THE determination with which the Punjab government, along with its federal counterpart, sticks to its guns when it comes to the matter of Nawaz Sharif’s leave from Pakistan on health grounds defies political logic. The question of whether Mian Sahib should be allowed to go for treatment abroad had plagued the country for long and at least some of the more traditional observers of politics had thought that the former prime minister’s exit was a good development that the government could exploit in its favour.
Prime Minister Imran Khan had hopelessly been bogged down in this debate about relief for the PML-N leadership, as part of the larger discussion about the manner in which the new setup wanted to operate the accountability system. So deep and intense was the dispute that, at one time, it appeared that even though the government wanted to provide an outlet to the Sharifs, in order to secure an exit for itself, the Imran Khan camp had run out of ideas about how to execute a retreat strategy.
As provincial minister Dr Yasmin Rashid spoke to the media outside the Services Hospital that winter day, it was a rather mellow culmination of a battle fought long and hard. Mian Nawaz Sharif’s — or his family’s — attempt at finding a way out of confinement in Lahore had met with success and for once the farewell tone of the PTI minister, who happened to have contested elections against Mian Sahib and his wife in the past, was bereft of acrimony. That was relief enough from the relentless hostilities that generally make up politics in this land.
Given that Dr Yasmin Rashid was once known as quite a (surgical) knife wielder, her handling of the Nawaz Sharif case did create the illusion of decency — which, unfortunately, she was later left to fight for. She has been forced to not only justify Mr Nawaz Sharif’s travel abroad on medical grounds, but also to prove her own innocence, and more than that, the competence of the system she is responsible for running as a senior member of the government of Punjab.
The hounds are out to target the entire power edifice that has been created in Punjab.
What is at stake here is much more than a simple confirmation, or not, about the veracity of the medical reports that helped provide a former prime minister, suffering from a bout of silence among other possible ailments, an urgently needed escape. The hounds are out to target the entire power edifice that has been created in Punjab, and which has been exposed to all kinds of criticism and condemnations from all sides, not least because it has been headed by a novice in Sardar Usman Buzdar.
The possibilities of politics in Punjab under Sardar Buzdar, tasked with granting or refusing relief to Mian Nawaz Sharif, are immense. Not the most difficult option is where an ostensible well-wisher of Sardar Buzdar can innocently ask about the likelihood of the Punjab government having erred while reading Mian Nawaz Sharif’s medical reports.... It is a question that places the rival PML-N in an awkward position, at the same time promising the intelligent poser of the question points against the Buzdar government.
The Buzdar government is considered to be meek. The prime minister has to frequently come to its defence. In recent times, Mr Khan has gone so far as to warn off those conspiring against the Punjab government, admitting that the major threat to Mr Buzdar for the time being comes from within. Against this background, it is not too difficult to build a connection between the attack on the Punjab government over the medical reports of Mian Nawaz Sharif and the desires and deigns to discredit the current Punjab setup.
Potentially, the most dangerous voices that cry out ‘fake Sharif reports’ today arise from within the PTI. They are obviously pressing for their right to be given greater power and responsibility within the party fold — as is normal in a democratic political outfit. They might well have a genuine claim to a greater role inside a party that has shown increasing signs of adapting and compromising to prove itself fit for its power assignment. But despite all this realisation about what changes the brush with power must bring for a particular period, the PTI is just too young a dream to have lost all its romance already. Underneath the layer created by the short time in power that nonetheless promises more terms in government, the distinction between the old and the new still exists for anyone who cares to see.
Chief Minister Usman Buzdar may be a recent Imran Khan discovery, but Dr Yasmin Rashid is not. She is an old-timer, someone from among the original cadres who was considered still useable when the party was near to power. She has been advertising the good, professional-led Pakistan that the PTI sought to create after dismantling the corrupt system ie the original PTI face that contested against Mian Sahib in the old Lahore constituency, and that was preferred over the newer moneyed competitors who could give the PML-N chief a tougher time.
There have been few survivors from among the original members. Some who have managed to retain some kind of ceremonial positions in the PTI have been practically pushed to the margins, assigned the ‘more important’ party work instead of government assignments that could benefit their politics in future.
Dr Yasmin Rashid is one among a rare group of pioneers who still manage to get an audience with the prime minister. She seems to be still relevant, still wanted, despite the fact that she has lost a few elections and does not appear to favour the general intimidatory tone pursued generally by politicians in authority. In a fight between the older PTI politicians and the party’s lateral power entrants, it will be intriguing to see how long she can hold out.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
Published in Dawn, February 28th, 2020