Red zone files: Whispering in the wind

Updated 09 Apr 2020


Prime Minister Imran Khan and Jahangir Tareen. — AFP/File
Prime Minister Imran Khan and Jahangir Tareen. — AFP/File

There is a knife-fight happening inside the Red Zone and first blood has been drawn.

In the tumult of the last few days, many things stand rearranged, and many reinforced, inside the power circles of Islamabad. Under the cover of Covid-19, politics has bared its fangs and sunk them in the soft flesh of those who dared expose it. And yet much remains cloaked under the shadow of overbearing ambition.

On the surface, the situation appeared fairly simple: a wheat and sugar shortage hit the country earlier in the year and the prices spiraled out of control. The government was, seemingly, caught unawares and appropriately savaged in the court of public opinion. Smarting from these blows, Prime Minister Imran Khan ordered the FIA to conduct an inquiry and the report of this inquiry suddenly surfaced a few days ago. It alleged that among the beneficiaries of the price hikes were key aides of the prime minister including Jehangir Tareen and Khusro Bakhtiar.

Shortly afterwards, the prime minister ordered a cabinet reshuffle which was seen as a reward for some and punishment for others. The government’s media team gloated over their boss’s unprecedented step of making public a report that named and shamed his own people. Now a forensic report is expected on April 25th.

So much for what is on the surface. Let us now dive into the deep.

The fights were many months in the making. They were multi-dimensional, multi-layered and multi-purpose. Imagine the vicious power play of Ertugrul combined with the palace intrigues of House of Cards combined with the swift manoeuvres of Money Heist, and you get a feel of what has transpired — and continues to do so — inside the Red Zone. Heroes and villains? Often times it is hard to tell the difference.

What is not hard to tell is a sense of betrayal on all sides. With the political ramifications of the sugar and wheat inquiry report outpacing its legal ramifications, the rush to judgement has already happened. As per this judgement, government sources say Jehangir Tareen has fallen from favour but Khusro Bakhtiar has not. That’s not hard to guess, right?

An aide to the PM tweeted against Tareen but Khusro got reshuffled into a more prestigious ministry. “He doesn’t own shares in the sugar mills,” says a government insider, “his brother does.” But there is another explanation: Khusro was never close enough to the sun to burn. And Tareen is not, by any stretch of the imagination, out of the game. He has played it longer — and better — than most others. Rush to judgement is rarely a good thing.

And rules of the game? Here is a sample from inside the Red Zone:

  1. Closeness breeds influence. Influence needs access. In the game of power, access is the gold currency.

  2. Power radiates out of the man at the top. The rest all bask in reflected glory.

  3. He who whispers in the king’s ear wields the sword of power. That is a lesson of the ages.

Tareen has named PM’s Principal Secretary Azam Khan as the man responsible for his recent troubles. Whatever the case may be, this unveils a harsh reality about how our system of governance is structured. PTI is new to the game and this is one reason why it is experiencing the painful convulsions of power play. How do you prepare to wield power if you have never wielded it?

Before he became the prime minister, Imran Khan enjoyed a close circle of loyalists. They had access to him. They controlled the access to him. This constituted their power and influence within the party. They could do what others could not: whisper in his ear.

On the day Imran Khan became prime minister-designate, all this changed in ways that whisperers could not have imagined. Within a few hours of him winning the elections, Imran Khan had become the property of the State. And in this country of ours, State trumps individuals. Every time. This swift change in dynamics manifested itself when the late Naeem-ul-Haq, Khan’s closest friend and loyalist, was stopped at the gates of Banigala by the Rangers guards. The State had cut off his access to his friend because his friend now belonged to the State.

The State- and system-mandated whisperer to the PM is his Principal Secretary (PSPM). That is his/her job description. The PSPM is the one person who spends the most time with the PM in any given day (other than the PM’s immediate family); who controls all access to the PM and who gate-keeps all his affairs including the flow of official information. He does not control the PM but he does, to an extent, control who the PM sees. Or what the PM sees. This is why Fawad Hassan Fawad, as PSPM to Nawaz Sharif, wielded such enormous power even though Sharif was a third-time prime minister who had been roaming the corridors of power for a good three decades. Khan is in the process of discovering how wheels churn within wheels which turn within another set of wheels. This is not an easy transition for a man and for his lieutenants. It never is. People play. People get played. Those who know the game know that influence is a precious commodity that must be peddled very carefully: under-peddle and it eats itself; over-peddle and it eats you.

The sugar and wheat inquiry report was mandated to find the truth, but was also intended to burn and bruise others. Bruises heal soon, burns not so much. So far no one has brought a gun to the knife fight but since first blood has been drawn, there will be more casualties. Inside PTI, people had chosen sides many moons ago. Now they will accrue the punishments and rewards for their choices. Watch out for some changes coming soon. Being energetic can only go so far if the energy is not energised by the rocket-fuel of influence.

One such change is reflected in a recent cabinet appointment. This particular appointment, according to insiders, has triggered a wave of insecurity among many in the cabinet because the new appointment is a person who has the talent to dip into the domains of many others — and they know it. This person also has something which many in the cabinet do not — the ability to become a whisperer.


Published in Dawn, April 9th, 2020