The budget has had its share of fireworks and there could be more turbulence in store. The financial document that it is, the budget was also expected to present a political milestone for the government. As the D-Day for its passage draws near, here are ten salient features of the political landscape that may have a bearing on what happens next.
1. The danger of the budget being blocked in the centre or in Punjab is reducing by the day. The primary threat matrix was weaved around the Jehangir Tareen group because it boasted numbers that could prove fatal for the passage of the two budgets. This threat stands neutralised — for now. Prime Minister Imran Khan and Chief Minister Usman Buzdar can breathe easy.
2. The JKT group’s major concerns have been addressed. Various electables from the group report that the Punjab government has resolved their constituency-related grievances to a large degree and the local administration is also cooperating. The pressure on JKT himself has also eased off even though the cases remain alive. Red Zone insiders say the JKT group therefore is almost certain to vote in favour of the PTI budgets in Islamabad and Lahore.
3. Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin’s growth budget has generally received good reviews and is expected to deliver some political dividends in the short run at least. Fat amounts of money will soon be flowing into constituencies via MNAs and MPAs — yes, the same practice that Imran Khan used to vociferously oppose in the past — and electables say these development scheme will, at the minimum, take the edge off the criticism that voters are heaping on the PTI government’s governance, especially in Punjab.
4. Shaukat Tarin’s own position may not match up to that of his budget. First, he needs to get elected and the clock is ticking towards the six month deadline. PTI’s over-confidence led it to a humiliating defeat the last time the party attempted to get its finance minister elected to the Senate. This time the PM will take no chances. Tarin is expected to be fielded to the upper house from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Before that, however, one sacrificial lamb will need to tender his resignation from the Senate in order to vacate the seat for Tarin. Chastened by Hafiz Sheikh’s defeat, the party leadership may move fast after the budget is passed to get Tarin elected.
5. Tarin may become a senator, but that does not mean he will find the allies he needs in the government to push through measures — especially on the revenue side — included in the budget. Red Zone insiders claim he does not have too many people in the cabinet rooting for him. He enjoys the PM’s support, and this will provide him the tailwind he needs to barrel ahead, but the lack of strong allies will act as the headwind. He may need to make nice with some colleagues who brandish their power and influence like a curved blade. Cabinet sources say Tarin has already had a tiff with one such powerful person in a full cabinet meeting. He may need to have eyes in the back of his head if he intends to play this game of snakes and ladders within the PTI government.
6. He also has to duel with the IMF. The growth budget — heavy on spending and light on taxation and surcharges — may get domestic traction but not so with the Fund. The negotiations have been pushed ahead by a few months, and this is the time that Tarin has with him to figure out how he can convince IMF officials that he should get their next tranche while not raising electricity prices etc. Perhaps he plans to drag on the negotiations till the political ‘feel-good’ factor of the budget plays itself out in constituencies.
7. The Punjab constituencies may be groaning under the weight of misgovernance but the Usman Buzdar government remains safe for now. The PML-N appears hyper-active but as yet has not been able to decide whether it wants to exercise an in-house change option in Punjab or let the Buzdar government limp its way to 2023. Asif Zardari may be encamped in Lahore and meeting key government allies like Speaker Pervaiz Elahi, but insiders say the PML-Q is not planning to march out of the coalition any time soon. The establishment may be unhappy with how PTI is bleeding away its political capital in Punjab, but there is nothing to suggest it is planning to act on its unhappiness.
8. Khawaja Asif’s bail has resonated loudly in this context. The PML-N leader will liven up the budget debate in the National Assembly, but perhaps more than that his bail reinforces the gradual perception gaining quiet momentum after Shehbaz Sharif’s bail that PML-N is not as isolated from the power matrix as it was till a few months ago. The PTI government has gained confidence since it unleashed the surprisingly high growth figure of 3.9 per cent, but the PML-N is also maneuvering for space on the chessboard. The tussle between the two factions in the party remains unresolved — and has contributed to strengthening the PTI government — but it does not take away from the fact that the party is receiving strong vibes from Punjab constituencies.
9. Khawaja Asif’s presence back in the party meetings strengthens the hand of the pragmatists led by Shehbaz Sharif. Although the inter-party debate over which narrative to adopt remains inconclusive, the relative silence from Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz is evidence that the ‘talk-talk-fight-fight’ strategy remains in play. Khawaja Asif is expected to play an active role within the ‘talk-talk’ ambit.
10. The PTI government has another year to get its act together in terms of governance impact and control of inflation. Its current confidence is more a reflection of a few strong numbers and stronger budgetary claims — combined of course with the disarray within the opposition — and less of the larger malaise that has afflicted its performance these last three years. Politics does not follow a linear path, and today’s allies are tomorrow’s rivals.
PTI may have gained strength relative to its rivals — and its own perception — but is this strength sustainable?
Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2021