THE PTI government is well past the stage where it reacted to everything thrown at it with the same one-line answer. The party’s ‘but Imran Khan is not corrupt’ reply that was habitually used to get out of all situations has outlived its efficacy. There are issues which require early tackling, some threatening to cause damage to the party and the government and that will be very difficult to overcome.
No sooner had Chief Minister Usman Buzdar taken charge in Punjab than the drums announcing his imminent departure from the post began to be beaten. There have been other questions that have come and gone, but this fundamental problem where Mr Buzdar has been targeted as some kind of a soft alternative to Prime Minister Imran Khan remains. Having said that, the kind of emotion the chief minister appears to generate at present would suggest that the government will need some quick steps to remedy the situation.
Prime Minister Khan has been quite firm with his backing for Sardar Buzdar. This support has been reflected in not only the prime minister’s own statements encouraging his handpicked custodian in Punjab, but also in the gestures to the very important allies that the chief minister has built his setup on.
Thus it was seen as a good sign when the chief minister locked heads with two key backers — provincial assembly speaker Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi and Governor Chaudhry Muhammad Sarwar — at the outset of the new year a few weeks ago. It was easy to presume that these were all the reassurances the chief minister needed in the attempt to dispel any doubts there might have been about the safety of his tenure. It is quite remarkable just how quickly the image of the troika as a guarantee of the strength of the current arrangement in Punjab has dissipated.
There are problems much deeper that cannot be addressed only by the big three sitting in Lahore.
There are problems much deeper that cannot be addressed only by the big three sitting in Lahore, a city which is reputed to enjoy much power but which is, at the same time, dependent on directions from Islamabad to run its daily affairs. Quite inevitably the calls for intervention are directed at none other than the prime minister himself. And this is something which cannot be dealt with through a simple reminder about a personal trait of Mr Khan.
The ruling alliance politics is at its peak in not just Punjab but all over the country. There is open rebellion against the chief minister of Balochistan, who is not a PTI man but still quite important in ensuring the right overall impression about the running of official affairs in the country. Next, Karachi already has a group of PTI lawmakers declaring independence against ministers said to be close to the leadership. The exchanges both in Balochistan and over Karachi are loud enough to indicate unrest at any given time. They may look all the more ominous at a time when many believe that some kind of a scheme is under way to discredit the government.
The increase in the prices of energy and items of daily use such as sugar along with the shortage of wheat flour gives new meaning to these grumblings from inside the ruling camp that need to be understood and responded to with urgency and subtlety. This skill has been lacking on the part of the PTI, leading the party to making gestures which may be popular but which could eventually hit it.
One rather popular explanation ventured at all times by the PTI members and supporters is where these disagreements inside the party are justified as being part and parcel of a healthy democratic process. Indeed, PTI politicians may proudly furnish many instances where their leader, who may have otherwise been projected as being too sure of himself, had allowed more room to a dissenter than has been ever granted to party members in Pakistan.
There have also been frequent reports about the prime minister’s cabinet being divided into many groups over an issue. This variety of views may have been widely hailed as one of the aspects which distinguished the PTI from those it has sought to replace in the politics of the country. However, those who seek to extend the same refrain to fight allegations of deeper divisions in party ranks would be doing it at the risk of grave danger to the PTI.
The party has to react with alarm when a respected member who happens to have served as a television anchor in the past takes his love for ‘independence’ just a little too far. You cannot be a recognised face of the party as well as a neutral commentator speaking your heart out about the shortcomings of the Buzdar government.
Or you can do that but then help your party find a quick remedy after you have pronounced your judgement on an arrangement that is not delivering and an individual who is showing no signs of improvement. It’s fine if you are pushing your own credentials as a replacement here but given the general atmosphere, as a party loyalist, you must try and wrap it all fast and move on.
It will not suit the candidate or the party in the long run if he is accused of trying to overexploit the affairs related to bad governance and shortages and price hikes. But then the party leadership must also strive to create and maintain fronts that discourage these replacements flaunting their claims too regularly for their own comfort.
Prime Minister Imran Khan may — still — have the confidence in the abilities of Sardar Usman Buzdar. But surely, he must appear to be intervening beyond reiterating his sincere intentions and showing off his clean record to be able to fight allegations against his choice of the Punjab chief minister or for that matter any other ally. He must be seen to be coming up with an alternative action plan if not a replacement for personnel.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
Published in Dawn, January 24th, 2020