Who is running Punjab?

If tabdeeli has arrived in Pakistan, Punjab hasn’t heard about it as yet

Fahd Husain October 21, 2018
Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar. PHOTO:INP

From Rawalpindi to Rahimyar Khan and from Layyah to Lahore, there is a problem: no one knows who is in charge. This should scare you.

Today the land of five rivers has turned into a land of countless whispers. In every office of every department in every ministry in Lahore, people whisper about who wields influence over which faction in which fashion on what issue with what angle and agenda. In every meeting in every conference room in every official building, participants talk in hushed whispers about who is stepping on whose toes at whose behest to further whose interests by undercutting whose domain. Every bureaucrat, it seems, is looking over his shoulder. Every minister, it seems, is looking for a shoulder.

If tabdeeli has arrived in Pakistan, Punjab hasn’t heard about it as yet.

Instead the largest province of Pakistan resembles a land carved into fiefdoms by warlords. There’s Chaudhry Sarwar, the Governor, who governs far and beyond the constitutional straitjacket wrapped around his office. There’s Aleem Khan, the Senior Minister, who peddles influence through the reflected power of Bani Gala. There’s Chaudhry Pervaiz Ilahi, the Speaker, who is drawing on his immense reservoir of political connections to wield power far greater than his official position.

If ancient Rome had its First Triumvirate from 60-53 BC (Caesar, Pompey and Crassus), Punjab can today boast its own local triumvirate. Follies of power sharing echo through the ages.

Oh, lest we forget, there’s also the Chief Minister who answers to the name of Usman Buzdar. The office wields him. Enough said.

The crisis-like situation in Punjab is a consequence of a series of inexplicable decisions by the PTI leadership. It all started with the shock nomination of an unknown, lightweight and inexperienced politician for the top job of the province. “Usman, who?” was the first reaction of everyone across the nation when the freshly-minted prime minister announced his choice. The follow-up question was invariably, “Usman, why?” The ‘who’ has been answered; the ‘why’ has not.

Buzdar’s appointment made sense in only one sense: he would be warming the seat for Jahangir Tareen. It made sense because Tareen was the natural fit for the job — he had the trust of his leader, deference of the party cadre and the gravitas borne of experience and competence. Punjab was to be the jewel in the PTI crown embellished on the chief ministerial robes donned by Tareen once he was cleared by the top court.

Except that the top court didn’t see it that way.

No other logic explained away the Buzdar mystery. Not even the flawed reasoning that Khan wanted a weak Chief Minister so he could run the province by remote control. Or through proxies?

Enter Chaudhry Sarwar, dragging with him Khan’s second inexplicable decision: why give a ceremonial office to a person considered a heavyweight? Not only was this unfair to the man, it was unfair to the office he was being entrusted with. A situation in which turfs overlap, rarely ends well. The same inverted logic manifested itself in Pervez Ilahi’s election as the Speaker of the Punjab Assembly. For the former chief minister (and a capable one at that), Speakership was clearly a climb-down. By the time key appointments were in place, it was apparent that Khan had chosen the wrong people for the wrong positions: Sarwar and Ilahi were too big for their jobs, and Buzdar too small for his.

The contrast could not have been sharper. For a decade, Shehbaz Sharif had ruled the province with an iron hand. There was only one turf — his turf; there was only one word — his word. All the ministers, MPAs and bureaucrats looked up to him and him alone, and did his bidding and his alone. Right or wrong, he got things done. His was the success and his was the failure. His was the IG and his was the Chief Secretary.

And today? If whispers are to be believed, Sarwar the Governor had a major role in the new IG’s appointment while Ilahi the Speaker had a major role in the Chief Secretary’s appointment. Meanwhile Aleem the Senior Minister has a major role in transfers and postings across the government. The ministers in Punjab have understood that they have to hook their political wagons to one of the three warlords if they want anything done. The bureaucrats — when they’re not busy doing nothing for fear of NAB — are busy looking for a job where they need to do nothing, say nothing and sign nothing for fear of NAB. Plus they don’t know who their real boss is.

Punjab is not used to being run like Sindh. It’s an alien feeling.

There is real danger here for the PTI — the existential kind. Khan as the Prime Minister may suck in all the media oxygen, but governance that can make an impact, and a difference, lies outside the borders of the federal territory. If Khan’s tabdeeli has to happen, it must happen in Punjab — and not just happen but be seen to happen. There are three areas where such a change would register the most in the lives of citizens: health, education and police reform.

This is Khan territory. It is in these three arenas that he can succeed fantastically, or fail spectacularly. And it is here that the red light is blinking furiously.

The sudden firing of the last IG Punjab was a shock to the system. The ensuing resignation of Khan’s point man for police reform, Nasir Durrani, may just have wrecked the project. For now, no one is talking any more about reforming the Punjab police, least of all the PTI leadership.

Things in the education arena also appear off track. In appointing Dr Murad Ross as the minister, Khan made the right decision but beyond that rest of the team appears incomplete for some strange reason. In health too, Dr Yasmin Rashid was a natural choice but the turf wars and lack of direct supervision from a strong provincial leader means the momentum is slow to build.

Panic should be setting in right about now.

But it is not. Punjab is experiencing a new normal in which the humdrum of postings and transfers, the drabness of power through patronage and the tediousness of kinship games via the official gravy train have occupied centre stage. Within the folds of this new normal lie hidden twin dangers for Imran Khan and his party.

First, if the inertia sets in, Punjab will stop responding to Khan and he can kiss his tabdeeli goodbye. Second, scratch the veneer of this current political set-up and below it Punjab is still Sharif territory. One slip up, one sign of weakness, one indication of a changing tide, one hint of failure and the numbers can change — will change.

The worst thing that Khan can do is to take Punjab for granted. For now, he seems to be doing just that.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 21st, 2018.

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Zagham Abbas | 4 years ago | Reply A well balanced and healthy analysis!
Iftikhar | 4 years ago | Reply PTI leaders running Punjab in parts, know that their rule over Punjab will be very short lived. That is why they are trying to make the most impact quickly, as if they are in a rat race. Perhaps few months more and one or more forward blocks appearing in PTI members of Punjab Assembly.
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