On August 17, 2018, a day before he was sworn in as Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan made an announcement that left his followers stunned, deepening the factionalism in his Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI). The future prime minister announced that he had picked his candidate for the office of chief minister of Punjab — the most politically important province of the country. Curiously, he was going to nominate Usman Buzdar, a little known politician from Barthi, a remote town on the outskirts of Taunsa Sharif along Punjab’s border with Balochistan. Imran Khan’s choice clearly did not sit well with many in the party — especially those who had financed PTI’s campaigns for years and were expecting the job to land in their lap once the party had won the province.
The scepticism over Buzdar’s selection was so rampant within the party that Imran Khan had to take to Twitter the morning after taking his oath. “I want to make it clear [that] I stand by our nominee Usman Buzdar for Chief Minister Punjab. I have done my due diligence over the past two weeks and have found him to be an honest man,” he tweeted, defending his decision. “He has integrity and stands by my vision and ideology of Naya Pakistan.”
But the tweet did little to appease party stalwarts from the province, as well as its newly elected members of the provincial assembly, who were still in disbelief. Many did not know anything about Buzdar, except what Imran Khan had told them in a video message and later through his tweets. Few, if any, believed that Buzdar could effectively run the government in the stronghold of the Sharifs, which they had just snatched from them — with much difficulty.
Imran Khan’s reasons for handpicking Buzdar from obscurity were simple, at least on the face of it. “Usman Buzdar comes from one of the most backward areas of Punjab — the tribal area of DG Khan,” he tweeted, adding that Buzdar was the only member of the assembly who did not have electricity at home. This indicated to the prime minister that Buzdar understood the problems of the residents of the neglected areas and would be able to uplift these areas as chief minister. Imran Khan ended his message saying he fully backed Buzdar all the way.
When Buzdar’s critics paint him as a failure with nothing tangible to show, Imran Khan predictably turns to cricket comparisons. “He will prove to be Wasim Akram Plus,” the PTI leader has said on multiple occasions, comparing Buzdar to Akram, whom he had picked from relative obscurity as Pakistan’s cricket team captain. But many compare Buzdar’s selection from Barthi with another cricketer, Mansoor Akhtar, in whose abilities the Kaptaan also had full faith but who did not click the way Akram and his other finds did.
Many scoff at the idea that Imran Khan selected Buzdar for the position solely because he was from an underdeveloped region that did not have electricity, water and a hospital. A PTI MPA points out that the region did not have these facilities “in spite of the fact that [Buzdar’s] father had been in active politics since the early 1980s and was thrice returned to the provincial assembly between 1985 and 2002.” “Did you or anyone else know his father or the man himself before he was nominated as chief minister?” asks the MPA from Lahore, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
“The man we were ordered to elect as the Leader of the House had made it to the provincial assembly for the first time and had no prior administrative experience to handle the Punjabi bureaucracy. Who would entrust such a man with such a huge responsibility of running the country’s most populous and politically most important province?” he asks. “We thought he may be a good man but he was not the right person for the job he had been given. Time has proved us right,” he chuckles.
The cynicism about Buzdar’s ability to match his hyperactive predecessor, Shahbaz Sharif’s abilities wasn’t the only factor that caused an outrage among the PTI old guard. Buzdar was not only an unknown commodity in the political arena but his ties with the party were also rather recent. He had contested and lost the 2013 election for a provincial seat on a Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) ticket, a party he had joined after quitting Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q). He quit PML-N only a couple of months before the 2018 elections to join the Junoobi Punjab Sooba Mahaz (The Southern Punjab Province Front), which was formed by PML-N ‘dissidents’ led by Makhdum Khusro Bakhtiar, who is now the national food security minister. The Mahaz was merged with PTI after dissolution of the previous assemblies and the formation of a caretaker government to organise the polls.
Others believe that Buzdar was chosen for the same reasons that make him ineffective: unlike his other major rivals for his job, he lacks an independent power base and that makes it easier for Imran Khan to control Buzdar and keep him in line.
Buzdar was also aware that his opposition from within the party, especially from Lahore, would prove to be a major challenge for him during his tenure. Hence, when he rose from his seat after his election as the chief executive of the province, to thank the House, he decided to first shut up his detractors — not from the opposition benches, but from the treasury benches.
Repeating what Imran Khan had been saying, Buzdar said “I know how the poor lead their lives in backward areas. I understand the plight that faces the underprivileged because I belong with them. That is my qualification for this job.”
