IMRAN Khan and his government may just have dodged a bullet. The mini political crisis that surfaced in the shape of a revolt in Punjab and a smaller one in KP may have been averted for the time being, but the deeper causes behind them remain in place and they could yet reappear, with greater force.
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Most seasoned observers of politics are arguing that the setup as it stands today has muddled its way through the year 2019, and can potentially spend 2020 muddling through in the same way. I’m sceptical of this line, for the simple reason that power cannot forever muddle its way through its headwinds. There is a reason for this, and it has to do with what we understand by the nature of power in the first place.
Contrary to some opinions, power does not flow from the barrel of a gun, nor is power attained once the right man is seated in the right chair. Once in the seat, a ruler can sustain his or her position for a while simply by procuring the support of the right quarters, but cannot rule indefinitely through the gun or the pen. Ultimately power is the ability to produce outcomes on the ground, desired outcomes, not random or fortuitous ones.
This is why it is not enough that the present setup enjoys the backing of the establishment, or that dissenting narratives and inconvenient facts have been silenced. This gives them support for a brief while only. It is what they do with the opportunity given to them through this backing and through this silencing that will ultimately decide whether power remains in their hands. If they are unable to produce outcomes that positively impact the lives and interests of those who have brought them to power, those who have backed them and upon whose shoulders they stand today, and most importantly the common citizenry, then whatever power they hold today by virtue of occupying government offices will slip through their fingers like sand.
The PTI’s endless search for its own feet cannot last forever.
That is the central flaw in this arrangement, its Achilles heel. Since coming to power, Imran Khan has lost the street, lost the business community, deliberately alienated the opposition whom recent events have demonstrated have an integral role to play in democratic politics. He is now losing his allies and his own party representatives. This great unravelling cannot go on forever. Left to its own devices this setup will drift towards some sort of a meltdown that will most likely be triggered from within. What it needs is leadership, somebody at the top with an idea of what to do, how to play the complex give and take of politics, how to manage scarcities.
The most recent episode in Punjab shows what happens when this is lacking. What we are seeing happen, between the allies or the small-scale revolts in the provinces, is the politics of economic adjustment. The severe budgetary constraints that have been imposed on the federal and provincial governments since the IMF programme began means that money is no longer available as a tool with which to procure loyalties. In the last budget, for example, Rs350 billion were allocated for development spending, which used to be Rs635bn only two years earlier, before the adjustment began.
So instead of money, they bargained with the powers of the state. For a provincial assembly representative, power is the ability to get jobs for your constituents, to get gas connections and roads built in their localities and run other schemes that put money into their pockets. This is why there is an uproar against how the Ehsaas programme is being run, because Sania Nishtar has (rightly) excluded politics from the process through which beneficiaries of the programme are selected.
Since funds were not available given the severe budgetary constraints, they bargained instead with the powers of the state. Initially, they parcelled out the power to make transfers and postings to a few powerful members of the party such Tareen, Aleem Khan, Chaudhry Sarwar and allies like the Chaudhries of Gujrat. But that gave rise to fiefdoms, aggravating the crisis of governance, and further alienating the party from the street as well as its own supporters. So they made an about-turn, strengthened the office of the chief minister and vested the powers in him, where they belong.
But because Chief Minister Buzdar has little to no capacity to organise his thoughts, structure his time, engage with vested interests or in any way demonstrate the mettle of a ruler, power centralised in his hands gave rise to a free-for-all, consequently entrenching corruption, increasing turnover and paralysing the bureaucracy. So finally in November 2019 we saw a massive reshuffle in the top bureaucracy when 31 secretaries, eight out of nine commissioners and 31 deputy commissioners were changed. The new setup had Azam Suleman as the chief secretary and Shoaib Dastagir as the IG Police, the fifth man to occupy the IG’s post since June 2018. ‘This was a stupendous rate of turnover at the top, such was the level of political interference unleashed in the time when Buzdar had a free rein.
The new arrangement to emerge from the November reshuffle plugged the key deficit the PTI faced in Punjab — the institutional deficit of a lack of machinery through which to operate the complex politics of the country’s largest province, whose electorate can make or break the destiny of central governments. But at the same time it shut the door to politics altogether, which seems to vibe well with Imran Khan’s more autocratic reflexes and instincts, but makes for a bad political machine through which to consolidate and exercise power, leading to the challenges mounted by the MPA last week.
It is this, the PTI’s endless search for its own feet that cannot last forever, regardless of whose backing the ruling party enjoys.
The writer is a member of staff.
Published in Dawn, January 30th, 2020