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July 1, 2020

Is PM under pressure?


July 1, 2020

Perhaps for the first time in two years, Prime Minister Imran Khan looked under pressure, something unusual for the man known for taking pressure during cricketing days.

But then politics is altogether a different ball game. At present, he is facing more problems within his own party’s MNAs and MPAs in Punjab than from his allies and started feeling the heat.

His back-to-back speeches, one in the National Assembly and the other Sunday, in a surprise dinner hosted at the PM House, he passed a strong message that he has a firm grip on the party and on the government and he is not going anywhere.

But he himself knows that ‘all is not well’ and he is now meeting even a single independent MNA, what to talk of allies and disgruntled PTI MNAs.

Political temperature is rising with each passing day as both the PTI-led coalition government and a combined Opposition have geared up their campaigns against each other, not only to get the national budget passed or rejected, but also to assure their MNAs and senators 100 percent presence in the Parliament in the next two days.

All indications are that the budget would be passed but the developments to follow in the next few weeks and months would be interesting to watch.

While the government and prime minister claimed they have tackled the COVID-19 in a much better way than any other country in the world through ‘smart lockdown’ not everyone agreed with this perception but at the same time complete lockdown without any planning could have been a disaster as well as for the economy. There is a strong fear of virus spread during Eidul Azha as well.

In a surprise move they are now going for less testing, which is contrary to what they have promised of touching nearly 50,000 tests a day by July.

So what is the game plan? Why suddenly Opposition parties flouted an idea they themselves always opposed ie minus-one formula. In the past PML-N and PPP had opposed the minus-Zardari or minus Sharif formula. Is the new formula also came from the same sources or is it something from the Opposition on its own.

PM’s biggest advantage is division within the Opposition, particularly lack of trust and confidence in each other. How far they have come close to each other after their biggest disappointment last year during a vote of no-confidence against the Senate chairman. Their presence Monday and Tuesday will be a test for them as well.

Sources said the powerful circles are not unhappy with the prime minister but there is a bit discomfort over his style of governance and over rising problems with Punjab set-up.

The other issue within the PTI, and which is now increasing, is the importance which the premier gives to non-elected advisers and special assistants over elected MNAs. Their voices are now more vocal and some of them have publicly and on TV blamed non-elected members of the cabinet. These voices became more vocal after federal minister Fawad Chaudhry’s interview, in which he criticised government policies and admitted that their performance is not up to the mark in two years.

Sources said some of the disgruntled MNAs within the PTI have already received ‘messages’ to vote for the budget and not go too far in their opposition over ‘elected and non-elected’.

Apparently, the plan is just to remind the government and the prime minister to revisit his style of governance and not more than that, at least, not in the near future. Sources said a message had been sent to the PM that Pakistan can’t afford political confrontation particularly at a time when economic indicators are quite disturbing and things could go from bad to worse by the next year.

Problems within the PTI aggravated since the Sugar Commission report was made public and named Jehangir Khan Tareen, Elahi and brother of federal minister Khusro Bakhtiar. While Imran hinted in his speech Sunday towards ‘different mafias’. He could not justify what really happened over the massive hike in the petroleum prices and why no action was taken when petrol disappeared from the petrol pumps. Who was responsible? He could not satisfy either his coalition partners which met him Sunday and expressed their reservations over the decision or his own party MNAs.

Some reports suggest that under the present crisis it is very unlikely that further action will be taken in ‘sugar scam’ as the government also withheld action against the sudden rise in sugar prices in the post-commission report.

In return, Prime Minister Imran Khan passed a strong message for those who matter by saying ‘he is the only choice’. These remarks were certainly not for the Opposition or for his own party MNAs. It is certainly for those who matter, whether they received it in the same manner or not is another matter.

The relationship between the Chaudhrys and prime minister is nothing but ‘marriage of inconvenience’ as the former were disappointed when the latter despite assurance did not take Moonis Elahi in the cabinet. In return he gave ‘free hand’ to Chaudhrys in Punjab. For all practical purposes, Pervaiz Elahi is the de facto chief minister.

Despite such a goodwill gesture, the PML-Q absence from the PM’s dinner did not go well and sources said the premier was not happy although they assured him through National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser that they would vote for him.

While Prime Minister Imran Khan is confident that he has firm grip on power and would not face much problem in getting the budget passed as well as keeping the coalition intact he did receive a few setbacks in the last two weeks.

On Sunday, the absence of 14 MNAs was well-noted by the leadership but they have been told to ensure their presence in the National Assembly in the two days when the budget would be passed.

The prime minister is satisfied with the negotiations held with Jamhoori Watan Party (JWP) and his main negotiator former KP chief minister Pervez Khattak, is also confident of winning back BNP-Mengal. The prime minister and the government have not faced much problem with the allies in Sindh like GDA and the MQM-P.

Sources close to the MQM-P revealed that the PM has assured them of addressing their issues in regard to Karachi package, Hyderabad University and issued directives to his aides Asad Umar and Shafqat Mahmood, he shared their concerns over the increase in petroleum prices and admitted that it was an unpopular decision and he himself was not happy.

If one man Imran Khan might be missing today is none other than Jehangir Khan Tareen, who in such a situation in the past brought him out of the crisis. The premier in a cabinet meeting reportedly gave ministers ‘six months’ to improve their performance, failing which could create problems for them.

The writer is a senior columnist and analyst of Geo, The News and Jang.

Twitter: @MazharAbbasGEO