FOR the PTI, JKT has become a designation.
In this week’s parliamentary party meeting of the ruling party, MNA Raja Riaz said the leadership should utilise the services of the former secretary general of PTI Jehangir Khan Tareen in order to secure and ensure a victory in the Senate elections. He had a point.
Tareen, popularly known as JKT, is currently a political ‘OSD’ since Prime Minister Imran Khan decided to blame him for benefiting from the sugar crises last year, and threw him under the bus. Except, not really. The two are still in touch, and still not exactly ‘not on speaking terms’. But the famed JKT comeback hasn’t happened yet because the reasons that led to his exit are still around, and the people that led to his exit are also still around. But in the year since his exit, many in the PTI have come to realise that JKT was performing a certain set of tasks, and was shouldering a certain set of responsibilities that are integral to the present and future needs of the party. More pressingly, no one has been able to fill the vacuum. And it’s showing. When Raja Riaz mentioned JKT in this week’s meeting, he was voicing the party’s fairly desperate need not just for JKT, but for a JKT.
The PM may not want JKT, but he needs a JKT. What are his options?
Here’s why: JKT was the PTI’s political organiser, planner, handler, minder, fixer, and troubleshooter all rolled into one. He was also Imran Khan’s confidante, adviser, and whisperer on matters that went beyond the mandate of his party designation. Imran Khan led the party, but JKT ran it.
Things changed when JKT was disqualified by the Supreme Court and barred for life from holding any political office. They changed even more when PTI came into power and many lightweights empowered themselves by donning the ministerial armour. They struggled to fill into the immensity of the office. Some fell short — by a margin. Others walked awkwardly like mediaeval knights burdened under the weight of their chain mails and longswords. A few political weaklings hid their insecurities under a flagged car and an elevated title. There was a hustle to shift into the space vacated by JKT.
But what was this space other than proximity to Imran Khan?
The PTI has enjoyed many strengths, including the crucial support of the establishment. Its journey to high office was fuelled by the power of Brand Imran, the groundswell of popular support across all provinces, the arrival of hordes of electables into its ranks and the consistent and solid backing from the establishment. But the thread binding all these factors into one powerful political vehicle was the art of political management. This was JKT’s forte. Persuading, cajoling, convincing, wooing, pressuring, admonishing and herding into the party fold — JKT deftly managed candidates across the national landscape, but with particular focus on Punjab. He knew better than anyone else in the party that Punjab would put Imran Khan into the Prime Minister’s Office.
With JKT gone, Punjab today is the PTI’s weakest link.
There are two reasons for this weakness. First, Punjab has a weak chief minister. Second, the Prime Minister’s Office does not exhibit political management skills. The two reasons are interconnected. It was planned that Islamabad would pilot Lahore. But what do you do when the pilot is pushed out of the aircraft?
Prime Minister Imran Khan has had his hands full since he took charge. He cannot be expected to ‘manage’ the electables on a day-to-day basis. Neither can he be supervising the affairs of the Punjab government and making decisions that feed into the requirements of Punjab’s constituency politics.
The real problem therefore is that the prime minister has no one in his team who can do all of the following: (1) Keep in constant touch with all MNA and key MPAs (2) Know them all by name and understand their constituency dynamics (3) Meet them on a regular basis individually or as a group (4) Solve their problems on a regular basis as a routine (5) Have direct and constant access to the prime minister (6) Have the political weight to be able to get the chief ministers to get the work of MNAs/MPAs done on his call (7) Combine pressure, threats and incentives to keep the electables in line (8) Be the chief political adviser to the prime minister in matters that are beyond the comprehension of unelected advisers and bureaucrats (9) Be fiercely loyal to the prime minister (10) Be capable of managing political tension and accommodation with the opposition as and when the need arises and keep politics within manageable temperature.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has no one who can do all this. He may not want JKT, but he needs a JKT. What are his options?
Defence Minister Pervaiz Khattak is a skilled political manager. But he doesn’t know Punjab. Shah Mehmood Qureshi would tick all the 10 boxes, but his ministerial responsibilities do not allow him the space or time for this task. Shafqat Mehmood could fit many of these roles but he is not a product of the typical Punjab constituency culture. Asad Umar carries the weight, gravitas and access to the prime minister but he is overburdened with responsibilities of governance and is also not a deeply entrenched constituency politician from the Punjabi heartland. Amir Dogar, SAPM on political affairs, does not have the weight or access to the prime minister that is needed to be the one.
The Senate elections are the first real test of political management for the PTI. Hardened politicians like Raja Riaz know this. They have felt the vacuum. If something were to go wrong in terms of numbers and votes, the PTI would realise the blunder of not having someone to handle political management. Local bodies elections are also not too far away. Then, of course, the general elections of 2023 will be the supreme test of PTI’s political management. The unrest among the electables as a result of poor management could cost the PTI more than it is willing to acknowledge.
Sooner or later Prime Minister Imran Khan will realise that the PTI needs JKT. Or a JKT.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, January 30th, 2021