Nonetheless, naysayers think that Buzdar’s background is not the only reason for his elevation to his office. Some say his wife was close to the prime minister’s reclusive spouse, Bushra Bibi. Others, such as popular journalist and TV personality Sohail Warraich, contend that the premier was told by his wife to pick a man whose name begins with the Urdu letter ‘aeen’. “There were only two people elected to the provincial assembly in 2018 whose name started with that letter,” Warraich says. “One of them died, leaving Usman Buzdar as the only choice for Imran.”
Others believe that Buzdar was chosen for the same reasons that make him ineffective: unlike his other major rivals for his job, he lacks an independent power base and that makes it easier for Imran Khan to control Buzdar and keep him in line. Hasan Javid, an associate professor at the Lahore University of Management Science (Lums), argues that the prime minister may have also been trying to balance the factional conflict in PTI by choosing a ‘neutral’ candidate. “Imran Khan may have also been operating under the [mistaken] belief that he himself would be able to ensure effective governance in Punjab through Buzdar.” Many agree.
But it is not the first time a party leader is trying to control Punjab remotely. In the 1970s, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had changed four chief ministers — Mustafa Khar, Hanif Ramay, Sadiq Hussain Qureshi and Meraj Khalid — in Punjab. He kept changing them so that none of them could grow ambitions to challenge his authority. Apparently, PTI party leaders fear similarly that the success of their proxies in governing Punjab efficiently could eclipse their own performance and create a threat to them. Even Nawaz Sharif never trusted anyone except his younger brother for this office. The only time he agreed to give the job to someone outside the family was in 1990, when he selected Ghulam Haider Wyne. But that was meant to keep Pervaiz Elahi out — a step that sowed the seeds of an unbridgeable rift between the Sharifs and the Chaudhrys from Gujrat.
Seen as an unassuming, modest and quiet person who is forced to work under the shadows of Shahbaz Sharif, whose development model for Punjab had endeared him to very large sections of the urban population, Buzdar has always been at the centre of media speculations about his looming departure.
A senior Lahore-based journalist, who has closely watched political developments in Punjab for the last three decades, points out that Imran Khan had intentionally not groomed anyone from his party for the job of Punjab’s chief minister. “His party didn’t promote any specific candidate who would replace Shahbaz during its campaign for power in 2013 and 2018. In my view, Imran Khan realised that the day he announced his candidate for the post of Punjab’s chief minister, the party would lose all its popular momentum and might as well break up. So he deliberately kept his options open until his ascension to power.”
According to him, none of the PTI leaders such as Aleem Khan, Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Aslam Iqbal — who were often discussed by the media as potential candidates for the coveted position — were ever given any signal by Imran Khan; they were mostly wild guesses by the media. “Buzdar represents a new experiment in Punjab,” the journalist believes. “It is after almost 45 years that we have a chief minister who comes from south Punjab and the first who does not have any links with the urban industrial business community and the middle class from central Punjab,” he says. “Also, he is the first chief minister who was not groomed politically under Gen Ziaul Haq. Buzdar is more like the Wyne experiment.”
Imran Khan’s relentless support for him notwithstanding, Buzdar has been under a cloud ever since his election as the 26th chief executive of the province. Seen as an unassuming, modest and quiet person who is forced to work under the shadows of Shahbaz Sharif, whose development model for Punjab had endeared him to very large sections of the urban population, Buzdar has always been at the centre of media speculations about his looming departure.
One TV anchor after another and one columnist after another has predicted Buzdar’s imminent downfall. His own party colleagues are not happy with him and consider him an ineffective manager, ill-equipped to handle the Punjabi bureaucracy the way Sharif did. They also complain that he does not listen to legitimate complaints of his party’s legislators, let alone redress them.
He has not only survived this onslaught of speculative attacks but also managed to throw out people like his media adviser Shahbaz Gill — Gill had tried to exercise his boss’s executive powers — and keep rival Aleem Khan, who could prove a threat to him, out of his cabinet. Of course, Buzdar could not have pulled this off if Imran Khan had not lent him his unflinching support.
A number of PTI leaders still believe that Buzdar will be the main factor if the party’s popularity declines in Punjab and leads to its eventual downfall.
A number of PTI leaders still believe that Buzdar will be the main factor if the party’s popularity declines in Punjab and leads to its eventual downfall. Punjab Governor Chaudhry Sarwar is often accused of supporting efforts to oust Buzdar, or at least bring him under his wing. Aleem Khan is believed to be nursing a grudge against Buzdar for refusing to re-induct him in the cabinet. After all, Aleem Khan did generously finance the party’s campaign for power in the province and thinks he could have been in Buzdar’s place, but for the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) cases against him.
