Khan vs Tareen

Updated Jun 02 2020


The writer is a former caretaker finance minister of Sindh.
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister of Sindh.

IMRAN Khan and Jahangir Tareen’s story is not a new one in Pakistan’s politics. Ayub and Yahya, Bhutto and Khar, Zia and Chishti, Musharraf and Shaukat Aziz. Even former president Zardari who is known to have spoiled friends, despite suffering at their hands, lost Zulfiqar Mirza. Pakistan’s ruthless politics tests strong bonds. The question in Khan and Tareen’s case, as always is, how will it end?

Imran Khan at the moment is lord of all he surveys because he has the establishment’s continued support. One key reason for this support is that he is a prime minister perceived by the establishment as commanding a lower cost.

To understand the concept of lower cost, one has to understand Pakistan’s political story, which is the story of constant negotiations that underlie an uneasy balance of power between Pakistan’s political families and the establishment.

Political leaders — be they minor ones like Junejo and Jamali or the more powerful ones like Zardari, Nawaz Sharif and the Chaudhry brothers — have always found their space at one end negotiating with the establishment and at the other with the political families that bring them votes. The stronger they are the harder they negotiate.

Our ruthless politics tests strong bonds.

Their appropriation or use of state power to improve their own and their supporting families’ political and economic prospects flow from this space which is perceived as a cost by the establishment. Khan’s biggest attraction for the establishment is his perceived lower cost because he does not even try to occupy this negotiating space.

The upside of Khan’s approach is that he is as stable as Shaukat Aziz was. The downside is that the families are not being managed. The recent forays by Maulana Fazlur Rehman and the normally sanguine Chaudhry brothers are an example. It is not normal for the Chaudhry family to narrate a conversation with an ISI chief on public television relating to their complaint to former Gen Pasha about his intelligence outfit filching the PML-Q’s politicians for Khan’s party.

Khan’s steering clear of the dangerous negotiator’s position may be good for his longevity in office but, as a result, the establishment has to increasingly deal with every political and administrative level. Even though individuals in the establishment enjoy the importance; direct negotiations with the families on a micro scale are difficult to manage as the establishment is not equipped for it.

The direct engagement has, on the one hand, left Khan irrelevant and, on the other, led to the further collapse of already dysfunctional state institutions, causing a policy vacuum with economic stasis.

Tareen felt there was space here. His interviews indicating his influence with political families and his own description of his role as arbitrator of the relationships of these families with the PTI are instructive. He is also one of the select few tycoons who were chosen by the establishment to take advantage of the monopolies created in Zia’s time.

These monopolies provided systems of generating wealth for a select few and created a new class of very rich people who added themselves to the established political families of Pakistan.

Tareen and his cousin Humayun Akhtar were into these monopolies. Their amazing feat of turning around Riaz Bottlers, Pakistan’s loss-making local Pepsi distributor, and entering the sugar industry to become one of the richest players in Pakistan — post-Zia’s crash — proved that Nawaz Sharif’s children were not the only talented children who made it big. Such was the establishment support for Tareen and Co that the FIA was given a bloody nose by the Punjab Police in 1989 when it tried to investigate them.

Due to his history with the establishment and newfound status of a political family, Tareen assumed that during Khan’s reign, he would negotiate between the families and the establishment.

However, Tareen miscalculated; Khan may have been a past beneficiary of his wealth but had no intention of becoming relevant at the risk of ire from the establishment. He calculated that the establishment is a sum of the parts. This means it is currently happy, as individuals within it are, enjoying the power of direct engagement with the administration and the families.

At the first hint from the establishment that Tareen’s appropriation of state subsidies was an issue, Khan bailed out. Suddenly, Imran Khan was having his Majid Khan moment all over again — this time in politics. We all remember Khan’s coup against Miandad, using Majid to become captain and then dumping him. But it might not yet be ‘RIP’ for Tareen’s politics because Tareen is no Majid — he is perhaps one of the tycoons that are too big for Pakistan.

The writer is a former caretaker finance minister of Sindh.

Published in Dawn, June 2nd, 2020