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More than meets the eye


The reports of the exchange of hot words between Prime Minister Imran Khan and Defence Minister Pervez Khattak at the recent PTI parliamentary party meeting have been strenuously denied, but not so easily denied was the outburst of Noor Alam Khan in the National Assembly. While parliamentary meetings are closed-door, sessions of the National Assembly are open unless deemed to be closed doors. Preventing outbursts from ruling party members against the ministry is not considered a reason to make a session off-limits to the public.

Noor Alam’s outburst was against the Cabinet, the Prime Minister and the KP Chief Minister. There is a whiff of provincial politics over the whole affair, and Khattak is the former KP Chief Minister. Even though he has got one of the most high-profile portfolios in the Cabinet, he does not exercise the same authority over the armed forces as he did over the province.

Even at the time he was being moved to Islamabad, after the 2018 PTI victory, he jibbed a lot, and his assumption that Imran owed him big-time may have contributed to his resenting the fact that someone else was all-in-all in the province, and that too someone who had once been a member of his provincial Cabinet.

One commonality he has with Mehmood Khan is that they both started politics in the PPP.  However, the problem he now faces, Mehmood Khan does not. Can he in good conscience remain in office, as a member of Imran’s Cabinet? In principle, he cannot. The problem he set himself is that he made his criticism in the parliamentary party meeting. That was not really private enough a forum to complain. However, the aftermath, which was a meeting with Imran and Energy Minister Hammad Azhar, may have been the fight place, but by them it was perhaps too late.

True, any complaints should have been expressed only in a meeting with the PM, and not in a parliamentary party meeting, but it reflected badly on Imran’s management style that a minister holding a senior portfolio should not already have virtually unlimited access to the Prime Minister. He should not have to bring constituency issues to him, nor need his intervention to get the attention of any Cabinet colleague.

Imran at least had a history of achievement as a sportsman and a philanthropist. It can be righly said that he imposed himself on the establishment. Now, it seems, the establishment wants a freer choice, one who has no illusions about himself

However, not only has he probably found out that having such an important portfolio does not get him the respect he should have, as he finds himself squeezed out by one of his subordinate officials, the COAS. Technically, the four service HQs are equal to secretariats of the Defence Ministry, and are headed by a secretary general. Thus the service chiefs and the chairman outrank the Defence Secretary, who heads the Defence Division, to which they are supposed to report. The Secretary Defence has of recent years been a retired lieutenant general.

While this might be quoted as an example of healthy intra-party debate, the absence of a leadership replacement mechanism means that the debate can go nowhere. The PTI is by no means alone in not having such a mechanism; the PML(N) and the PPP also lack one.  The probable reason is that the parties in Pakistan are more political vehicles for their leaders than collections of people with the same ideology. This might explain why the parties have such a strong hereditary streak. The PPP is now in its third generation of Bhuttos, and though the Sharifs are still in their first generation at the helm of the PML(N), it is reasonably clear that the eponymous leader,  Mian Nawaz Sharif wanted to be succeeded by his eldest child and daughter Maryam, while his brother Shehbaz, currently head of the party, wants his mantle taken over by the his son Hamza. More importantly, large parts of the party are willing to go along with these succession plans.

The hereditary factor is so ubiquitous that it can be seen in other parties: the PML(Q) has seen Ch Moonis Elahi become a third-generation federal minister (being the son of Ch Pervez Elahi and maternal grandson of Ch Zahoor Elahi), the JUI(F) is headed by the son of Mufti Mahmud, the ANP is headed by Asfandyar Wali, himself a third-generation party chief, and the PKMAP by Mahmud Achakzai, the son of party founder Samad Achakzai. Examples abound of leaders owing their positions of fathers and grandfathers.

Is Khattak doing the next best thing to a leadership challenge in which he is a contender, and throwing his hat into the ring and obliquely angling for the Prime Ministership. Certainly, that is the only possible step up he could hope for on his career trajectory but the only mechanism possible does not exist in the PTI, or any other major political party.

At the beginning of every Parliament, there is a parliamentary party meeting which formally elects the party leader as its leader, and that person is the party’s nominee for PM. However, there is no mechanism whereby a member may challenge the leader, and declare that he or she would be a better candidate, not just to be PM, but to lead the party at the next election.

Such a mechanism probably does not exist because there is no way that the new leader would be able to avoid being wiped out at the next election. The PTI is no exception.

However, parties have now got used to having PMs who do not belong to the ruling family, with the PPP having two and the PML(N) one. The PTI does not have the problem of finding a replacement that can fight the next election, but it may have to find a PM for the rest of the term, or until a dissolution occurs ahead of time. That PM will not be a free choice of the PTI parliamentary party, nor even decided by the leader of the party, in the PPP or PML(N), but will be decided by the establishment. It is not without significance that Khattak is among those mentioned as a possibility for the office. Noor Alam Khan’s outburst may merely be an application for a seat in any future Khattak ministry. It would be a high-risk strategy if Noor Alam had any chance of being included in anyone else’s Cabinet, but if Khattak was his only chance, then it makes sense.

It would seem that there is a reversion to the 1950s, to the period between the assassination of Liaquat Ali Khan in 1951 and the imposition of Martial Law in 1958, when there was an apparent kaleidoscope of PMs, and the approval for their elevation did not come from Parliament, but the establishment. While the leaders of both the PPP and the PML(N) had both been rendered incapable of becoming PM, and the PMs emerging did not owe their positions to their having risen to the top, but because they had been selected by their party leaders, not the party as a whole.

The PTI should have been different, a reversion to the old pattern of the charismatic figure, the vote-getter, becoming PM. However, Imran may have fulfilled that, but maneuvering is now taking place to replace him. For the first time, the replacement will not have the approval of the party leader. However, perhaps it was inevitable that, in a deal which saw a political outsider become PM, the other party (the establishment) would want to decide who was to be PM.

Imran at least had a history of achievement as a sportsman and a philanthropist. It can be rightly said that he imposed himself on the establishment. Now, it seems, the establishment wants a freer choice, one who has no illusions about himself.

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