By Ahmed Bilal Mehboob
The performance of
the provincial government in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, under
Chief Minister Sardar Usman Buzdar has been a source of concern for many in the
ruling PTI party.
His most recent upset has been the mismanagement of the dengue fever epidemic in Rawalpindi and other areas in Punjab, which have led people to draw parallels with the contrasting, dynamic performance of the previous PML-N government in the province. This criticism gives PTI’s opponents the opportunity to discredit Prime Minister Imran Khan and his overall leadership.
After all, Buzdar was handpicked by Khan against the better judgment of all experienced politicians within the party and outside it. No one was convinced of his choice to run the country’s largest province where more than 50 percent of Pakistan’s population lives. But since the public mandate is almost invariably given to a single leader and not to a party in Pakistan, it was considered the sole prerogative of Khan to pick the candidates he wanted for the top slots.
Decision-making structures within the party are seldom consulted and sometimes their approval, even as a formality, is not considered necessary. In this particular case, Khan was the only one who announced Buzdar’s name as the future CM of Punjab. He did the same in the case of the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Therefore, it is only natural that the brunt of the criticism of these and other choices are directed at Khan. It’s not that the party lacked better choices. There were a number of party MPAs who had greater party seniority and suitable administrative experience.
Shah Mehmood Qureshi, though he lost the provincial seat, could have easily been made to contest again in a by-election. Sadly, party pioneer, Jehangir Tareen, was disqualified by the Supreme Court, or he would have been another appropriate choice.
But now it seems
competence was never Khan’s criteria for picking a CM to lead Punjab.
After the 18th Amendment, the Constitution gave so much power to the provinces that anyone with a reasonable level of competence and support base in urban Punjab can, with time, hold enough power to challenge the Prime Minister. It appears then, that the search was for the kind of minister who would always look toward Khan for instructions on how to run the ever-important Punjab. Essentially, a loyal subordinate.
PM Nawaz Sharif was lucky to have found in his brother, Shehbaz Sharif, an almost ideal combination of loyalty and the ability to deliver. That was a major reason for the success of the political relationship between the two brothers.
Although Punjab has always had gigantic challenges to face, it has traditionally been a better-governed province with some of the best serving civil servants. Chaudhry Pervez Elahi and Shehbaz Sharif were able to assemble a good collection of civil servants and, in their own distinct ways, provided them with strong political leadership and shielded them from excessive interference from the center.
Currently, strong and dynamic leadership is missing in Punjab and the province needs to rejuvenate its economic potential. Its public transport showpiece, the Orange Metro Train, must be commissioned without further delay and integrated into its economic growth endeavors. A huge investment was made in its health and education infrastructure by the previous government, but will the present government be able to take the projects to fruition or will it let them sink, solely to deprive the last government of credit?
The fair demands of businessmen and public officials regarding the on-going accountability drive must be accommodated to get business and administrative machines moving in top gear.
In my view, there is a window of between three to six months, in which the current Chief Minister will have to learn the ropes and start delivering, or Imran Khan will be forced to look for an alternative.
The landmark Punjab local government election is due in May 2020. A decision on the direction Punjab will take must be taken well before that. A directly elected powerful mayor of Lahore from the PML-N will indeed be a defeat for PTI, well before the 2023 general election.
(Ahmed Bilal Mehboob is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT.)