Peshawar - The drop scene to the internal rifts and power struggle in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa came Sunday when Atif Khan, Shahram Tarakai and Shakeel Ahmed were sacked from the provincial cabinet.

The message was very much clear: no challenge to the authority of chief minister Mahmood Khan would be tolerated. The swift move to fire the three provincial ministers had the complete backing of Prime Minister Imran Khan, insiders say — and was intended to send out a message to lawmakers in the Punjab provincial assembly also. 

The apparent downfall of Atif Khan and Shahram Tarakai is particularly dramatic as they were once the star attractions of the provincial line-up of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf in KP. On several occasions in the past couple of years, Imran Khan effusively praised Atif Khan and many saw him as a strong candidate to be the chief minister after the 2018 general elections. But luck favoured the understated and low-key Mahmood Khan from Swat as he was anointed as the chief minister. Mahmood Khan had the backing of former chief minister Pervez Khattak and the kingmaker Jahangir Khan Tareen. 

The elevation of Mahmood Khan inevitably was seen as a snub by Atif Khan and the group of lawmakers along his side. The relations between Atif Khan, who was made the tourism minister, and Mahmood Khan remained frosty since the day one. 

While announcing the sacking of the three ministers Sunday, Shaukat Yousafzai, the provincial information minister, said that there had been grouping within the party and Atif Khan was aiming to be the chief minister. 

Atif Khan and his cousin Shahram Tarakai have their list of grievances and have in recent days accused the provincial cabinet to have mired in corruption. They also were critical of the governance in the province and blamed the chief minister for being incompetent and incapable. It was only inevitable that the bubbling tensions of the past few weeks would lead to serious consequences. There are 145 members in KP assembly; PTI members have over 100 seats and this overwhelming majority makes CM Mahmood Khan historically the strongest chief minister of KP. Add to it the support from Islamabad, Mahmood Khan almost seemed invincible. But this did not deter the historical opponents within the party and in recent days they held secretive meetings in attempts to create wedges in the ruling party, insiders said.

Supporters of Atif Khan portray him as a driven, serious and dedicated politician. But his detractors accuse him of exactly the opposite. They portray him as politically over-ambitious and throwing punches above his weight. 

Atif Khan is alleged to have the support of 15 lawmakers. It is not enough to pose a threat to KP CM Chief Minister and the way Mahmood Khan decisively moved against the three provincial ministers is a sign of his confidence. 

One fallout of the move Sunday could be in the upcoming general elections. Atif and Shahram have dedicated workers in Swabi and Mardan. They played political cards with great planning and accuracy in 2013 and 2018 general elections and won majority seats for the party. The forthcoming local government elections will be a test for the chief minister and his team without these young politicians. 

Mahmood Khan will have to work hard to overcome the perception that his cabinet has become a rudderless ship.