The JKT dilemma

Published August 25, 2020
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

A PEACE-BUILDING exercise is in the making — and it’s not in the foreign policy arena. Ice is said to be melting between Jahangir Khan Tareen (JKT) and Prime Minister Imran Khan, if their recent interviews are to be believed. In Pakistan, the revolution may not be televised but political break-ups and rapprochements surely are.

Both the prime minister and JKT had more regret than bite in their comments about each other. Though his interview to Kamran Khan were Imran Khan’s first on-the-record comments on the matter, JKT had spoken in some detail about it and there appeared to be some hurt and anger on display. Reports had attributed much emotion to the prime minister over the sugar crisis which ranged from hurt to anger to vengeance but it was hard to separate fact from embellishment. Yet for many (including those within the party), even at the height of the sugar crisis, Tareen was not someone who could be written off. JKT, too, realised this and shortly afterwards fell silent — instead of explaining his point of view in interviews which can and do create more words and assertions open to misinterpretations.

Read: Not as close to Imran as I was but still his friend, says Jahangir Tareen

Time and the hour have surely run through their roughest day. And perhaps it will just be a matter of time before the wounds are healed completely.

The PM will find it far from easy to quickly restore the visible influence enjoyed by Tareen in the past.

But the silence in between was also filled with much speculation and stories. There were rumours that JKT’s stay in London was not just an opportunity to escape the accountability net here and possible arrest but also to reach out to other parties. But neither theory made much sense. However much the sugar report had created ripples, there is yet little evidence of investigations having reached the stage where any agency would have begun picking up or arresting sugar mill owners. Undoubtedly, the ‘sugar daddies’ are in trouble but not the kind of trouble plaguing the opposition.

Similarly, the hushed whispers of him reaching out to the PML-N also made little sense — the PML-N is a big party and the natural rival of the PTI in Punjab but even if it was willing to offer JKT a place, it would never be able to offer him the kind of space and influence he once enjoyed in the PTI. He was seen as Khan’s right-hand man; an entry into Noon was hardly going to allow him to take a shortcut to the top. The second tier in the PML-N has been around for too long and is too well entrenched for a newcomer to make a place among them or shoot past them. JKT would know this — after all his leap from a politician/technocrat from South Punjab to a national-level leader was due to the PTI.

Indeed, the recognition he continues to get from Khan acknowledges this; in the Dunya channel interview, Khan said that Tareen was someone who was a friend and not just a party colleague.

But this does not mean that JKT’s return to the party will necessarily mean that everyone will live happily together. Partly because his overwhelming influence in the party, in the first place, was not idyllic either. His central position was acknowledged and resented in equal parts. Power, after all, creates a resistance to it. So, where he had his faction or supporters, there were detractors too.

Because of his seniority and perhaps a tussle over who would make decisions in south Punjab in terms of organisation as well as election tickets, the JKT-SMQ (Shah Mahmood Qureshi) rivalry was the most well known and commented upon, but this is not to say that other critics were not there. At key moments in the past, the whispers against him became louder — the dharna was one such moment as was perhaps the party’s decision to take the Panama case to the court. In both cases, it was whispered that Khan and JKT thought differently from the others and their view prevailed. And for obvious reasons, it was easier to blame the adviser than the leader!

But after his disqualification and the election win, the handling of the economy led to the JKT-Asad Umar saga — for by then SMQ had been put in his place in the foreign ministry. That these two rivalries could be equated was confirmed by Fawad Chaudhry in an interview.

All of this jockeying will resume once he is back. But the storm outside will be bigger than the one inside.

JKT, due to his closeness to Khan, was always an easy target for political rivals who could poke holes in the PTI’s clean image by pointing out Tareen’s disqualification by the Supreme Court. The sugar report, what it said about JKT and how this contradicts the PTI’s attacks on ‘mafias’ will provide more arsenal to the opposition, especially to raise further questions about the skewed nature of the accountability at work. This will not be an easy ride for the PTI and may well be the biggest problem for JKT in the coming days if a happy ending is to follow.

Indeed, as the PTI struggles to deliver on its big promises during the elections, its government has little choice but to harp on accountability as well as its efforts to fight the rapacious elite. And in this Manichean view of Pakistani state and society, at the moment, JKT appears to be on the wrong side, especially due to the party’s own rhetoric in recent days.

For this reason, the prime minister will find it far from easy to quickly restore the visible stature and influence enjoyed by Tareen in the past. The politics of government and perception may create a distance even if the personal connection is there. It will not be easy to ignore the larger political context as the personal relationship mends; there may well be a few more twists and turns to come our way.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, August 25th, 2020

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