Some of Buzdar’s cabinet ministers are also still nurturing hopes of one day replacing him. And yet he is there despite all the loud media speculation, which peaked in recent weeks when 20 PTI MPAs from south and central Punjab formed a pressure group to secure development funds for their constituencies. Some reports suggested that the group was created at Buzdar’s own behest to thwart his opponents campaigning with the premier to replace him.
Most political analysts agree that the latest ‘political crisis’ in Punjab was mainly linked to factional fighting within the government and PTI, as well as to the popular perceptions about Buzdar’s incompetence. “Buzdar’s troubles are either linked to factional infighting within the government or they can be due to his perceived ineffectiveness. Both issues can also be linked and feed into each other,” says Javid. In his opinion, it is clear that Buzdar’s appointment has always been an issue for the PTI government. “From the beginning, the Punjab government has had to deal with competing centres of power. You have Jahangir Tareen, Pervaiz Elahi and, to a lesser extent, Aleem Khan and even Shah Mahmood Qureshi — all initially vying for [Buzdar’s] position, with their own agendas and interests.”
The attacks repeatedly mounted against Buzdar by his detractors have always focused on underscoring poor governance and ineffective administration under him. No one has ever accused him of corruption, apart from giving a few jobs to his relatives and friends and diverting huge development funds to his home constituency. “Who needs corruption charges to bring him down?” asks one of his critics from his own party. “His incompetence and poor governance are enough to topple him whenever his opponents get the signal from the right quarters.”
In recent months, there have been signs of visible decline across the province: stalled infrastructure projects, erosion of projects, such as dengue control and garbage collection in Lahore, that were previously seen to work well. All of this, coupled with the recent wheat flour shortages and delayed actions to fight smog in the cities have harmed his image. On top of that, the federal government’s own problems with the economy and growing inflation and bureaucratic slowdown in fear of NAB cases, have reinforced the idea that the current Punjab government is weak and ineffective.
A compromise candidate, Buzdar has always been perceived as weak and, thus, has been an easy target for his critics, precisely because he lacks a credible base of his own. Any power he has stems from Imran Khan. In a context where the Punjab government exists with a razor-thin majority, Javid says, it is not difficult to see how PML-Q, the main ally of PTI in the province, for example, might start to tighten the screws in the hopes of gaining more concessions and control at a time of perceived weakness.
This is where the governance issues come in. Under PML-Q and PML-N since 2002, Punjab was governed by strongmen — Pervaiz Elahi and Shahbaz Sharif — who, despite their many failings, had delivered in tangible, if not necessarily optimal, ways. “A lot is made of how a disproportionate amount of attention was paid to Lahore and, it was, as can be seen when comparing Lahore’s infrastructure with any other Pakistani city,” says Javid. “But both PML-Q and PML-N invested heavily in developing the entire province’s road network, upgrading sanitation and, less successfully, uplifting schools and hospitals,” he argues.
“Traditional patronage politics also continued under them, but visible signs of improved service delivery like roads and sewers supplemented the thana-kuchehri [police station and court] politics as a basis for the support enjoyed by their governments,” he says. “Under PTI, there is less visible evidence of service delivery. While the government talks about health insurance, etc., the effects of such initiatives are too diffused to be seen by the electorate.”
In recent months, there have been signs of visible decline across the province: stalled infrastructure projects, erosion of projects, such as dengue control and garbage collection in Lahore, that were previously seen to work well. All of this, coupled with the recent wheat flour shortages and delayed actions to fight smog in the cities have harmed his image. On top of that, the federal government’s own problems with the economy and growing inflation and bureaucratic slowdown in fear of NAB cases, have reinforced the idea that the current Punjab government is weak and ineffective. This creates the space to easily attack the Buzdar administration.
Warraich broadly agrees with the analysis but says the recent uproar over Buzdar’s ineffectiveness was never the objective of the so-called pressure group of PTI MPAs to blackmail him or get him replaced. “They had come together to support the chief minister and help him take back some administrative powers over the bureaucracy and the police from Imran Khan, who has directly and remotely controlled the province from Islamabad,” he claims. “The federal interference in the province’s administration increased to a new high after wholesale changes in the provincial bureaucracy and police with both the new chief secretary and Inspector General of Police directly reporting to the prime minister.”
