IT needed a ‘sugar scandal’ of potentially party-breaking proportions to compete with Covid-19 for media space. And the breaking news was complemented in no small way by the defensive statements that some top officials in the land chose to greet it with.
The prime minister wanted to celebrate and savour the moment. He was happy to have broken the Pakistani rulers’ taboo of sitting over investigation reports for fear of exposing their own misdeeds. He promised action once a final report on the subject was available on April 25. The line was then picked up by the rest in the proud and triumphant prime ministerial encampment in Islamabad. Prime Minister Imran Khan has nothing to lose. He does not have any sugar mills of his own. He does not have relatives owning sugar mills. He has nothing to fear, unlike the Zardaris and the Sharifs of this world who are up to their noses into profits secured by using their positions in power.
This chorus continues, even if compromised in intensity. However, another strand has been added. This second front, so as to speak, has been necessitated by the need to not unduly intimidate and corner one of the prime architects of the PTI as it stands today: Mr Jahangir Tareen.
If the FIA report pointed fingers at Mr Tareen for allegedly using his influence with the Usman Buzdar government to secure subsidies on sugar, his reaction to the insinuation was swift. He was imperially dismissive of Mr Shahbaz Gill’s statement in which he had relieved Mr Tareen as the head of some taskforce. Mr Tareen said he could not be sacked from a post he had never formally held.
Is it the same party that Mr Tareen had helped build and propelled to power?
In a follow-up move, Mr Tareen blamed the prime minister’s secretary, Mr Azam Khan, as the force behind the content of the report. This was quite a direct attack on Prime Minister Imran Khan. In the book of a politician facing the odds, it could well have meant giving old friend Imran an opening from where some kind of reconciliation could be worked out.
Mr Tareen said he was, is and would continue to be a friend of Mr Imran Khan, come what may. But as he pleaded his case, he appeared careful to shore up his defences against any detractors in the party with whatever material he could easily recall. It was probably this strategy which led him into making a remark that could well turn out to be the single-most devastating piece of arsenal fired at the PTI ever since the general election of 2013.
In an interview with television host, Mr Nadeem Malik, Mr Tareen spoke about a conversation between Mr Khan and him just after the 2013 polls. He remarked how the vote had been rigged on a few seats — endangering the whole PTI argument about a suspicious PML-N victory in the 2013 election. He did that to provide background to his own grand contribution in providing the PTI with politically influential families in Punjab who eventually secured the 2018 electoral victory for Mr Imran Khan.
This pretty much placed Mr Tareen’s cards on the table. At the risk of depriving the PTI of its political motive since 2013, indeed threatening to expose its ‘weak’ case against the rigging, he is out to seek vindication for his services to the party. Maybe he is expecting that the famous electables that he delivered, some in his equally renowned power aircraft, have started to murmur in his favour.
One such gem, Mr Raja Riaz, formerly of the PPP and now a PTI member of the National Assembly, held a press conference in his Faisalabad hometown on Wednesday. He spoke as loudly as possible in favour of Mr Tareen. Once again, he hinted at the possibility of placing the entire blame on a scapegoat, when he repeatedly insisted that the prime minister ought to go through the case himself.
Otherwise veterans in the field also hinted at the possibility of a patch-up between the big guns over and above what was written in petty departmental files. Mr Sheikh Rashid, in particular, was quite keen to comment, even though he seemed to have been torn between a natural awami or popular urge to condemn the sugar barons and saving his ally, the ruling party, from any damage.
In the days running up to April 25, many others will be faced with the same dilemma. The infamous sugar cartel, which throws up a variety of names, is just too tempting for many to not elicit cries of action — even if it requires a sacrifice from the PTI. It is certainly not going to be the first time that Mr Tareen would be pulled over by the forces at work. He was earlier stopped by the court and while that did curtail his role in the party and government, there were others to ably look after Mr Khan’s interests at this stage.
Is it the same party that Mr Tareen had helped build and propelled to power? Most certainly it has progressed through the interaction between its very groupings. Let us re-emphasise the point: not all of those who once swore by Mr Tareen as their PTI mentor may today be ready to side with him. He needed something more. An electoral constituency of his own.
Mr Tareen gives so much importance to the electable: a figure who has bright prospects of winning a provincial or national seat. And how does he figure on this chosen scale of his? He has no constituency. Agreed, he was disqualified by the court and could not contest himself, but the ease with which he withdrew his replacement, his son Mr Ali Tareen, in favour of another PTI nominee in the 2018 general election was simply inexplicable.
There was this man who was delivering the right pedigree for the pretender to claim the throne, yet he had secured no seat in the darbar for his family. That is a huge self-contradiction. Mr Tareen ought to best understand that such selflessness could cost him big in the long run.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
Published in Dawn, April 10th, 2020