RED ZONE FILES: Connecting the dots

Published April 29, 2021
FIA former DG Bashir Memon gestures in an interview with journalist Matiullah Jan (not pictured). — Photo courtesy screengrab from video on Matiullah Jan's YouTube channel/File
FIA former DG Bashir Memon gestures in an interview with journalist Matiullah Jan (not pictured). — Photo courtesy screengrab from video on Matiullah Jan's YouTube channel/File

Politics is in a whirl and it is raining news. There is subdued breathlessness in the federal capital as random events struggle to draw a pattern — any pattern — that might explain that someone is holding a brush to the canvas. Do the dots, in fact, connect?

Try weave a pattern through these ten rather specific, and rather recent, points of particular interest:

1. Jahangir Tareen has made a point. His supporters met Prime Minister Imran Khan and urged him to provide relief. They got two gifts: removal of the FIA officer investigating the Tareen case, and a prime ministerial order to his aide Senator Ali Zafar to compile a report on the merits and demerits, if any, of the Tareen case. Yet, the root cause of tension between Tareen and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) remains unaddressed. Inside the Red Zone there are numerous complaints that the PMO manages access to the PM with ruthless efficiency that is often said to smack of power play and favouritism. For instance, one minister, who in the previous term enjoyed a very powerful position and has known the PM for a long time, is nowadays nursing his grievance based on an unfulfilled commitment. Insiders say he was assured by people in the PMO some time back that he would be appointed as the federal interior minister shortly. That did not happen. In fact, some sensitive reports were generated about this minister suggesting that he was quietly making his own ‘group’ within the party. Till date, the minister is roaming the political wilderness in his flagged car.

Jahangir Tareen knows this.

2. The Jahangir Tareen group has shown its numbers. These numbers are enough to bring down the PTI governments in the centre and Punjab. The group has tasted blood. The budget season is four weeks away. What will make the group say its ‘request’ has been heeded to? Will the PMO digest the fact that it has been pressured by the group? Events will need to happen before the end of May otherwise the Tareen group numbers will start to weigh heavy on the PTI government. Red Zone insiders say nothing is settled so far despite the meeting at the PMO.

3. Punjab continues to bleed PTI’s political capital. PTI also continues to grapple with the perception that its governance is below average. Despite a cabinet reshuffle, there are concerns in powerful quarters that the PM has been unable to select a team that can deliver. Recently, a very important person told a group of six federal ministers that their government’s performance was sub-par. “Get good competent people in your team,” he advised them. So far the only new member in the team is Minister of State for Information Farrukh Habib whose appointment was announced on Wednesday. All other changes in the cabinet are recycled.

4. The famed cabinet reshuffle may still see another round. Many hopefuls are waiting anxiously for positions such as Ministers of State, Advisors and Special Assistants to the PM. Some were informed that their names had been approved by all stakeholders and the PM had to decide on the timing. This was a few weeks back. With each passing day there is greater uncertainty about the delay. New faces are expected to infuse fresh energy into PTI’s final stretch in power before the next elections — or at least that’s what PTI is telling PTI.

5. There is fresh tension inside the federal cabinet after the latest reshuffling of portfolios. Those on the high table who have seen their portfolios taken away and handed to someone else are naturally nursing quiet grievances and not exactly praying for their successor’s success so that they can be branded as failures. The captain and his batting lineup analogy can only go so far.

6. PML-N may see some policy shift with the return of its president Mian Shehbaz Sharif. The party has refused to get drawn into a discussion of a possible in-house change in Punjab, but with Shehbaz Sharif back in the command post, there could be some fresh moves on the political chessboard, including another attempt to revive the efficacy of the dormant and dysfunctional opposition alliance PDM. Some insiders are paying special attention to the fact that powerful people had good words to say about a few PML-N leaders. In particular, these people praised Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Miftah Ismail, Ahsan Iqbal and Khurram Dastgir for being competent and armed with solid educational credentials from abroad.

7. In a fresh reminder, powerful insiders have said categorically the establishment had no role in sending PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif to London. They say the decision was solely that of Prime Minister Imran Khan.

8. In yet another reminder, relevant insiders also say the establishment does not consider Nawaz Sharif to be “anti-state”.

9. The topic of a presidential system is still reverberating inside the Red Zone. There might not be too many takers for it for now, but those who are in its favour carry a lot of official weight. The oft-repeated logic is that the Westminster system has worked well in only a few countries like Britain and Australia. Prime Minister Khan has made no secret of his similar views. The problems of governance, therefore, are framed in a manner that suggest that this system throws up weak ministers with little core competence other than their electability. What adds to these governance woes is the inherent weakness of the bureaucracy. The best and the brightest in the country are no longer opting for a career in the civil services. If Pakistan has to have a paradigm shift in its governance model, it may need to take some very big decisions. The PML-N and the PPP have both publicly rejected the idea of a presidential system, but inside the Red Zone the issue continues to simmer at low heat.

10. The Bashir Memon disclosures that have shed a rather negative light on the PM, his Law Minister Farogh Nasim and Advisor Barrister Shahzad Akbar may have been timed to coincide with the Qazi Faez Isa verdict, but the impact of these revelations by the former head of the FIA will be determined only if they get official traction through some platform. Short of that they will become fodder for political narratives and conspiracy-theory enthusiasts.

Go ahead, connect the dots. If you can.

Published in Dawn, April 29th, 2021

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