The new year buzz

Updated 03 Jan 2020

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

ON the first day of the new year, the three major partners in the Punjab government sat in a huddle in Lahore to figure out the map in front of them. The meeting between Chief Minister Usman Buzdar, Governor Chaudhry Sarwar and Punjab Assembly Speaker Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi was followed by a statement where the two more experienced politicians were shown to be back-slapping the chief minister for his achievements.

Read: [Chaudhrys assure ‘beleaguered’ Buzdar of full support][2]

If that was the usual formal conclusion that must accompany ‘important’ official consultations between major stakeholders, some words unavoidably crept into reports about this particular new year resolution.

There was a mention of ‘conspiracy’, without any elaboration as to what this particular mention of the oft-used term here meant specifically. A line ascribed to Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi promised that he, along with his associates in government, would thwart all designs of the conspirators. Another remark, this time from the low-key chief minister, spoke of his ‘excellent working relationship’ with the PML-Q — before Sardar Buzdar vowed to fight against the opponents.

The chief minister did not identify whether he was referring to the visible opponents in other political parties or whether his remarks about those opposed to his government were to be read together with Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi’s message to the conspirators. Perhaps the answer to this question may be found in the debate that has surrounded the Buzdar set-up right from the start. It is a government forever under pressure from the very forces that have been there originally to support it.

The 2020 huddle of the big three in Punjab is meant to serve as a symbol of unity.

The 2020 huddle of the big three in Punjab is meant to serve as a symbol of unity and a resolve to work according to the wishes of Chief Minister Buzdar’s backer: Prime Minister Imran Khan. This is essentially the latest in a series of ‘new beginnings’ that the quiet chief minister’s tenure has so far been marked with.

It may not have been as grand a ceremony as the previous ‘restarts’ where the prime minister’s own presence lifted his interaction with Sardar Buzdar to a level where a guru appeared to be wooing his chosen disciple. Nonetheless, this latest exhibition of solidarity in Lahore was an important occasion where the governor, the speaker, and the chief minister were seen to have been reposing confidence in one another.

It is not difficult to understand why Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi used the opportunity to so frankly remind Sardar Buzdar about the conspiracy makers in the vicinity. These elements of intrigue crawling around the chief minister are essential to the PML-Q’s current status in Punjab — as a party which could make or break the Buzdar government. The more pronounced the threat from these conspirators, the greater would be the value of the handful of provincial lawmakers belonging to Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi’s party.

For the PML-Q, it has been all about maintaining a critical balance between aspirations and reality. There have been moments where the party’s leaders have been tempted to overstretch and demand a bigger share in power, but they have been prudent enough to pull back in time in favour of the status quo in Punjab. They have quite skilfully managed to hold on to their permanent status as a reasonable choice, should the kingmakers go looking for a substitute for the current executive in the province.

This has been quite a tough task — the more experienced Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, and for that matter Chaudhry Sarwar, playing a supporting role to a chief minister who retains his innocence and a sense of rawness about him beyond a period of time usually allowed to a novice. But on the other hand, while you can blame Chief Minister Buzdar for many things, he does have an inbuilt capacity to allow prominence to those around him. He is not easily annoyed by an aide — the well-entrenched and experienced practitioners of politics get from him the respect a more assertive personality would be too jealous to grant.

Short of the important politicians in Punjab landing the post of chief minister, the power aspirants are well served by a head of the government with the kind of reputation that Sardar Buzdar has.

Just as many in the public would be hoping for Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Buzdar experiment to succeed, some of the old claimants to power among the politicians would be quite happy if his current unthreatening image persisted.

It is in the interest of these politicians that the current perceptions about Sardar Usman Buzdar hold in 2020 and beyond it. But they would be in direct conflict with a scenario built by popular wishes where the chief minister would be able to shrug off his current, unearned ennui and manage to perform and fully advertise his feats.

The Buzdar project must have some success. It is important not just for Mr Imran Khan’s prestige; there are other very good reasons that call for his continued support for his protégé in Punjab. Foremost, some reasonable benefits coming out of the experiment could encourage similar efforts at finding new leadership in the so-called unlikely areas. Failure could spell stagnation in a province that has struggled so hard to emerge from the old coterie in its restricted search for rulers in Punjab.

The same old groups have monopolised the politics of power in the province for long. In fact, from one angle, there has been one group imposing its choice as chief ministers in Punjab — a group that has its origins in Gen Ziaul Haq’s talent hunt camp. Even a change of faces and groups is sometimes a huge relief. Many of Usman Buzdar’s supporters would still like to believe that he will finally discover the will and ability to do more than that.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, January 3rd, 2020