AFTER an abrupt exit from office, Usman Buzdar is likely to fade into oblivion, three and a half years after Prime Minister Imran Khan handpicked him to head the PTI government in the country’s politically most important province of Punjab.
After backing him every step of the way — at the cost of alienating many PTI lawmakers — the embattled PM has been forced to dump Mr Buzdar as he tries to save his government in Punjab and Islamabad in the face of the fierce political challenge mounted against him by the opposition as well as PTI rebels. Will the ‘sacrifice’ by the man from Barthi, a remote town on the outskirts of Taunsa Sharif along Punjab’s border with Balochistan, do the trick? We will find out soon.
Mr Khan’s stated reasons for choosing the then politically unknown Usman Buzdar were simple: he came from one of Punjab’s most backward areas and was the only member of the provincial assembly who didn’t have electricity, clean drinking water or a hospital in his area. Thus, he was supposed to have a deeper understanding of the difficulties faced by the residents of these neglected areas, and to work more effectively for their uplift. At least that was the explanation given by the PTI chief to his party members who preferred a strong administrator in the image of Mr Buzdar’s energetic predecessor Shehbaz Sharif to counter the rival PML-N. Yet many suspected, with reason, that Mr Khan had selected the soft-spoken Mr Buzdar to avert factional fights within the PTI and also to control Punjab remotely from the centre since the outgoing chief minister lacked political clout in the party he joined just before the 2018 elections and had no one to fall back on but his leader.
His critics and the media have mostly painted Mr Buzdar — who ‘survived’ many speculations, mostly originating from within his own party, of his early departure from office — as an inept and ineffective administrator. Indeed, the criticism is not totally out of place, as much of his time in power was spent in learning the ropes. Yet, for a small-town politician constrained by his total inexperience in the affairs of the state, a lack of connections in the Punjab bureaucracy, and deep economic turmoil, he leaves behind a mixed legacy as did many of his predecessors. He may not have had a number of mega infrastructure projects to his credit, but he must be praised for expanding health insurance coverage to the entire population of the province, ring-fencing development funds for south Punjab and undertaking certain long overdue soft reforms in the health and school education sectors. His sins of omission and commission as provincial chief executive aside, he represents a new experiment in Punjab that went wrong both because of his own limitations and the failings of his leader. Few will mourn his exit.
Published in Dawn, March 30th, 2022