EVEN when the opposition PDM alliance, in the form we have known it, is collapsing, the question being asked is if the governing PTI really needs enemies given its incredible propensity to cause self-harm as the events of the past few days have demonstrated again.
The governing party is being confronted with the rude awakening that holding sway over social media with an untold number of dedicated supporters, that those opposed to the party term a ‘troll army’, is easy, but governance and delivery is another story.
To be honest, it is easy to target and rubbish the PTI’s policy decisions, its multiple U-turns that one social media user said had started to resemble a doughnut, and its inept handling of the economy, but it is not that easy to call a spade a spade in terms of the party’s backers.
Take for example the lead headline in this newspaper’s April 1 edition that said: ‘Govt moves to restore trade ties with India’. It was based on the news conference of the newly crowned Finance Minister Hammad Azhar, who the prime minister had chosen to replace Hafeez Shaikh.
This remarkable day in the life of the PTI at the centre was replicated by a day in the life of the PTI in Punjab.
This seemed to be a natural progression from the main story the day before, on March 31, whose heading was: ‘Pakistanis want peace with India, Imran tells Modi’. The story summarised the letter of thanks the prime minister sent in response to a message of felicitation sent by his Indian counterpart on March 23.
The March 23 message and its response, for their part, did not come out of the blue as earlier in the month addressing the Islamabad Security Dialogue the prime minister and then the army chief offered an olive branch to New Delhi which represented a policy rethink.
Both Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders, in the order they addressed the Dialogue, seemed to have softened their stance somewhat to the outrageous unilateral annexation of India-held Kashmir by India when it scrapped the special status accorded to it by abrogating Article 370 of the Indian constitution.
Since this unilateral Indian action in August 2019, Islamabad had been calling for its reversal. This March’s Islamabad Security Dialogue saw the two Pakistani leaders call on India to move towards a solution of all bilateral issues including Kashmir but a reference to Article 370 was missing.
If this was the result of backchannel diplomacy between the two sides that has been the subject of news stories in Indian and Pakistani media, including these columns, then wouldn’t it be safe to assume that some of these moves were choreographed, that is pre-agreed, as the first baby steps forward?
But then the day after the trade resumption headline, the main story in April 2’s Dawn, read: ‘Cabinet nixes ECC decision to allow imports from India’. The story said the federal cabinet had shot down the Economic Coordination Committee’s (ECC) proposal announced a day earlier by the new finance minister.
Who knows what happened in the 24 hours that saw the decision announced and later rescinded. Perhaps, reminders on the media that Nawaz Sharif was vilified for trying to better ties with India and called a traitor, while the same happening after the loss of so many years now seemed kosher, made key decision-makers nervous.
But that Pakistani government and its leaders appeared to be dithering over such a vital decision was compounded by bizarre explanations by the PTI spin doctors such as Minister of Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry and SAPM on national security Moeed Yusuf.
Both addressed the fact that the prime minister, as he holds the commerce ministry portfolio too, signed off on the ECC summary and later as the head of the cabinet rejected it or at least decided to ‘defer’ the move, and offered identical explanations.
Both said the prime minister wears two hats and so signed off the summary on strictly commercial considerations as commerce minister but then as prime minister wider considerations such as national security etc came into play so it was rejected.
Moeed Yusuf wanted this dithering celebrated as a great win because, in his view, it represented strengthening of the institutions that everyone yearns for. It left many shaking their heads or, as my young daughter would say, was a ‘facepalm’ moment.
This remarkable day in the life of the PTI at the centre was replicated by a day in the life of the PTI in Punjab when Chief Minister Usman Buzdar described the withdrawal of a notification of setting up a government secretariat for south Punjab in Multan as a ‘a technical mistake and a human error’.
The notification was issued in September last year as part of the PTI pledge to improve governance in south Punjab and facilitate the people who would otherwise have had to travel all the way to Lahore for a solution to their issues. It was withdrawn last month.
The above events make it apparent that even beyond the halfway mark, the PTI is still faltering in key decisions. This was also illustrated by making Hammad Azhar the finance minister and then bringing in Shaukat Tarin as the head of an economic council to oversee policy.
All this is happening against the backdrop of the collapse of the PDM as PML-N, JUI-F and allied parties seem to be on the verge of showing PPP and ANP the door. The PTI ministers have celebrated the demise of the alliance and understandably expressed much joy at it.
However, the PTI’s influential backers may have greater clarity and understand the ramifications of an opposition led by the PML-N and followed by JUI-F cadres and vociferous smaller parties when freed from the ‘moderating’ influence of the PPP and ANP.
The cause of the PTI is not being helped by its dithering. Coupled with an economy that is just not taking off and with inflation still to be controlled, and scandals such as the one that saw Nadeem Babar’s exit making people angry, who knows if the situation is salvageable.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, April 4th, 2021