Now that the prize had been won, Imran Khan might well have realised the difference between winning at cricket, even if it is the World Cup, and winning an election. In cricket, indeed in any sport, the purpose of playing is to win. But when one contests an election, challenge begins when one takes up the office to which one has been elected, whether it be the chairmanship of the local union council, or the prime ministership of the country.
Imran started off by making a speech. Though he avoided using the phrase khazaana khaali hai, that was the initial message. He laid out an ambitious range of projects, and announced the setting up of some task forces, which is the normal bureaucratic formula for doing nothing– set up a committee. As Imran might have noticed, though he and his party are full of good intentions, the immediate problem the country faces is the foreign exchange crisis. At the moment, that crisis is also facing Turkey, another US ally which has been following an independent foreign policy, most notably by working with Russia in the Middle East. However, Imran’s speech did not mention the solution everyone has assumed Pakistan will opt for, and which has been hinted at by the new Finance Minister, Asad Umar– borrowing from the IMF.
The speech made an impact, especially with the austerity measures he announced. The paring of staff and vehicles from Prime Minister House were seen with wonder, and there seems to have been widespread wonder at the numbers. It was not mentioned that Prime Minister House also houses the PM’s private secretariat, and thus there is a host of officials who maintain offices there, as well as in the PM Secretariat nearby. Piously, new governors and the PTI’s presidential nominee all announced that they would not move into the huge official residences provided for them, but would use either their own houses or alternative official residences.
One interesting omission from Imran’s speech was military expenditure. He spoke about the debt crisis, rightly enough. Debt servicing is the largest single item of government expenditure. It assumed this position recently, but military expenditure is now the second, and has been replaced as the largest item. This omission merely reinforces the impression that the PTI is the political platform of the military. It is worth mentioning that two pro-military PMs, Muhammad Khan Junejo and Mian Nawaz Sharif, both changed because they found the figures didn’t add up. You can’t touch salaries and pensions, or debt servicing, or military expenditure, so what is left for development?
At present, Imran either doesn’t realise this, or assumes that money can be found for military expenditure if there is an end to waste. The gestures made so far are symbolic, and do not take account of how much is wasted by permanent civil servants, such as are in the armed forces.
The obvious solution is for people to pay more taxes. In Pakistan, that does not mean raising taxes so much as getting more people into the tax net. Imran’s solution is to find a competent CBR head and an appeal to Pakistanis to trust the government more, just as they trust him. In a way, he is attempting a repetition of the cancer hospital formula. Also, he is putting his own reputation on the line. He spoke about having achieved the impossible so far, from becoming a fast bowler to becoming Prime Minister.
However, while he might well boast of a lifetime of achievement, perhaps more important are the choices he will make. It may be that he will pick his own team. For the time being, he has chosen Ch Sarwar and Shah Mehmood Qureshi to return to the jobs they held before they resigned to join the PTI, the former as Punjab Governor, the latter as Foreign Minister. His most crucial choice is also his biggest gamble, the pick of Usman Buzdar as Punjab Chief Minister. It is crucial because Punjab is crucial to the PTI’s obtaining the central government. In fact, it is crucial to all central governments formed since the 1971 elections. If the PTI hopes to be re-elected, it will have to win in Punjab, and if the head of the Punjab government does not do a good job of governance, then its chances are dim.
Again, even if the CM performs miracles personally, his real task is to choose the right people, not just ministers, but also civil servants, and not just in his capital, but in the districts. While the new Chief Minister may have his heart in the right place, his experience is limited to a stint as Tehsil Nazim of Taunsa Sharif. The last time a chief minister came from South Punjab was Mustafa Khar in 1972, when he too succeeded a chief minister from Lahore district. True, that CM, Malik Meraj Khalid, was from a rural area, not the heart of the city, as Mian Shehbaz Sharif was. Khar illustrated the problem that is posed by a Punjab CM. He becomes ambitious.
Khar had to be removed, being replaced first with Hanif Ramay, who was from Lahore, and ultimately with another South Punjabi, Sadiq Hussain Qureshi. Khar came back to the PPP, went into exile, and then joined hands with Mustafa Jatoi in the National Peoples Party, but later formed his own faction. Khar joined the PTI last year. Technically, the last chief minister from South Punjab to succeed one from Lahore was Ghulam Haider Wyne (elected from his residential constituency in Khanewal), who succeeded Mian Nawaz Sharif in 1990, but that probably won’t count, as they were both Amritsari Kashmiris.
That example is instructive. That was the first time a Punjab Chief Minister became PM in recent times, thus fulfilling a fear. (Actually, it had been done before, by Feroze Khan Noon, who was CM between April 1953 and May 1955, and then PM from December 1957 to October 1958, when General Ayub Khan took over.) Buzdar’s predecessor, Mian Shehbaz, has also made the transition to the federal level, moving from the chief ministership to the leadership of the opposition, at this election, and was the main, though not unanimous, opposition candidate for the Prime Ministership.
There is no reason to doubt the good intentions of Buzdar, and it is to his credit rather than anything else that he is the son of the Tumandar of the Buzdars, a title he will inherit in due course. His opponent for the chief ministership was Hamza Shehbaz, Mian Shehbaz’s son. Buzdar also has a multiple murder in the background, for which his father paid Rs 7.5 million as blood money. That was in connection with a local body polls dispute. Buzdar cannot be held responsible for his father’s action, just as much as Mian Hamza cannot be held responsible for the Model Town incident of 17 June 2014+, in which PAT workers were killed by police firing, and of which Mian Shehbaz is accused of being responsible.
Buzdar may not be held responsible for the choice of ministers, but he must be held responsible for the transfer of the SP Pakpattan over a dispute with Imran’s wife’s first husband. That is not the most auspicious of starts. It is also not clear whether his selection is a quiet ditching for the PTI’s promise of a South Punjab province. Is Buzdar meant to satisfy South Punjab aspirations or to head a new province when it is formed?
At the moment, the man responsible for everything is Imran. If he succeeds even partially, well and good, for he will be re-elected. But if he fails, or if he gets any false ideas about who put him where he is, he will be cast on the dust heap of history.
The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.
Khar illustrated the problem that is posed by a Punjab CM. He becomes ambitious.