Warraich is of the view that even PML-Q doesn’t want Buzdar to go. “It does not suit their interests, they want Buzdar to be a strong chief executive so that they can share power in the province with him in exchange for their support in the assembly,” he says. “This is a major bone of contention between Imran Khan and the Chaudhrys of Gujrat,” he adds.
Some insist that poor governance is also a concern for the establishment, as Punjab remains the key to governing Pakistan and anything that undermines PTI’s credibility in Punjab will weaken it and its backers as well. Yet, no one agrees with suggestions that the establishment could also be behind the recent uprising against Buzdar.
“The establishment is a major stakeholder in the new political system that has emerged in Pakistan after the 2018 elections,” says an Islamabad-based political analyst who now works for a think tank, requesting anonymity because he is not authorised to comment on political developments. “But I don’t think it is involved in day-to-day politicking. Having said that, I would add here that they will not mind using the allegations of poor governance in Punjab as an excuse to control or replace PTI, [if and when] they need.”
People such as federal railways minister Sheikh Rasheed contend that the real target of the campaign against Buzdar is his leader, Imran Khan, and not the chief minister himself. According to him, once Buzdar is shown the door, Imran Khan’s opponents will come after him. “There is a lot of truth in Rasheed’s claim,” says Warraich. “Those who are pursuing Buzdar are actually after the prime minister, there is no doubt about it. But it is true to the extent of opposition parties and not for those who aren’t in any way linked to the PTI-led coalition in the province or in Islamabad.”
For the governing coalition allies, a change in Punjab weakens PTI’s ability to dictate terms and set the agenda, according to Javid. “For PML-N and other opponents, weakness in Punjab — particularly in terms of governance — creates the opportunity to attack the government and build support,” he says. “At a time when there are rumours of an understanding being reached between the establishment and Shahbaz Sharif, a change in Punjab could very well be a precursor to bigger changes in Islamabad.”
He goes on: “The establishment has always wanted to keep civilians off-balance by not allowing any single party to consolidate its support. They cut PML-N down to size and will do the same to PTI if the need arises. They may also wish to avert any crisis of legitimacy that may emerge from the current crisis of governance. My guess is that if there is a change in Punjab, it won’t be long before we start seeing talk of a change in Islamabad as well, and the emergence of forward blocs in PTI and the resurgence of PML-Q and/or PML-N.”
Contrary to common perception, PML-N has so far shown little interest in ousting the Punjab government or Usman Buzdar, in spite of rumours of a “secret agreement” with PML-Q that will help Pervaiz Elahi rule the province with its support. “PML-N is playing its own game. It wants the cracks in the coalition and within PTI to bring down the government in Punjab with PML-N watching the game from the sidelines,” says Warraich. “But once the infighting pulls down the PTI-led administration, PML-N will be ready to jump in and stake a claim for the province.”
Javid says PML-N — perhaps an even more formidable force then before in Punjab politics — would have been in a good position to capitalise on PTI’s weakness in next elections. “If rumours of a rapprochement between the establishment and Shahbaz Sharif are to be believed, any effort to bring change in Punjab will inevitably involve PML-N.”
Javid argues that it is extremely unlikely that Buzdar’s removal would lead to the fall of the PTI government in Punjab at this time. But, he says, if PTI’s fortunes dwindle even further, PML-N could come back. After all, bringing PML-N back would simply require a small forward bloc defecting from PTI in the Punjab Assembly. “History tells us this is not difficult to do — with the right signals from Rawalpindi — so it will be interesting to see what happens if change does come to Punjab,” Javid says.
Political observers are unanimous in their view that the recent crisis in Punjab isn’t the last one. Such troubles for the chief minister will keep surfacing from time to time. But no one sees Buzdar going any time soon. If he is removed, it will only be if Imran Khan agrees to replace him voluntarily or if PML-Q threatens to leave the coalition or a forward bloc in PTI is formed to bring him down with the help of the opposition. “All three developments are possible, and only the first option will allow Imran Khan to exercise some modicum of control,” Javid says. “Regardless of how it happens, Buzdar’s dismissal will reflect poorly on Imran Khan and will weaken the PTI government in Islamabad.”
Buzdar is indeed a lucky man; his future is closely tied to Imran Khan’s because his dismissal will be taken as a big defeat for the prime minister, who is until now refusing to relent in the face of pressure from his party. If Buzdar falls, he will drag his leader with him. And Imran Khan, it seems, understands that only too well.
Header composed by Leea Contractor
The writer is a member of staff
Published in Dawn, EOS, February 9th, 2020