IT can’t get more bizarre: a government at war with itself and at war with all other political forces. The latest spat between the two top party leaders has opened wide the cracks within the ruling PTI. It has unleashed a vicious Twitter war among the cabinet ministers declaring their allegiance to one group or the other. It is a free for all.
Meanwhile, a mulish prime minister refuses to come out of his container mode and show some statesmanship to make the system work. The politics of confrontation have paralysed parliament and blocked the legislative process. The chaos and disarray have affected governance. More worrisome is that the drift could lead to an economic meltdown. Yet there is no realisation of the gravity of the situation. The great new hope is withering away fast.
Although the turf war between Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Jahangir Tareen is not new, the latest war of words has far more serious connotations for the party that is now in power. It has laid bare the divide within the ranks. Both political heavyweights belong to south Punjab, the PTI’s main political stronghold in the province. Their rivalry intensified during the elections when they tried to undermine each other.
Though Tareen, after being disqualified by the Supreme Court, was already out of the electoral race, Qureshi blamed the former PTI secretary general for his defeat on a provincial assembly seat that thwarted his bid for the coveted post of chief minister of the country’s biggest and most powerful province.
PTI infighting has worsened the predicament of a government facing serious challenges on every front.
After remaining in oblivion for a while following the elections, Tareen has recently taken centre stage again in his party. He not only sat in on federal cabinet meetings but also presided over some departmental meetings. He has been conspicuous by his presence in public meetings at the side of Imran Khan. It is obvious that his return to the front row and active involvement in the affairs of the government could only have happened with the approval of the prime minister.
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A past master of political wheeling and dealing, Tareen was responsible for getting the independently elected members of the Punjab Assembly to join the PTI thus allowing the party to form the government in the province. He has certainly been Khan’s most trusted confidant and his disqualification was a huge loss to the party. Tareen had been openly expressing his frustration over the state of affairs in the government before his restoration to prominence by the PTI leadership.
One of the reasons for his being brought back seems to be the governance crisis in Punjab with the selection of an extremely ineffective chief minister. Tareen’s increasing involvement in Punjab seems to be the main reason for Qureshi’s resentment. While his political acumen and craftiness are extremely useful to the party leadership, Tareen also has a reputation of being divisive. It is not surprising that while many ministers jumped into the fray in Tareen’s defence, others kept quiet.
For many in the party, Qureshi’s public denunciation of his old foe was also an implicit attack on the prime minister. The first shot was fired by the savvy foreign minister who covets too much political ambition even for Imran Khan’s comfort. The foreign ministry was his last choice. In the absence of the prime minister from parliament, he has been acting as leader of the house.
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One may admit that he has conducted himself much more prudently. Unlike Khan’s hard-line positions, Qureshi has been much more conciliatory towards the opposition inside and outside parliament. He has not been shy of openly expressing his differing views. Last week, he publicly distanced himself from Khan’s decision to change the name of the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP).
Qureshi has shown far more maturity while dealing with political matters than handling foreign policy issues. That has certainly helped him raise his political profile. But his latest outburst and slight to the prime minister may weaken his position among the loyalists. It was a snub to him when Tareen was invited to the cabinet meeting the very next day. This party infighting, however, is not going to go away.
It is not just about the Qureshi-Tareen feud; there are other reasons too for the disarray in the party. There is growing frustration over the government’s lack of clear direction. One may argue that such polemics among cabinet ministers and Qureshi’s opposition to the prime minister’s decision about BISP is a sign of democracy in the party, but this kind of open battle seriously affects the government’s working.
This infighting has worsened the predicament of the government which is facing serious challenges on every front. The economy is in free fall and there is hardly any sign of the government’s ability to stem the rot. The steep rise in inflation is directly affecting the common man. The latest State Bank report indicates a grim prospect for the economy. With economic growth likely to remain below 4pc, declining tax revenues and the rising balance of payments gap makes for a depressing picture.
The government’s claim of creating millions of new jobs sounds highly improbable. In fact, the lower economic growth rate means more unemployment. The multibillion-rupee social security programme launched by the government may not be able to deliver given the shrinking economy. A major problem with Khan is that instead of concentrating on these challenges, his entire attention is on the confrontation with the opposition. It was extremely senseless to talk about changing the name of BISP.
Khan refuses to talk to the opposition even on issues where the government needs its support and cooperation. The vacant seats in the Election Commission of Pakistan could not be filled because the prime minister would not undertake any consultation with the opposition, which is a constitutional requirement. That also makes it difficult to pass any legislation. His one-dimensional approach to the anti-corruption campaign has also paralysed the bureaucracy. The government may still enjoy public goodwill, but it would not take much time for it to dissipate.