From Peshawar to Lahore

January 28, 2020

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

IT’S pouring for PTI these days. The opposition is happy (even smug); allies are up in arms; party dissenters are busy dissenting (publicly); and its chief ministers are under attack in the stronghold of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the shaky Punjab.

Read: Three ministers sacked from KP cabinet

Punjab has been in the eye of the proverbial storm since day one. A razor-thin majority, allies who have ruled the province in the past and a chief minister who pleases no one but Khan himself.

On the other hand, further north in KP, Khan faces no rivals. His party (or, rather, he) won a two-thirds majority, faces an irrelevant opposition, yet here too his chief minister is weak and said to be ill-deserving of the position. Some even say that here the chief minister was not Khan’s own choice but the man he had to accept to get Pervez Khattak to relinquish Peshawar and accept a dormant cabinet position in the centre. But it was not just Khattak who influenced the choice but also Khan’s own preference, for despite having won a thumping majority, the PTI chief also wanted a more pliable chief minister than an experienced politician who would at times take decisions independently. And Khattak didn’t always listen, say many. It is even said that the BRT project was one that Khan tried to resist but his chief minister wasn’t willing to listen.

It’s hard to assume that playing hardball in KP will frighten those grumbling in Punjab.

Whatever the reason, the new chap, Mahmood Khan, didn’t go down well with the other strongmen of the party from KP, such as Atif Khan, who had also perhaps hoped to fill the seat vacated by Khattak. But their ‘mutiny’ proved as successful as the 1857 uprising — on the weekend, the three who had dared to make public their dissatisfaction had been sacked from the cabinet. A chief minister who is dependent on Khan, Khattak and JKT is far more valuable than those who have ideas of their own.

A similar hankering for pliability led also to the simple man from South Punjab, Usman Buzdar, ending up in the seat once filled by strongmen such as Pervez Elahi and Shahbaz Sharif (their strength had quite a lot to do with the fact that the party heads were family).

But Buzdar was no relative and, as a result, no one was willing to not undermine him; that he proved ineffective just sealed the deal.

He has been a bugbear which dates back to the time when the finance team too was shuffled. But Buzdar has proved luckier, and he continues to survive.

Perhaps there are not many ready technocrats to jump into the driver’s seat of the biggest province, for, while the common perception is that a degree and the right expertise can prepare one to steer an economy like Pakistan’s, there is little consensus on which Ivy League degree and job in the foreign climes can prepare one to head a government, under any party.

So while Khan and the others couldn’t decide on what could be a suitable replacement, Buzdar won over supporters within the party and allies by indulging every whim and desire of the constituency politicians within his party and in the PML-Q — all of whom have now become his cheerleaders.

The strategy has paid off — because the moment Khan (tiring of the worries and complaints about a poorly run province) decided to centralise powers in himself in Islamabad, routed through the chief secretary and IG police, those Buzdar had spoilt couldn’t wait to complain.

The Chaudhries of Gujrat came first, followed by the South Punjabians who basically led a resistance which was their own version of ‘vote ko izzat do’ (instead of the bureaucrats).

But while the chief minister may have his supporters, the list of his detractors has only grown longer — within and without the party. He is now seen as the epitome of the governance failure of PTI in the province. And the only solution, it seems, is to replace him.

But Khan refuses to relent.

Out of lack of choice, says he, while others say it’s because U-turn Khan is being stubborn. Whatever the reason, the same day that Khan put his weight behind his choice in KP by sacking the dissenters, he came to Punjab and reiterated that Buzdar was going nowhere.

Observers say the KP decision was taken in part to send a message to the ‘troublemakers’ in Punjab — that Khan will punish you if you make your criticism of the governance of the PTI too public.

However, it’s hard to assume that playing hardball in Peshawar will frighten those grumbling in Punjab.

The latter is rather different — it’s under the spotlight; the party is riven with factions; the allies are not entirely docile and the PML-N is a ferocious rival, not just strong in the province but also fast recovering from its wounds of the past few years.

And within this difficult context, Khan faces two very tough challenges. First, Buzdar has now become synonymous with disappointment; whatever he now does or achieves (if he does), he will never be perceived as effective. And in politics, perception is stronger than reality. And, second, his detractors do not include those within the PTI (be it those who worry about the consequences of poor governance in Punjab or those who aspire to his position) but also the powers that be. Hence, even if Khan, with some luck and astute moves might (just) soothe or scare those within the PTI to pipe down, the establishment may not be that easy to calm. Half the shor sharaba over Buzdar is because their unrest has been sensed or communicated by many.

In other words, the perception battle and the pressure from Pindi may not be easy to handle, however hot Khan blows in KP.

And, for this reason, South Punjab’s reign over ‘Takht-i-Lahore’ may continue to be tentative in the coming days. The instability may not come to an end so easily. The battle for Punjab is far from over — and this is without even mentioning the PML-N’s stakeout in the province.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, January 28th, 2020