Fawad Chaudhry has an easy-going charm and a sharp wit. His candour is at display in interviews, and he often whips up a storm himself. Having hosted and participated in talk-shows over the past several years, he has learned the art of coming up with a punchy sound-byte without much effort. These traits were visible in his latest interview with the Voice of America. In a calm and calculated manner, Fawad laid bare the internal turmoil of the ruling political party. He incisively described how the grouping and infighting within the party has crippled the government.

Fawad heaped the blame on technocrats and unelected advisors who now surround Imran Khan. These elements managed to increase their sway not because of their ability or intelligence, he asserts. They simply filled a vacuum created by the grating power struggles between Jahangir Khan Tareen, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, and Asad Umar. Once these political bigwigs entangled themselves in a continuous turf war, the outsiders found a way in.

The minister for science and technology did not blame the unelected cabinet members of corruption and malfeasance. He simply stated that the unelected coterie of the prime minister has no stake in the game. These outsiders don’t share Khan’s passion or the urgency of his vision or the ticking clock or depleting public credibility. All the caveats of having a team without skin in the game have dented Khan’s government’s popularity and haemorrhaged its functioning. Fawad stated this uncomfortable truth in a simple, matter-of-fact manner. In many ways, his interview was a masterstroke in political messaging.

And, he seems to have gotten away with these verbal punches, just like the physical punches he threw at two of his TV critics. During the subsequent cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Khan did not rake Fawad over coals. Asad Umar’s complaint of Fawad’s interview did not elicit Khan’s ire.

One possible explanation could be that Fawad’s interview was premeditated. Was it a mere coincidence that it was aired just before a weekly cabinet meeting? Some say Prime Minister Khan is acutely aware of the loud cacophony of criticism surrounding his unelected cabinet members. Fawad, therefore, was used to convey a message to the cabinet. And it has the perfect deniability. Fawad hasn’t been part of the inner sanctum ever since he was removed as the information minister.

The other explanation is that Fawad has played solo and gauged the political temperature. He recently tried to convince the Prime Minister not to embark on a collision course with the judiciary and take back the case against Justice Faez Isa. But his counsel fell on flat ears. So, he doesn’t mind if his political interview, which is fair in its portrayal of the shortcomings and handicaps of the ruling party, ruffles some feathers.

Unlike some other novice colleagues, who are mesmerised by the ‘killer smile’ and charismatic gait of their leader, Fawad knows that being ‘an electable’, he doesn’t have to act in an ingratiating manner. He has ample political experience, from the Musharraf days to the government of Pakistan Peoples Party. In fact, he is so confident of his ability and intelligence that he felt he was the right choice to be the Punjab Chief Minister. And, most significantly, he has a good relationship with the most powerful figure in the country. Such proximity and access always result in an increased sense of place and self-worth.

However, Fawad’s personal ambitions are less of a story compared with the tales of ill-governance and incompetence that have tainted the current government. The carefully crafted image of Imran Khan as the saviour against corruption and forces of the status quo is crumbling. The emotion on the street is of anger and frustration. Two years after the election, people are now questioning their choice of fervently supporting PTI.

Prime Minister Khan seems to have sensed this lurking storm. That is why he says he is taking things in his own hands: he will personally supervise all aspects of the government, he will personally look after the donation funds, he will personally spearhead the fight against coronavirus, he will personally monitor the violations of the SOPs etc.

It is really one man against the machine.

But the singular focus on accountability, which critics and observers increasingly see as one-sided and vindictive, and the insistence to refuse a political dialogue with the opposition is further jamming up the machine. The refusal to initiate a political dialogue with the opposition seems like recalcitrance, especially when the ‘powers that be’ are in contact with opposition figures, making courtesy calls and sound conciliatory.

It is during such times of political logjam that sharp politicians like Fawad don’t shy from taking a contrarian line — and gamble for a stake in the future.

This episode should be a moment of worry and reflection for PM Khan. His base is getting disillusioned. The party leadership is ideologically divided and jockeying for power. The cabinet is rife with internal discord. At a time when the country faces huge challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic and growing regional tensions, a divisive, shambolic cabinet does not inspire confidence. PM Khan should create cohesiveness and the power of the office of the prime minister should not be deferred. A message of unity of command needs to go out in the public. Otherwise, he risks losing control.