The Pied Piper

The Pied Piper

Imran Khan may be prime minister of Pakistan and supreme leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf but he is not in effective control of his various governments or party organs at the center and in the provinces.

Punjab is being administered by two bureaucrats nominated by the Miltablishment after eighteen months of hither and thither by Mr Khan and assorted cronies, point-men or allies, while Chief Minister Usman Buzdar answers interchangebly to Mr or Mrs Khan on matters of personal privilege or power. The latest sugar and wheat crisis is a classic illustration of this point.

The federal cabinet (read the PM) decided to approve the export of wheat and sugar in cloudy circumstances; they also formally decided not to give any subsidy to sugar exporters. But then the Punjab CM received an informal nod from Islamabad to surreptitiously approve a budget of Rs 3b for the same, despite the objections of his own cabinet colleagues. When the details were revealed – after wheat and sugar shortages led to rising prices and consequent media outrage – Mr Khan came under pressure to order an inquiry, which he did, but by the same organization that has been tripping over itself to turn the screws on his opponents and do his bidding. The inquiry was ordered on 20 February. A report was submitted to the cabinet on 9 March, outlining general, preliminary findings and requesting an enlargement of the departmental committee into a formal full-fledged commission to enable it to conduct a forensic analysis by 25 April so that responsibility could be properly apportioned. For two weeks there was no news. Then suddenly all hell broke loose.

Senior PTI stalwarts, including Nadeem Afzal Chan on record, have revealed that an anti-Jehangir Khan Tareen group in the PTI and cabinet leaked the preliminary report to the media to nail JKT just in case the full report later implicated others closer to home and muddied the waters. The PM was then hurriedly advised to make virtue out of necessity by claiming that he ordered the report released in the “public interest”. “It is unprecedented”, shrieked the PM’s spokesman, Shahbaz Gill, “for a sitting PM to reveal misdemeanor in his own ranks!”

The original sin for which the FIA inquiry was ordered – shortages and price hikes in wheat and sugar despite adequate supplies in private and public hands – was lost in the din of targeting JKT who was one of a clutch of sugar barons who majorly benefited from the subsidy on export of sugar. This, notwithstanding the fact that a subsidy on sugar export has always been part and parcel of every government’s policy to date when domestic supply has outstripped demand and JKT has always been a major beneficiary because he is the single largest producer of sugar in the country.

JKT claims that the Principal Secretary to PM, Azam Khan, has been gunning for him since he (JKT) advised Mr Khan to keep a tight political grip on his reformist agenda decisions (through, we may surmise, JKT no less) and not let conservative “rules-oriented” bureaucrats (like Mr Azam Khan, we may presume) call the shots and sabotage the party’s commitment to reform. JKT, it is also known, never hid his contempt for PTI ideologues/aspirants like Asad Umar and Co, who now seem to have ganged up with Azam Khan against him and got the PM’s ear. JKT’s considerable influence on Imran Khan and the PTI’s fortunes – from fund raising, horse-trading and cabinet and government formation —has been steadily on the wane since he was disqualified from being a member of parliament and restrained from sitting in cabinet meetings and formally wielding power.

The PM is expected to focus on the war on COVID-19 but is now seriously distracted by the war within the PTI which promises to wash the party’s mounting heap of dirty linen in public. JKT has already knocked out a central plank of the PTI’s propaganda machine – that the 2013 elections were rigged via “35 punctures” in Punjab – and we can expect more disgusting claims and counter charges to follow that will provide cannon fodder to the media and opposition.

If Islamabad and Punjab are in free fall, the less said the better of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where tens of billions of rupees are being gobbled up by inefficient and corrupt PTI politicians and allies and there is not even a pretense of accountability by NAB and FIA. Quetta is not on anyone’s radar – the mishandling of the Corona crisis is evidence of that — while Peshawar is being run directly from Bani Gala like Lahore. The PM is wont to step into internal squabbles and power struggles and take “exemplary” disciplinary measures, only to reverse them later. And so everyone is making merry and infighting at the same time while COVID-19 exploits the policy U-Turns, confusion and lack of enlightened, firm leadership in Islamabad to spread its deadly tentacles across the land.

Pakistan needs a decisive leader who commands a national consensus. But it is lumped with the Pied Piper of Islamabad.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.