Till realpolitik do us part

What did the prime minister sacrifice it all for? Five votes that will likely do him no good when the moment of truth arrives.
Published March 30, 2022

It happened. On Monday, Prime Minister Imran Khan — the great, unshakeable, naa jhuknay wala, naa biknay wala Imran Khan of naa deal ho gi, na dheel ho gi fame — shed the politically cumbersome burden of his principles to cut a deal with the PML-Q and hand over Punjab to Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi.

Khan’s ‘surprise’ capitulation came days after some from the prime minister's inner circle had publicly lashed out at the PML-Q for "blackmailing" the government over the Punjab CM's position, making it clear that the post was not on the table.

Their indignation was for good reason — despite having only five seats in the centre and 10 in Punjab, the PML-Q was reaching far above its stature by demanding control of the most populous and most well-resourced province of the country.

Yet, with the desertion of fickle allies and the unswaying neutrality of the umpires, Q’s handful of votes seemed, at the time, critical for Imran Khan’s survival in the upcoming vote of no confidence. The party had made it abundantly clear it wouldn’t settle for any less, and, with the prospect of holding onto his kursi back within grasp, the captain folded his cards.

The famously unmoving kaptaan hence moved to remove the one person he had insisted for 3.5 years — to opponents as well as his own party’s stalwarts — was the best option for Punjab. Just a day after a speech in which he had positioned himself as the most upright politician in the democratic melee, he dispensed with his principles for a last, desperate attempt to stay in power. It wasn’t till the nation had woken up on Wednesday that it became clear that the sacrifice of his principles may have been for nothing.

Imran vs the dakus

The prime minister had, till last weekend at least, maintained an image as a politician who has little regard for realpolitik. His is a cruder, more primitive style of politics — defined by a simplistic, black-and-white worldview which he approaches with single-mindedness and a stubborn insistence on having his way.

Though some may have found it exasperating, his supporters understood this brand of politics as it made political choices so easy. The chor, dakus and corrupt on one side, all the politically baptised on the other. Imran Khan on one side, and the rest on the other.

For the longest time this month, it looked like the prime minister intended to keep with his nature and go down shaking his fist at all that he believes is wrong with the Pakistani democratic system. It would have suited both his stature and his appeal to supporters if he had stuck to his guns till the end. Instead, he showed Pakistan that he is not really the unflinching leader he likes his supporters to believe he is. When push came to shove, the captain acted just like any other Pakistani politician does when it comes time to walking the talk.

None will feel this more than Usman Buzdar, the man at the centre of the drama. The prime minister had publicly and forcefully thrown his support behind the usually quiet and reserved small town politician from the day he was handpicked for office.

"I have nominated Sardar Usman as Punjab chief minister [because] he belongs to an area of Punjab that is the most backward," the prime minister had said when making the announcement.

"People there have no water or electricity or hospital. The special thing about Sardar Usman is that he is well acquainted with how people live in those areas and secondly, he is aware of how the poor lead their lives. When he will assume the office of the chief minister he will know the nature of the plight that faces the underprivileged people of Pakistan. He is the only MPA to not have electricity at his home. I am confident that he will work brilliantly to bring to fruition our vision, which aims at uplifting the lower sections of society and the backward areas of Pakistan," the prime minister had explained.

One of a kind

While there were reservations, a significant segment of the public had been ecstatic. The PTI’s supporters had hailed it as a historic move that completely upended years of Shehbaz Sharif’s famously imperious rule over the crown jewel of Pakistan’s electoral politics.

“Sowing the seeds for a Pakistan where the poor will lead themselves out of their miseries,” one user wrote in the comments section of this website.

“‘He is the only MPA to not have electricity in his home.’ Just go back a few months, would anyone have imagined this in presence of dynastic rule of PPP and PMLN? No, never! Salute to IK’s vision,” wrote another.

“I hail Imran Khan for staying true to his vision. This is a one-of-a-kind nomination in the history of Pakistan. Mubarakbad to everyone in the Punjab as well as the nation,” wrote a third.

Read more: The problem with Buzdar

It didn’t take long for the one-of-a-kind nomination to turn into a one-of-a-kind headache, but the prime minister stayed true.

Party insiders were furious at Buzdar’s appointment, asking why a new entrant had been anointed chief of Pakistan’s most important province. Buzdar had, before his victory in 2018, contested the previous two elections on PML-N and PML-Q tickets. Yet, Imran Khan chose him over loyalists who had stuck with him through the toughest political challenges till that point.

The prime minister continued to insist that he had found Buzdar “to be an honest man". Buzdar has "integrity and stands by my vision and ideology of Naya Pakistan," the premier tweeted in response to reports suggesting Buzdar's alleged involvement in corruption and criminal activities in the past.

Governance issues

The prime minister chose not to be swayed even when Buzdar's integrity again came into question while under the PTI’s watch.

Within months, Buzdar was pleading his case in the Supreme Court after being accused of transferring the Pakpattan DPO in the middle of the night in highly irregular circumstances. He eventually had to tender an apology. He then turned the provincial police force upside down, cycling between police chiefs with such alarming frequency that it was difficult to keep track of who was in charge.

And even when it came out that Buzdar had allegedly dished out billions to the province’s many sugar daddies, the prime minister did not flinch. He was soon being investigated over the issuance of liquor licenses, illegal land allotments and sundry irregularities, and yet the prime minister did not contemplate removing him.

Buzdar also faced several major threats to his incumbency during the last 3.5 years, with PTI stalwarts at times openly rebelling and making it clear that they weren’t willing to work with him. They would ultimately back down after being rebuffed by the prime minister, who was still completely sold on his Wasim Akram+.

After all this, after signaling to his supporters he was someone willing to live comfortably with his decisions — even if they were widely unpopular — the prime minister sacrificed it all on Monday at the altar of political expediency. Many of his most ardent supporters were not happy, with Twitter chatter suggesting that many would have thought better for Imran Khan to go down with his principles intact rather than giving in to the PML-Q when the going got tough.

And what did the prime minister sacrifice it all for? Five votes that will likely do him no good when the moment of truth arrives.