Not only has the new Prime Minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, been elected and sworn in, but he has also had his new Cabinet sworn in. He has been labelled an interim Prime Minister because he was originally scheduled to give up the post after the real replacement, Punjab Chief Minister Mian Shehbaz Sharif, had to find a seat in Parliament. Because the Constitution has no provision for an interim Prime Minister, or a non-member to hold office until he finds a seat, Abbasi has had to be given the full-fledged office, which has in turn led to his being left to serve out the rest of the term of this Parliament, which is due to end in July next year. The timing of Mian Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification has meant that the National Assembly has only 11 months to go before the end of its tenure. There could be an early dissolution, but if it was to happen, it should have by now. There is a universal tendency to avoid a dissolution towards the end of a term.

Abbasi is not the first ‘interim PM’. The first was Chaudhry Shujat Hussain, who held the office in 2004, from 30 June to 29 August, after Mir Zafarullah Jamali resigned, and until Shaukat Aziz could take his seat in the National Assembly. It has been unfortunate that, so far, the replacement contemplated for the Prime Minister has not been a member of the House, so has not just had to find a seat, but has necessitated the filling of the post for a period shorter than the tenure of the Assembly.

A comparison between the two reveals certain similarities. The first is that they, along with Yusuf Reza Gilani, are the only sons of federal ministers to head the Cabinet. Their fathers also had a ‘uniform’ link, though it was stronger in the case of Abbasi. His father, Khaqan Abbasi, was a former Air Commodore, while Chaudhry Shujat’s father, Chaudhry Zahoor Elahi, had been a police constable in his salad days. Both fathers founded the family fortunes; Chaudhry Zahoor during the Ayub era as an industrialist, Khaqan Abbasi as a contractor in Saudi Arabia, where he went after retirement from the PAF.

Khaqan Abbasi and Chaudhry Shujat were actually Cabinet colleagues in the 1985-8 Junejo Cabinet. Khaqan has the Production portfolio, while Shujat had Interior. Another of Junejo’s ministers (and Khaqan’s colleagues), Yousaf Reza Gilani headed the PPP-PML-N Cabinet which briefly held office after the 2008 elections, until the PML-N withdrew. It was appropriate that Shahid Khaqan also served in it as Commerce Minister.

Like Chaudhry Shujat’s, Shahid’s father also died in a car, and violently, but not in an accident. Chaudhry Zahoor was assassinated along with retired Lahore High Court Chief Justice Maulvi Mushtaq whom he was giving a lift in his car. Khaqan Abbasi was killed when his car was hit by some of the exploding debris from the Ojhri Camp explosion. This was one of the last events of the Junejo government, which was dissolved within weeks. The blast was supposed to have played a role in that.

Shahid entered electoral politics after that. Since then, he has been continuously elected to the seat, which is one of Rawalpindi district’s, and which his father won in 1985 from Raja Zafarul Haq, who had been a member of the Zia Cabinet, and since made a political career in the Senate, where he is currently Leader of the House. Shujat was one of those who first contested an election in 1985, along with Mian Nawaz, Chaudhry Nisar and even Yousaf Raza Gilani. Abbasi is thus the first of the 1988 debutants to become PM. Among that batch of parliamentarians are included the PPP’s Syed Naveed Qamar and Syed Khurshid Shah, and the MQM-P’s Farooq Sattar.

This is the first time an Abbasi has become Prime Minister of Pakistan. Belonging to Kahuta, these are Dhund Abbasis, who also spread in the Hazarajat of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa in the west, to Bagh district of AJK in the east. Other famous sons include the late Sardar Abdul Qayyum, who was both President and PM of AJK, and Sardar Mehtab Abbasi, who was both Governor and CM of KP.

Like his predecessor, Shahid also has a Qatari connection, albeit official. He signed a deal to import Liquefied Natural Gas from it as Petroleum Minister. This is one of the objections the opposition raises against him, claiming that the deal was not transparent. He has also not earned any kudos for his founding of Air Blue, which was unfortunately made notorious by the crashing of its 2010 Karachi-Islamabad flight, in which all 152 passengers and crew on board were killed.

He might be carrying some baggage, but he has not won anything like the reputation of his predecessor in the Petroleum and Natural Gas portfolio, Dr Asim Hussain, who remains under NAB investigation for assets acquired beyond his means. He has added the Water and Power Ministry to it to make a new Energy Ministry, which he has retained. There is a suggestion that he not be displaced, even though the Cabinet he heads has been designed to be taken over by Mian Shahbaz and carried to the next election.

It has seen the shifting of the ‘Prince of Darkness’ title (due to loadshedding) from Khwaja Asif to Abbasi himself, Asif becoming Foreign Minister. Asif is also no longer Defence Minister, a portfolio which has now gone to Khurram Dastagir. Ahsan Iqbal has got Interior to replace Chaudhry Nisar, with his Planning and Development portfolio lying with Abbasi, in case Chaudhry Nisar comes back. In that event, Nisar and Ahsan could both get back their original portfolios. Apart from Chaudhry Nisar, no one was dropped from the Cabinet, and the only completely new entries were a member added by the JUI-F and one by the PML-N itself. Mushahidullah Khan, whose resignation from the Cabinet for an anti-Army tirade to the BBC, was brought back, though Pervez Rashid, who had gone over the Dawn Leaks, remained in the cold. However, a number of ministers of state were elevated to full federal ministers. As they were already ministers in-charge, nothing really changed. However, because of this, the PML-N gave its first full ministry to a woman, Saira Afzal Tarar at National Health Services Regulation and Coordination, thus removing a long-standing criticism of the Nawaz Cabinet.

There was never any doubt over Chaudhry Shujat’s being a seat-warmer for Shaukat Aziz, but there was over Abbasi’s being one for Mian Shehbaz. One is that Mian Shehbaz is considered indispensable in Punjab. The only time Mian Nawaz left the Punjab to someone out of the family was when he himself became PM, and made Ghulam Hyder Wyne Chief Minister in 1990. There may well have been other factors at work, but the fact is that the Wyne government collapsed, and the majority of the parliamentary party went over to Speaker Manzoor Wattoo, who then formed a government hostile to Mian Nawaz. The Assembly was dissolved acrimoniously even though Mian Nawaz’s dismissal as PM was reversed. The take-away is that Punjab is risked at one’s peril. The problem is one of succession. Mian Shahbaz wants to leave son Hamza as CM. The parliamentary party might be persuaded, but will Mian Nawaz? Apart from the political dynamic comes the family dynamic. One solution would be to leave Mian Shehbaz in place until the next election, after which he would become PM, while someone else suitable could take over in Punjab. That seems to be the solution adopted.

 

n             The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.