Compositing by Marium Ali
Compositing by Marium Ali

Last month, Balochistan saw a strange bit of political theatre whose echoes reverberated in the corridors of power in Islamabad and Lahore. For a province neglected by the mainstream media and a people numbed by more than a decade of ethnic and sectarian violence, it presented a tragicomic distraction. The government of chief minister Nawab Sanaullah Zehri was toppled by recalcitrant members of his own party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN), and that too barely a few months before it was supposed to complete its tenure.

For outside observers, the move appeared rather bizarre considering that there was little that the new chief minister, Abdul Quddus Bizenjo, and his cabinet could accomplish in a period of six months or less. Some political analysts pointed out that the move was meant to influence the outcome of the upcoming Senate elections that will be held in Balochistan on March 3, 2018. In a more surprising move, the provincial assembly gave a vote of confidence to Bizenjo, a former deputy speaker and one of its youngest members, with an overwhelming majority, and he was elected as the new Leader of the House and chief minister.

The mainstream media’s analysis, while not entirely misplaced, ignores some of the underlying political dynamics of this change and its symbolic significance for the people of Balochistan. In the first place, the primary movers and drivers of this abrupt change were local although these moves took place against the background of broader changes in national politics. The balance of power in the ruling alliance comprising PMLN, Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) and the National Party (NP) in Balochistan was heavily tilted in favour of PkMAP, even though PMLN had the largest parliamentary group in the provincial assembly. PkMAP was controlling key ministries and departments such as the Planning and Development Department, and the Education Department, and their nominee is also occupying the Governor House in Quetta.

Secondly, members of Zehri’s own party saw him as a weak chief minister who was unable to exercise any real influence or discipline on his coalition partners to ensure an equitable distribution of development funds among the legislators. Lastly, he gave the impression of standing by the PMLN chief, Mian Nawaz Sharif, on a couple of occasions in the latter’s ongoing confrontation with the judiciary and the security establishment. This might have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

The ability of rather new members of the Balochistan Assembly to successfully challenge and dislodge a chief minister, who is not only a career politician and one of the most powerful tribal chiefs in Balochistan but also has the support of his party’s central leadership, is indeed revealing.

The leader of the rebellious faction within PMLN Balochistan, Mir Sarfaraz Ahmed Bugti, was a small player in the local politics of Dera Bugti before his appearance on Balochistan’s political scene in the wake of the military deployment in his home town and his meteoric rise to the coveted position of home minister.

Similarly, the new chief minister, Bizenjo, was not well known in Balochistan before he was elected as a member of the provincial assembly from Awaran District with a suspicious tally of about 500 votes in the wake of the boycott of elections by Baloch nationalist insurgents. Put together, these new developments, and the personalities who represent them, suggest that electoral politics in the province will remain hostage to the caprice of individual politicians and the expediencies of a counter-insurgency campaign. It is indeed a cruel joke on the people of Balochistan that even the little political space that was available for a modicum of self-expression and genuine debate has been turned into a theatre of the absurd.

This was originally published in the Herald's February 2018 issue under the headline "Theatre of the absurd". To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is a social anthropologist who teaches social development and policy at Habib University, Karachi.