Sugar and spice

Updated 09 Apr 2020


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

DON’T believe the hype. This whole sugar and wheat business is not about anything quite as grand as increased transparency or ramped-up accountability. Sugar millers have seen many inquiries and suo motus in the past, and in many cases, even the names mentioned have been the same.

The two reports on the sugar and wheat price rises that have commanded the news cycle since Saturday are not some sort of turning point. This is little more than a factional fight within the ruling party that has broken out in full public view. That’s all.

Listen carefully to what Jahangir Tareen, the man at the centre of the storm, had to say during his first two TV appearances since the scandal broke. Both appearances were on Monday night, one at 8pm and the other at 10pm. And his message during both was the same.

The first thing he did in both interviews was to underline his deep roots in the party, which critically for him go back to the aftermath of the defeat of 2013 and the ensuing days of rage that were the dharnas. In doing so, he let the cat out of the bag, ie one of Imran Khan’s principal grievances aired from every platform he had at his disposal in those days, about the 2013 elections being ‘rigged’ and the ‘35 punctures’ was in fact wrong.

This is little more than a factional fight within the ruling party that has broken out in full public view.

“There was rigging,” Tareen said, “but only on a few seats, mostly it was all just about raising a hue and cry.” He then went on to explain how, in the aftermath of the elections, he showed Imran Khan the scale of the defeat the party had just suffered. “Half the seats in Punjab that we lost in 2013, we were not even in second place; in some cases, we were not even on the table, we were third, fourth or fifth! In those in which we came second, we secured 20 per cent of the vote, and in 66pc of them, we didn’t even get 20pc of the vote!”

He says he tried to explain to the prime minister what that meant. “We had the wrong candidates, we need to change our candidates, this is Punjab, there are political families here and until you bring them in you cannot become prime minister,” he said.

He claimed this decision to turn to what the rest of us were calling ‘the electables’ at that point in time met with stiff resistance. And as he pushed it, he was accused by the old hands of trying to take over the party. This, he argued, was the foundation, the beginning, of a factional struggle that had now come to a head in the open with the sugar inquiry reports and the resultant blame game in which he has been embroiled.

Then he went on to take a few names. In both interviews, he mentioned the name of the secretary to the prime minister, Azam Khan, a grade-21 officer of the Pakistan Administrative Service, who had served in important posts in KP and had caught the prime minister’s eye. From the beginning, Tareen says, it was Azam Khan who opposed him in creating a new kind of decision-making structure which, if allowed to go through, would have reduced the sphere of autonomous action enjoyed by the bureaucrats. In the other interview, he went so far as to hint that Azam Khan had interfered in the working of the inquiry committee that produced both reports.

As anyone who has followed Islamabad politics beyond a few governments knows, bureaucrats like Azam Khan are unlikely to take positions diametrically opposed to those of important political players like Tareen without first ensuring that their own backs are covered. That is where factional politics comes in.

For a hint into what the factions may look like, consider that the only political resignation thus far is that of Punjab food minister, Samiullah Chaudhary, who termed the wheat inquiry report (the constitution of the committee for both reports was the same) a ‘conspiracy’ and threatened to ‘expose’ those behind it. Then he went on to name Asad Umar, who was finance minister at the time the decisions were made, as the person who called for exporting wheat while the country faced a foreign exchange crunch.

Recall all that happened around the same time last year, which was also the time that Asad was ousted as finance minister and replaced with Hafeez Shaikh as ‘finance adviser’, an act that many of those who follow the palace intrigues in Islamabad said had the fingerprints of Tareen all over it.

It will be instructive to see how all this develops, but if history is any guide, then it is likely to not go very far. Already the affair has blown the lid off. Somebody like Tareen saying on national TV that the post-2013 rigging allegations were nothing but ‘noise’ and the election was lost because the party ran with the wrong candidates is explosive material. What else may come spilling out if this factional fighting intensifies?

There is one person who cannot afford to have this escalate, and that is Imran Khan himself. Last year, when the medicine price hike shook his government, he was moved to fire his then health minister, Aamir Mehmood Kiani, an old stalwart of the party. The firing happened in April 2019, and by July of that same year, Kiani was appointed secretary general of the party. Today, he appears standing next to Imran Khan on important occasions.

The sugar cartels are not worried. Watch Tareen’s appearances carefully, note the soft, understated confidence, the chuckles when the scale and scope of his meddling in government affairs is read out to him. But above all, note the quiet smirk on his face throughout the interviews. That is what says it all.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @khurramhusain

Published in Dawn, April 9th, 2020