Story of an end foretold

Updated 30 Jun 2020


The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

IT’S time for yet another prediction about the end of yet another government. These doomsday predictions are the only constant in our otherwise uncertain polity, but this time around the rumours/prophecies were set off by the party’s own men (and not the women).

A minister threw down the gauntlet during the now-famous interview to the Voice of America. Fawad Chaudhry (who has in the past also ruffled party feathers) didn’t just lament the absence of the reforms that the PTI had promised but also claimed that the infighting between senior leaders such as Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Jahangir Tareen and Asad Umar had let non-political people take over the party.

Chaudhry’s outburst was followed by people such as Raja Riaz taking to public forums ie television to complain of indifferent and uncaring cabinet members. And then there was the ally, BNP-Mengal, which walked out of the alliance.

It is all happening so fast that it is surprising no one has yet quoted “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”.

Even if Imran Khan decides to change the party culture, the rivalries will not go away.

But without the benefits of sources which are readily available to the well-connected everywhere in Pakistan, it’s hard to see most of the PTI’s internal woes as more than the usual ankh macholi (blind man’s buff) of constituency politicians at an opportune moment. In a system where parliament is fast losing its relevance, the backbenchers too are finding it harder and harder to access prime ministers and their cabinets. The PPP was perhaps a bit different but earlier Shaukat Aziz and then Nawaz Sharif and now Imran Khan rarely reach out to the parliamentarian party. Lack of accessibility has become routine.

For a constituency politician, this doesn’t help because he needs access to the power corridors to maintain his position in his area. And the closer he gets to the election, the antsier he is — halfway to what he assumes is the new election date is when politicians mentally begin to think of campaign time and what the reaction of the people will be when he goes around asking for votes. With two years of inflation, belt tightening and little development spending, the constituency politicians are already having sleepless nights.

Hence, the few chances they get to flex their importance, they make their resentment loud and clear. As it is, the post-2008 political world has been harsh as opposition parties no longer indulge in no-confidence moves, leaving them only with times when legislation has to be passed to be heard. And the budget is particularly important because of what it can and must offer to the parliamentarians. This is as true of backbenchers as it is of allies. Where a backbencher such as Raja Riaz will make his annoyance public once or twice and then go quiet, the allies will keep at it. And this has been the process at work over the past few days.

But this is not to say the noises will not grow; they will as constituencies and voters cannot be ignored for long.

The bickering between the king’s men is a different kettle of fish altogether.

Most parties experience something similar — local rivalries as well as competing ambitions — but the PTI or rather Imran Khan doesn’t seem to discourage these from becoming too public. For instance, Fawad Chaudhry, when he was information minister, and the late Naeem ul Haque had a public Twitter spat, and later as the science & technology chap, Chaudhry, in a light tone, commented on a show that the Punjab chief minister should resign if he wasn’t being asked to leave. Ghulam Sarwar too has made his opinion about the unelected advisers clear in an interview or two. In a far subtler way, Shireen Mazari has criticised the Foreign Office, once or twice, as an institution.

It’s not that rivalries don’t exist in other parties. It was reported more than once during the previous government’s tenure that Chaudhry Nisar and Khawaja Asif were not on speaking terms; or that Ishaq Dar wasn’t too popular with the party because he was so close to Nawaz Sharif, but few spoke about these differences publicly. One can assume that they didn’t do so because it would not be tolerated. But this is not the case with the PTI.

This public airing of laundry has become part of the party culture. Even if Imran Khan decides to change it, the rivalries will not go away. Partly because most leaders benefit from divisions and rivalries; it provides a system of countercheck within the party. What people are up to, and how well they are performing or not, and what they may be saying out of earshot will make it back to the party head thanks to those against them. This is how courts operate and so do our parties.

And for Khan this is perhaps more of a necessity than others. This is the first time he has come to power and is now surrounded by people whom he doesn’t know how to view. After all, many of them will desert him when he is out of power but he cannot know for sure till he experiences a stint out of power. At the same time, he perhaps will also take time to understand that party leaders constantly balance trust and loyalty with the idea that relationships with dependable ones can turn sour — Benazir Bhutto and Farooq Leghari are a case in point — while even those who aren’t trusted (such as electables and allies) have to be kept happy. But such lessons take time and the extent to which they are learned remains to be seen.

But in the meantime, it is perhaps hard to believe that these troubles by themselves signal the beginning of the end of the PTI government. For that, a decision will have to be made elsewhere, and once it is made, the power brokers will have to find a willing ally in the opposition to execute it. And it is not necessary that when and if this happens, it will be well-publicised.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, June 30th, 2020