Red zone files: One person the PM really needs

Updated February 20, 2020

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THREE months can be a long time. Or a blink of an eye. March, April and May promise to test these options.

This was one packed week and it displayed Pakistan’s contradictions in all their living colours. The impactful success of the UN secretary general’s visit, the overreach of the social media curbs law and ensuing confusion (possible U-turn too), the incomplete completion of the IMF review and its ambiguous press release, the supportive visit and speech of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and the dilution of its impact by an ill-timed presser of the prime minister threatening treason charges against JUI-F leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the sharpening of the opposition knives for some action in March and the continuing lack of governmental clarity on where the economy is heading — all this reinforced the perception that Islamabad was refusing to settle down into normalcy.

At the core of these contradictions lies the PTI government’s continuing struggle to get a grip on things. Each week this pattern manifests itself in one event or the other and cements the perception of controlled chaos reigning deep inside the bowels of the power structure. It is the crushing weight of this negative perception that is forcing the prime minister to lash out at the media or ‘mafias’ or the opposition or all three. This externalisation of blame is damaging at two levels: first, it de-incentivises internal accountability of performance; second, it vitiates the already tense atmosphere and adds to the brittleness of the political system.

“The prime minister needs a chief of staff,” says a senior PTI insider with access to the inner workings of the government. His argument is simple: there is no one in the PM’s personal staff who can manage him. Imran Khan is a ‘big picture’ person and not a deep policy person. This is not surprising given that he’s a sportsman and philanthropist who hasn’t held a job or personally run a large business or corporation.

This is not a disadvantage per se because leaders do not need to micro-manage things as long as they have the right people to organise their life and priorities for them. Since the PM doesn’t have anyone like that, disorganisation reigns supreme.

Endless meetings with very little decision-making, unstructured deliberations with weak conclusions, commitments that are not noted and hence forgotten, observations that have little follow-ups, appointments that are a waste of the PM’s time, and briefings that fail to get digested for optimum impact — all these have now become a routine affair in the Prime Minister Office. Concerned officials say this is not the PM’s fault. He cannot be expected to perform his duties without structured intervention and informed advice that he is willing to take. The principal secretary to the PM does indeed perform some of these tasks but due to various limitations, this is not sufficient. Officials say the PM should find someone senior enough, organised enough, capable enough, trustworthy enough and politically savvy enough to act as his chief of staff without delay.

A search for such a person brings into focus the various orbits that define the ruling party. Visualise for a second the planet Saturn and the rings around it. The prime minister is the planet and there are at least three rings around him. These rings define three categories of people who are orbiting around him.

The first ring consists of those people who have been with him since the earliest days and form the core of the party. The second ring defines those who joined him before the 2013 elections and around the time of his famous Lahore jalsa. The third ring is defined by those people who joined him just prior to the 2018 elections and helped him bag enough seats to form the government.

Here’s the important thing about these rings that PTI insiders say: these do not define who is closest to the prime minister right now, but who is likely to stick with him when adversity hits. So there are many in the outer-most ring that may be in his inner circle presently and many in the inner-most ring that may have lost their access to him. But the outer ring people (those who were made to join him prior to the election) are likely to jump off his bandwagon as soon as such a time arose. Those in the first ring, even though they may not be in his kitchen cabinet, are unlikely to abandon him out of power. A lot of bickering, leg pulling, infighting and conspiracy inside the party is due to the fact that the order of orbiting of these non-celestial beings is not in tune with the cosmic order of things.

At some point, political gravity may restore order around the PM and that’s when the situation could change in interesting ways. Adversity, as they say, is the best teacher.

Astronomy and astrology aside, there’s the little matter of strategic direction (or lack thereof). The government may have patched up with the disgruntled allies for now, but the whispers about a certain easing of tensions between the PML-N and the establishment refuse to fade away. Noon league insiders say the deliberations in London are now focused on how to translate this easing of tensions into specific political options.

The prime minister has made it clear time and again he is not ready to make nice with the opposition regardless of what Rawalpindi might think. The intensity of his focus on going after the opposition is illustrated by the fact that cabinet meetings that last multiple hours are not focused on the agenda items alone. In fact, after the formal agenda is over, all the bureaucrats and other staff are told to leave the room. Once the cabinet members are on their own, the PM starts discussing the Sharifs, Zardari and the Maulana and how to handle them. The discussion stretches on, and on.

Published in Dawn, February 20th, 2020