he himself is quoted to have said earlier that he sent a trusted doctor to the Services Hospital, Lahore, where the PML-N leader was admitted before his release on bail, to personally verify that he was gravely ill.

Frankly, I see no danger to the PTI government if its leaders were to take a deep breath, relax and keep a confident hand on the governance tiller. Given its 15-month record, it need only fear itself. That has to change if longevity in office is a goal.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, November 24th, 2019