Why could PTI not manage TLP challenge?

Published April 15, 2021
Supporters of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan  disperse after police fired tear gas during a protest in Lahore on April 13. — AFP
Supporters of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan disperse after police fired tear gas during a protest in Lahore on April 13. — AFP

There is no NCOC for TLP. This unfortunate point was brought home repeatedly in the last three days as violent cadres of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) unleashed mayhem across the length and breadth of the country. In the absence of a National Command and Operations Centre for such situations — recall the centralised control and decisive action from the NCOC for Covid-19 — the government appeared adrift. In fact, it was absent. Somewhere deep within the bowels of the Red Zone, men and women of power dithered, and vacillated, and dillydallied, untethered as they were from the steel frame of a hierarchical, clearly demarcated and un-overlapping decision-making structure.

In other words, most were clueless about who was in charge of what. This particular governance ailment is now acquiring an air of quasi-deliberate permanence within the federal government. It is cause for deep concern.

Read: Once again, the TLP has succeeded in bringing the administration to its knees

The government waited and waited as the TLP cut off motorways, blocked highways, vandalised public property, smashed cars, thrashed and even killed policemen, and held normalcy hostage for three days; yes, the government waited, and watched, and stayed silent — even the most voluble brigade of spokespersons — in face of this anarchy. In Islamabad, high officials and their political bosses struggled to hide their nervousness under the garb of silence. They did so because most of them were at least savvy enough to recognise the cluck cluck cluck of their chickens coming home to roost. Retreat into the oblivious comfort of the Red Zone is often the preferred option for rulers in such inconvenient circumstances. PTI did not disappoint.

When, finally, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid announced that the government had decided to ban TLP, it was a decision conveyed without much remorse for preventable mayhem and loss of life and property that had taken place in the last 72 hours under the PTI government’s watch. The mishandling of the TLP reign of terror was a symptom of a deep-rooted ailment festering inside the Red Zone.

This is exemplified by the confusion within most key ministries in terms of hierarchies, responsibilities and reporting lines. The prime example is the information ministry. Till Shibli Faraz took off the ministerial hat, he was constantly fending off encroachments on his turf by various others appointed to wage the communication war. It was no secret that there was constant tension between the federal minister, the PM’s special assistant Shahbaz Gill and the CM Punjab’s adviser Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan. Often times there was a tug-of-war between the three in terms of who would communicate the official message at a particular time. Earlier there was a minister of state for information and now there exists a special assistant to the PM on information. It is not clear what his job is. Few know the clear demarcations between the designated responsibilities of these various people. Too many cooks, even in a communication kitchen, spoil the information broth — especially when it is not clear who is slicing the cabbage and who is stirring the pot. A new federal minister for information may be on the way but the fundamental problem remains ingrained within this minefield.

The petroleum and power divisions are no different. While Omar Ayub is the federal minister for power with the additional portfolio of petroleum, Nadeem Babar was running the show as a special assistant. It was an inbuilt tension that was unavoidable. Then Tabish Gauhar was inducted and now there were three cooks in the energy kitchen. At one point Tabish Gauhar resigned in frustration, saying he had no idea who he was answerable to. It was only after Prime Minister Imran Khan’s personal intervention, and some assurances, that he took back his resignation. Soon thereafter, Nadeem Babar was fired and Tabish was given charge of both power and petroleum divisions as the SAPM while Omar Ayub was also in-charge of both power and petroleum as federal minister. Now there is a buzz that the upcoming cabinet reshuffle might see a new federal minister.

The key ministry of finance is a classic case of this unsettling trend. The third finance minister in less than three years is itself a testament to the inbuilt instability within the current governance matrix. This is accentuated by the insecurity injected into the appointment itself. The first day that Hammad Azhar was given the additional charge of finance, government spokesmen said this was not a temporary charge and that Hammad would now steer the economy for the rest of the term. On the very next day news was leaked that the prime minister was considering bringing in former finance minister Shaukat Tarin as an adviser on finance. Where did that leave Hammad? Tarin’s name is still in circulation. The duality of responsibility is not just a trait it seems, it is almost a threat.

A similar trend is playing itself out in Interior. Sheikh Rashid may enjoy the title of the federal minister but it is Islamabad’s worst-kept secret that Barrister Shehzad Akbar is the one who continues to call the shots on all important matters. The tension between the two was evident when Sheikh Rashid said in a press conference that he had nothing to do with the FIA inquiry against Jahangir Tareen and Barrister Shehzad Akbar was supervising it. The duality of responsibility is also afflicting the way this key ministry is being managed which is one of the reasons why its effectiveness was compromised during the TLP mayhem these last three days. It might be relevant to recall that the previous interior minister retired Brig Ejaz Shah was also fairly powerless and was honest enough to admit so in private meetings.

Red Zone insiders say this unwieldy, unclear and often unfocused mode of governance is giving rise to grievances in critical places. According to them, the most important ministries are experiencing such frustrations and leading to further demotivation. Law Minister Farogh Nasim is also being forced to look over his shoulder as whispers echo across the capital that newly elected senator Barrister Ali Zafar is being considered as the new law minister. Similarly, Commerce Adviser Razak Dawood is still smarting from the drubbing he got due to the controversy over opening trade with India. The new cabinet reshuffle will accentuate this uncertainty and produce fresh power dynamics within the ruling alliance. The management of the government clearly needs tremendous improvement as it is having a direct impact on governance as a whole.

Tailpiece: Loose governance produces embarrassments too. One such episode happened during the crucial visit to Islamabad of the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. At the official lunch for him hosted by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a select group of carefully chosen people from the government were invited. Each seat was adorned with a nametag. When the lunch started, the two seats next to the Russian foreign minister were empty. One minister and one senior parliamentarian of the PTI had absented themselves without informing the host. According to eyewitnesses, the visiting foreign minister noticed the empty seats next to him and read the nametags and also mumbled something that people did not catch. The seats remained vacant till some people got up from their places to come sit with the guest.

Published in Dawn, April 15th, 2021

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