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August 4, 2018

The PTI’s Shahbaz Sharif


August 4, 2018

There is only one requirement for Imran Khan’s pick for the chief minister of Punjab: s/he has to be better than Shahbaz Sharif. 

Better administration, better optics, and better at getting things done. Whether Shahbaz did all of this is debatable, but the comparison between the next CM and the image that is Shahbaz Sharif will start from the day the future CM is named.

So what’s stopping Imran Khan? His options, which have been greatly discussed in the media, have dwindled down to Sibtain Khan, Raja Yasir and Fawad Chaudhry, with new names coming forth every day. Punjab isn’t as easy as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was for Khan. The PTI chief had to choose between Pervez Khattak and Atif Khan – and has settled on the young former education minister, who was widely accepted by the media. Khattak’s desperate desire to be a second-time CM, and rumours of blackmailing Khan for the position, didn’t go down well with the media. So what’s stopping Khan from following his gut for CM Punjab? There are a lot of factors; the one in focus here is the pressure he will face, and is facing, from the media.

The PTI can be called Pakistan’s most ‘media-sensitive’ party. They have a strong system of analysing and monitoring the media and then briefing Khan on the finer details. It is said that Khan’s main media diet doesn’t come from the electronic media; he relies more on social media to be briefed about what people’s perception of him and his party’ is at the end of the day. And not just any Twitterati: Khan is more partial to listening to the views of social media influencers who are partial to him and his politics. He doesn’t have time for critics.

Does Khan really care that much about what the media thinks and says? Probably more than others do. A case in point is the induction of Aamir Liaquat. Initially, the fake doctor had declared on social media that he was to be a part of the PTI and that Imran Khan would be announcing his membership. But after a major outcry on social media, the decision was taken back. PTI members say it was due to media pressure. Liaquat’s hurried inclusion at a later stage drew some criticism but was lost in the flurry of other news – lucky for Khan but perhaps not so lucky for Liaquat. These days, Liaquat is busy deleting politically incorrect tweets within minutes of posting them. He is probably also being closely monitored.

And it is the close monitoring of criticism by the media that makes the Punjab CM decision a difficult one. Khan’s top contender, Aleem Khan, has faced the brunt of it already. Reportedly, Aleem’s future as CM Punjab was dashed when the media started questioning how someone who was being questioned by NAB could be the top contender for the post. Aleem recently came out and criticised the media for leading a premature and misleading trial against him.

But Khan also had another contender in mind who was a shoo-in for the job – except Shah Mehmood Qureshi lost the provincial seat he needed to become the most logical choice. An experienced stalwart, he had the stature and the political acumen to take on the recent memory of Shahbaz Sharif. There is a chance that Qureshi could still be CM: appointing someone who is popular with the public but doesn’t have much administrative skill, like Yasmin Rashid, to the CM post and replacing her with Qureshi once – and if – he wins the by-election. That, though, will not be good optics. The media narrative that will be built is that Imran Khan doesn’t have anyone good enough to be CM and therefore, needs to get someone who lost a seat to win again and then appoint him to the top post in the province. The optics probably do, and should, worry Khan.

No one likes dark horses they don’t get the chance to know. It’s too late in the game now for Khan to introduce someone new, like Raja Yasir, Sibtain Khan and Rai Murtaza Iqbal, who are mostly unknown faces for electronic and social media. They might have the credentials he is looking for, but will they be able to ward off the juggernaut perception of Shahbaz Sharif? Seems unlikely, unless Khan makes a concerted effort to launch his horse effectively and smoothly in public. And the two groups in his party – the Jehangir Tareen team and the Shah Mehmood group – are trying to do just that.

The names being leaked to the media are being sized up, dissected, criticised and judged by anchors, analysts and tweets. By leaking names to the media, the party can easily decipher who is a more popular and acceptable candidate to the public. All the new names are relatively unknown and have not garnered any major interest. The interest mostly is in who is backing whom to figure out whose puppet CM they will be – a man disqualified by the Supreme Court or one who didn’t manage to win a seat to be CM himself. Terrible optics.

Unlike other provinces, the CM of Punjab is a post that is of interest to the general public. So what can Khan do?

It’s a simple formula. No one wants a Sajrani when they’re used to a Rabbani. If Khan wants to effectively battle the hold of the PML-N in Punjab, he will need a face in the CM seat – one strong enough to hold his or her own. We will probably have to wait a few more days until this person is found. In this age of swift media judgment, we probably wont have to wait long until the future CM is sized up by the media as a pass or a fail. Khan’s choices are limited and filling this position is a big test of his decision-making skills. If he fails, the blowback will be a big win for the metro-making, dengue-fighting, rain-boot wearing Sharif.

The writer is a senior executive producer at Geo News. Twitter: @mariumch

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