The Chief Minister of Punjab won the toss and elected to lose.
Sardar Usman Buzdar is nice. He is humble. He is down-to-earth and simple. He is also in the wrong job. There may be many reasons that explain the choice of Buzdar as the man to beat Shehbaz Sharif at his game. None of them make sense. But five months into this blunder, the reasons do not matter — consequences do.
Make no mistake: there is trouble — serious trouble — in Punjab.
This trouble starts with the Chief Minister’s control, or lack of it, over the running of the province. Yes he travels regularly across the land suspending an odd official here and a random bureaucrat there, but his grip is weak on the affairs of the domain he lords over.
If not the man, then perhaps the team? Once upon a time there was a competent, energetic and goal-oriented bureaucracy in Punjab, but then NAB took care of it. What Buzdar has inherited is a humiliated, harassed and cowering team of bureaucrats who refuse to stick their neck out for anything, or anyone. Who could blame them?
If not bureaucrats, then perhaps ministers? Buzdar is burdened with a cabinet half of which wants his job and the other half is learning on the job. There is much to-ing and fro-ing by the ministers but even bright sparks like Dr Yasmeen Rashid are struggling to find a direction.
If not ministers, then perhaps advisers? The Chief Minister is surrounded by a team that is experiencing a spectacular failure in carving and shaping a message — any message — that can substitute for the lack of substance. Infantile quips on social media by Buzdar’s advisers are hardly the panacea for the haemorrhaging that the Buzdar brand is suffering.
The Buzdar brand? Yes, he is now a brand but for all the wrong reasons. His is a brand that is feeding itself on negative traits, on savage criticism and on a healthy dose of mockery. No doubt he is trying his best, but that best is just not good enough.
In fact, it is manifesting itself in a cycle of spiralling negativity. The more that he is mocked for not being in control, the more he wants to be in control. How can he be more in control? One way is to lead with a grand vision that may take your breath away, to be followed up with management skills that would force Shehbaz Sharif to salute him with both hands. The other way is to use the powers of his office to squeeze ministries, ministers and bureaucrats.
He has — not surprisingly — chosen the second option.
Ministers complain that work has ground to a halt because approvals are piling up on the Chief Minister’s desk. File work is happening at a snail’s pace and decisions are pending for reasons other than simple due diligence.
And yet, Buzdar is a good man, a decent man, a simple, honest and God-fearing man. The blunder is not his. He is someone’s blunder.
To rectify the blunder, Prime Minister Imran Khan may want to go back to his original line of thinking. Jahangir Tareen was supposed to wear the crown of Punjab. He was the one man — perhaps the only man — in the PTI who could compete against the domineering Shehbaz legacy. If Tareen could build Punjab like he had built the PTI, tabdeeli had a real shot at actually materialising in one shape or the other. Tareen had the ideas, the plans and the projects; he had the experience, the gravitas and the control; and he had the knack to make the wheels of the gigantic political and bureaucratic machinery spin in a modern corporate style.
Tareen had a vision for Punjab but it was sculpted out of the larger vision of Imran Khan himself. Khan had always spoken of a province that would define progress through merit, efficiency, service-delivery and reform. It was Khan who advocated police reform of the kind that would transform the present inefficient, moth-eaten and fossilised force into a modern outfit tuned to serve the public like it is meant to. It was Khan who visualised modern education for all, who emphasised the urgent need for state-of-the-art health facilities, who underscored the requirement for rapid development of the southern districts of the province.
Khan knew what he wanted in Punjab. Tareen knew how to make it happen. Then Buzdar happened.
Now Khan needs to make him un-happen if he wants to return to his original vision. Today Punjab is a mess. Forget competing with Shehbaz; the province is on the brink of a major crisis.
First, governance is in a nosedive. Projects? Which ones? Reform? What kind? Restructuring? How and when? Upgrading of facilities and services? Really? Second, politics is teetering on the brink. The coalition with the PMLQ is undergoing a severe stress with one Q League minister already having resigned because of too much interference in his ministry.
If the logic was to run Punjab from Islamabad, the logic seems to have hit a massive iceberg and is slowly sinking to the depths of political despair. Khan won the battle of Pakistan in Punjab; he may lose it here too if he doesn’t move swiftly to set things in order.
But before this can happen, PTI leaders at the Centre will need to vanquish a certain fear. The fear goes something like this: the office of the Chief Minister of Punjab is arguably the most powerful position in the country after the Prime Minister — perhaps even more powerful in some sense. If a strong person occupies this office, he or she can become a parallel power centre and therefore when asked to jump, might say ‘why’, and not ‘how high’. People in Islamabad fear such a person. But that’s exactly the kind of person Khan needs in Punjab; the kind who can take Khan’s original vision and squeeze reality out of it.
The captain lost his star opener in the first over and sent in a Night Watchman. It is time now for the middle order specialist to pad up. The team cannot — just cannot — afford a batting collapse on the spinning Punjab wicket.
The Prime Minister must fix the Buzdar blunder.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 20th, 2019.