RED ZONE FILES: PTI’s festering fault lines

Fawad Chaudhry’s interview has ope­n­ed a can of worms. This was fully expe­cted as the PTI government is groaning under the weight of its multiple fault lines. There are at least ten such fault lines and they tell their own stories. Here goes…

  1. Elected vs non-elected cabinet members: The resentment of the elected ministers has reached near boiling point. Advisers and special assistants to the PM occupy key ministries as decision-makers and elected ministers are seething at being sidelined. However, PTI insiders confess that the central role of technocrats/specialists is a deliberate policy choice which stems from the party leadership’s admiration for the best practices of a presidential system. Prime Minister Imran Khan said so once himself in an interaction with journalists. Clearly, the elected ministers are not amused.
  2. Ideological members vs electables: This fault line first opened after the famous October 2011 Minar-i-Pakistan jalsa and since then it has kept widening and shrinking as waves of people hooked their bandwagons to PTI. Many loyalists fell by the wayside as PTI inched towards power but the fault line remains active even though it is buried under layers of post-power fault lines. The ‘Origin­als’ of the PTI nurse grievances today when many of them have been elbowed out by those against whom they struggled for years on end. Life is cruel. Politics even more so.
  3. Politicians vs bureaucrats: The office of the principal secretary to the prime minister (PSPM) is arguably the most powerful bureaucratic position in the federal government. This person’s most potent weapon is that he or she controls access to the PM. PSPM is in essence the state’s arm in the PM office along with the military secretary (MS). However the role of the PSPM is usually balanced by an equally critical role of some trusted political leader close to the prime minister. At one point Jehangir Tareen played this role. No one does so today and therefore the PSPM has ended up exercising significant influence. Cabinet ministers say this increased influence, via control of access to the PM, has come at their expense. No one can leverage the power of the bureaucracy better than the PSPM so when he grows powerful, so does the role of the bureaucracy.
  4. Jehangir Khan Tareen group vs Asad Umar group: The political relevance of group members rises and falls with their leaders. Tareen group had a good run in the party when he was the secretary general and the good run continued when PTI got into power. JKT was the key man in deciding tickets for the 2018 elections. Members of his group still constitute a bulk of cabinet positions in the federal, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa governments. Asad Umar is now the de facto leader of the other group which includes most of the heavyweights in the centre. These two groups are further divided into sub-categories: elected cabinet members, technocrats, elected parliamentarians, reserved seats parliamentarians and even favoured bureaucrats. The Tareen group enjoyed important portfolios and smooth access all the while that JKT was the closest unofficial adviser to the prime minister. When Asad Umar made a comeback to the cabinet, so did many within his group in all the sub-categories. Fawad Chaudhry’s interview can also be contextualised within the framework of this fault line.
  5. Karachi group vs the rest: This is a very subtle fault line. PTI’s Karachi presence presents an interesting case study in itself. The party has 14 MNAs from the city. From the Karachi chapter, one person is the president of Pakistan, one is governor of Sindh and at least two are federal ministers. And yet there are issues. PTI is in the opposition in Sindh while it has to manage the delicate relationship with GDA and MQM. The Karachi group feels at a relative disadvantage to Islamabad, Lahore and Peshawar where their colleagues enjoy direct political and financial benefits of being in power.
  6. Out-of-favour party loyalists vs government office holders: Many PTI loyalists fell out of the leader’s favour over the years. Some were consoled by handing them party positions while others found themselves in the wilderness. Many names of yesteryear are nowhere to be seen even though they remain within the fold of the party. They nurse a long list of grievances as they watch their party’s performance from the sidelines while still having to defend it feebly in public.
  7. Ministers vs MNAs: This fault line has become more acute as PTI’s governance issues have mounted. For the parliamentarians a key priority is getting development funds and getting their work done. In both instances, cabinet ministers play a central role. PTI MNAs today face two problems: one, they complain they don’t have enough access to their ministers because ministers have de-prioritised attending the parliament because their boss — the prime minister — comes to the parliament infrequently and has shown scant interest in its proceedings.

Parliament is the best place for MNAs to get access to the ministers and prime minister. Since both have not developed a habit of attending, MNAs are frustrated because many find themselves cut out of the power loop. To add to their grievances, the prime minister has appointed an unelected person as minister for parliamentary affairs. Two, they have almost no access to the prime minister because he is rarely available in the parliament or to chair the parliamentary party meeting. This fault line is growing.

  1. PM’s kitchen cabinet vs other cabinet: Prime Minister Imran Khan’s kitchen cabinet is not as pronounced as the one that Nawaz Sharif had as prime minister but it exists in the shadows. The members of this cabinet — the inner-most circle — are those who have unfettered access to Banigala. They are few but they exercise an outsized influence on decision-making inside the Red Zone. The other cabinet members know well that these kitchen cabinet members are the super-ministers who enjoy the kind of access to the PM that other cabinet members can only dream of. This fault line pulsates on a daily basis and was evident in the stormy cabinet meeting that took place on Tuesday.
  2. Establishment group vs others: Within the higher echelons of the government this fault line remains alive in day-to-day policymaking. Cabinet members associated with the establishment are well known and the others mutter under their breath that these people have been imposed on the PTI cabinet and will be the first to leave when things go south. The establishment-linked cabinet members wield significance influence thro­ugh important portfolios and this influence breeds resentment among those who feel their higher stakes in the party have not delivered them equally higher rewards. The tension between these two groups simmers under the surface and is fairly visible to discerning observers.
  3. PTI vs allies: The tension in this fault line was sparking off and on till it burst open with the departure of Sardar Akhtar Mengal’s BNP-M. Yet there remain latent problems with other allies like MQM, BAP, GDA and PML-Q. JKT managed these problems as and when they arose but for now PTI does not have anyone who can work overtime to keep this fault line from heating up. There are issues of funds, ministries and transfer/postings that require nimble management from the ruling party. PTI will ignore this fault line at its peril.

There is unease inside the Red Zone. Fawad Chaudhry’s lamentations may just be the tip of the iceberg.