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People & Society

More of the same in Imran Khan's Pakistan

Updated 01 Jun, 2019 07:38pm
Asad Umar talking to the media after stepping down as finance minister | AFP
Asad Umar talking to the media after stepping down as finance minister | AFP

When Imran Khan first announced his cabinet after assuming power, some people were surprised by the fact that the overwhelming majority of its members were relics from past regimes. With some notable exceptions, such as Asad Umar, most of his ministers and advisers had either served under Pervez Musharraf or the governments that succeeded him. Their inclusion in the highest echelons of the government seemed incongruous given the stated commitment of his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), to usher in a new kind of politics.

But the reality was that the party had abandoned its more radical pretensions long ago. It had given in to the politics of expediency by welcoming the so-called ‘electables’ into its fold in order to have a better chance of winning the general elections of 2018. These traditional, elite politicians – products of a status quo defined by nepotism, rent-seeking and patronage-based politics – were hardly ever going to be the champions of change. More importantly, they were always going to extract their pound of flesh in return for their electoral invincibility. No wonder, a number of such electables found themselves rewarded with positions in the PTI government’s ever-increasing cabinet.

Their influx into the party not just diluted its message of change, its ranks and files also became polarised. One of the more enduring effects of the PTI’s decision to engage in politics as usual, therefore, has been the emergence of deeper schisms within its leaders and members than those that existed already.

Numerous accounts have emerged that suggest that there have always been multiple power centres within the party, each of which attempted to assert its power and influence vis-à-vis its rivals. In the years following the PTI’s underwhelming electoral performance in 2013, these divisions assumed a new character. They, indeed, took the form of a battle between the so-called ‘ideological’ wing, comprised of old party hands and workers, and newly-inducted electables whose economic, social and political resources would become increasingly indispensible for the party’s electoral fortunes.

Having seized control of the party and its agenda from their ‘ideological’ colleagues, the electables reportedly turned their guns on each other, vying for influence. They all ultimately have been positioning themselves for the greatest prizes of all — the premiership of Pakistan’s largest province, Punjab, and, one day, the country itself. This is precisely the reason why rumours have persistently circulated about rifts within the party in Punjab where multiple factions have coalesced around different, powerful individuals who continue to take advantage of the presence of a weak chief minister.

Any attempt to make sense of Imran Khan’s recent decision to reshuffle his cabinet should be aware of this context.

The most high profile casualty of his decision to reshape his team is, of course, Umar who, for years, has been trumpeted by PTI and its supporters as someone capable of curing all of Pakistan’s economic ills. Much has been written and said about the reasons for his departure from the cabinet. The sum of it all is that he was unable to steer the economy out of a crisis that had begun to unfold on his watch, thereby leading to panic and confusion; he also failed to present a consistent strategy when negotiating with the International Monetary Fund.

All of this seems to be true but the nature of Umar’s departure – he was all by himself in his last press conference and then Imran Khan followed it up with a statement decrying dead wood in his cabinet – indicates the presence of more than a little internal frustration about and opposition to the former finance minister. As has been reported in daily Dawn, Umar’s departure was possibly the culmination of a months-long campaign to have him removed. This campaign was reportedly spearheaded by his political rivals within the party as well as special interests opposed to his economic policies.

If Umar was the casualty of a turf war within PTI, what can be said of the equally unceremonious demotions of Chaudhry Fawad Hussain and Shehryar Afridi whose portfolios have been awarded to Firdous Ashiq Awan and Ijaz Ahmad Shah respectively? Here, the reasoning seems less rooted in internal politics (although there have been plenty of whispers about differences between Hussain and others within the party) and more connected to the increasing widespread belief that at least some of the political shots are being called by the military establishment. Handing over the interior ministry to a man who was part of the Musharraf regime and is known for his links to the military indicated a desire to bring about greater alignment between the civilian government and the establishment. The appointment of an information minister with a history of shifting loyalties and a demonstrated willingness to toe the military’s line has the same effect. The circle is squared with the decision to make Abdul Hafeez Shaikh the new finance minister. While he does possess the credentials to occupy the position he has been given, it is perhaps not coincidental that he, too, has served under a variety of different political masters - including a stint as a provincial minister during the Musharraf years.

Will these changes help PTI address the growing perception that it is failing to deliver ‘good’ governance? The jury is out.

Even in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, oft-touted as a shining example of the party’s ability to run effective administration, it is becoming glaringly obvious that is not as it seems. The much-publicised problems with the Peshawar Bus Rapid Transit system, characterised by chronic delays and cost overruns, have been accompanied by tales of corruption and misuse of power by the province’s top leaders and politicians.

While PTI makes much of the reforms it has bright about in the province’s police, healthcare and education systems, the facts on the ground suggest that the impact of these measures has been limited. It is difficult to find evidence to support the lofty claims the government has been making. Announcing policies such as a health insurance scheme is certainly not the same as properly implementing them. PTI, this, appears to be floundering even in a context like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa which is relatively free from competing centres of power or intra-party machinations.

The blame for all of this failure must ultimately lie with Imran Khan. In addition to his inability to address schisms and factionalism within his own party, he has also shown a tendency to centralise the decision-making process in his own hands. The appointment of relatively weak and unknown chief ministers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab has been interpreted by many as an attempt by him to ensure that he himself remains the real person in charge to the two provinces.

Indeed, it is routine to find him preceding over meetings of the Punjab cabinet, seemingly managing the affairs of the province that, both in theory and practice, are the exclusive domain of the provincial Chris executive, Chief Minister Usman Buzdar. The problem with this centralisation, of course, is that the more Imran Khan does it, the more it seems he is out of his depth. He is taking arbitrary decisions and making superficial announcements just as his party and government succumb to unrelenting infighting. More importantly, his approach is preventing the few genuinely talented individuals within his party from rising to the top and working with the autonomy required to come up with creative solutions to the country’s problems.

In a nutshell, therefore, the latest cabinet reshuffle is arguably the outcome of three distinct tendencies: factional warfare within the party; the increasing influence being wielded by the military establishment; and an idiosyncratic management style that has prevented Prime Minister Imran Khan from delegating authority to the right people.

While Imran Khan has tried to couch changes to the cabinet in terms of performance and delivery, the reality is that these amount to little more than shifting the deck’s chairs on the Titanic. In as much as the government’s visible policy paralysis stems from his party’s continuing inability to define what it wishes to do due to its ongoing internal conflicts, the situation is unlikely to change any time soon. Similarly, the appointment of ministers known for their loyalty and closeness to the powers that be simply indicates where the source of the future policy directives lies.

The writer is an assistant professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences.

This article was originally published in the Herald's May 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.