RED ZONE FILES: Minus few?

Updated 02 Jul 2020

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Prime Minister Imran Khan stood on the floor of the National Assembly and referred to the peculiarly Pakistani political jargon of ‘Minus-one’. — AFP/File
Prime Minister Imran Khan stood on the floor of the National Assembly and referred to the peculiarly Pakistani political jargon of ‘Minus-one’. — AFP/File

Even the storm in a teacup can spill over.

The last few weeks have been unkind to the PTI government. Very unkind. These ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ hit a bullseye on Tuesday evening when Prime Minister Imran Khan stood on the floor of the National Assembly and referred to the peculiarly Pakistani political jargon of ‘Minus-one’. The problem: if ever there was a jargon pregnant with meaning — and insinuation — it is this. But only when weaponised by people like the prime minister. Otherwise the term is a harmless one usually used as fodder for vague conspiracy theories — it pops up here and there and then crawls its way back to obscurity. For now however, it is refusing to crawl away.

Two obvious questions arise: first, why did the prime minister dignify this term by using it at such an august forum? Second, does this mean there is a move afoot to operationalise the term? Even in the absence of answers, these questions come attached with consequences.

There are whispers inside the Red Zone. The prime minister referred to ‘Minus-one’ bec­a­­use it was something that he had been hearing so often that he deemed it fit to actually address it. But the prime minister hears a lot of things each day. And one of the perks of his job is that he actually has people and orga­n­i­sations working for him whose job it is to inform him which of the things he is hearing should be taken seriously and which ones should be trashed. It is a safe assumption to make — hopefully — that the prime minister had the seriousness of the ‘Minus-one’ chatter verified by people appointed to make such verifications. The report from the relevant quarters would have presented two possibilities: a) Yes, there is something cooking, prime min­ister, and you should take action accordingly.

b) No, this is mere idle gossip, prime minister, and you need not pay any attention to it.

Which one of these options would prompt the prime minister to dignify the term with a reference in his speech in the parliament? Which one of these would prompt Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Mohammad Khan to actually fire off a tweet saying if the prime was ‘minus-ed’ then democracy would be ‘minus-ed’?

The answers may not be obvious but the consequences are. They have sparked off a debate — perhaps a needless one but debate all the same — about the prospects of someone from within the PTI replacing Imran Khan as the leader and prime minister. PTI did not need this debate. It further weakens the already degraded optics of a government seen as struggling to govern. And it forces people to indulge in gossip about possible candidates, even though there may be none.

If someone advised the prime minister to bring up this term — with all its insinuations — in his speech, the prime minister really needs to have a firm word with this person.

In fact government insiders say the prime minister may soon be having a firm word with many persons in his cabinet. Which brings us back to the storm in the fabled teacup that may be spilling over. It is a storm because it has brought the government to its lowest ebb in two years; it is in a teacup because it is not about to blow the government away — and it is spilling over because there could be some collateral damage.

The plot thickens. Here’s how:

Over the decades Imran Khan has endured all kinds of accusations. Very few have stuck and literally none has seriously damaged him. Until the “I” word rolled in. Two years in power and the one attribute that is actually sticking to the PTI government is ‘incompetence’. The last few weeks — backed by a few months — may have reinforced this impression with a vengeance. Consider the rapid-fire onslaught of the following governance problems:

Coronavirus, sugar scandal, wheat scandal, petrol scandal and the PIA pilots scandal. Now combine these with the following political problems:

Jehangir Tareen’s ouster, BNP-M departure, Fawad Chaudhry’s disclosures, Faisal Vawda’s cabinet outburst, PTI parliamentarians’ criticism and PML-Q’s refusal to attend the prime minister’s dinner. To add insult to injury, almost all of these scandals and problems slammed into the bruised and battered government quasi-simultaneously and sent it reeling onto the political ropes.

There was an added factor. To the government’s bad luck, the parliament was in continuous session since early June for the budget session and to complete its stipulated days in a year. The National Assembly and the Senate and the live coverage of their proceedings allowed the opposition to amplify its criticism of the government’s perfect storm of perceived incompetence. The government’s weakest hour, it seemed, was upon it.

But this storm remains confined to the teacup. PTI ministers, even the disgruntled ones, admit there is no challenge to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s leadership. None. In other words, they say ‘Minus-all’ has more of a chance of happening than ‘Minus-one’. Minus-all is also not on the horizon for now at least. So despite the perfect storm of perceived incompetence and rapid-fire body blows from problems and scandals, there does not appear to be an existential problem for the PTI government.

But there may be an existential problem for some in the PTI government. Which brings us to our third and final point about the storm in the teacup spilling over. “Khan is not happy with some of his cabinet members,” confides an insider. This person says the prime minister knows the dangerous implications of the “I” word. Nearly half of the PTI term is over (considering the last year is usually consumed in election campaigning). In the remaining time, the PTI government has to not only somehow erase the perception of its massive incompetence, it has to build one of competence. How?

“He will shuffle his team,” says another Red Zone insider. Some ministers, advisers and special assistants are walking around with big targets on their backs and may find themselves shunted out without warning in the coming weeks. But is the answer to PTI government’s continuing woes another cabinet reshuffle? Or is the problem deeper?

Try reading the tea leaves.

Published in Dawn, July 2nd, 2020