Under pressure

February 9, 2020

Sacking three ministers sends a message within the PTI: Refrain from forming groups or face the music. Arguably the PTI faces a bigger threat from internal differences than from opposition politics

Former Khyber Pakhtunkhwa ministers Mohammad Atif Khan and Shahram Khan Tarakai belonging to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) got an audience with Prime Minister Imran Khan after being sacked, and not earlier as they had wished to explain their position about their differences with Chief Minister Mahmood Khan.

The prime minister invited them to Islamabad for a meeting on January 29 in a bid to do damage control after having summarily removed them from the provincial cabinet without hearing them. The abrupt decision on January 26 had exposed cracks in the PTI and the party’s provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and raised questions about Imran Khan’s authoritarian way of running the party. The damage had been done as the formation of groups in the PTI in KP was highlighted in the media – more so when Atif Khan and Shahram Tarakai decided to tell their side of the story in the media. This was contrary to their earlier decision to stay quiet.

Shakeel Ahmad, the third minister who was sacked, wasn’t called for the meeting with the prime minister apparently due to the fact that he had not approached the media to talk about his differences with the chief minister. He too was accused of indiscipline and was removed from the cabinet, but his mistake was considered less severe as he didn’t discuss party issues publicly. Also, Shakeel Ahmad is less important politically compared to Atif Khan and Shahram Tarakai, both close relatives with influence in the politics of districts Mardan and Swabi respectively, and therefore a potential threat to the chief minister.

As a senior minister, Atif Khan was the second most important member of the provincial cabinet after the chief minister. Shahram Tarakai too has twice been a minister in the KP government after the 2013 and 2018 general elections. The Tarakai family has been dominating politics in Swabi district after having defeated the once-dominant Awami National Party (ANP), and others in successive elections. Besides Shahram Tarakai, who is an MPA, his father Liaqat Tarakai is a PTI member of the Senate, his uncle Usman Tarakai is an MNA and his cousin Mohammad Ali Tarakai is an MPA. Ignoring the Tarakai family could have been costly for the PTI, but the Tarakais too need to be part of the ruling set-up to be able to get things done for their constituencies, and pursue their vast business interests.

It was obvious Imran Khan spoke from a commanding position when he received Atif Khan and Shahram Tarakai. He had already taken disciplinary action by evicting them from the cabinet and could have expelled them from the PTI as well. As the statement from the Prime Minister’s Office noted, Imran Khan made it clear to them that everyone in the PTI would have to follow discipline. The statement said Atif Khan and Shahram Tarakai expressed complete confidence in Imran Khan’s leadership and promised to follow every order given by him. They had no other choice if they wanted to remain in the PTI and seek reinstatement as ministers.

In fact, Atif Khan and Shahram Tarakai overplayed their hand when they campaigned for improved governance in KP, effective leadership by the chief minister, fulfillment of promises made by the PTI to the people and action against alleged corruption in the provincial government. Apparently, they believed that these were the issues close to Imran Khan’s heart and highlighting them won’t land them in trouble. They didn’t expect such a tough disciplinary action by Imran Khan against them. In particular Atif Khan, known for getting things done and fiercely opposed to corruption, had been close to Imran Khan and had been praised a number of times by him for his performance as the minister of education during the previous PTI government in KP (from 2013-2018). He had even been tipped by the party head as the chief minister after the announcement of the July 2018 general election result, though Pervez Khattak’s opposition blocked his way and instead Mahmood Khan, a soft-spoken, and laid back politician, emerged from nowhere to get the coveted post.

There is no evidence that the three sacked ministers were planning to initiate a no-confidence move against the chief minister. They also weren’t really forming a ‘forward bloc’ in the PTI.

Pervez Khattak, now the federal defence minister, played a significant role in persuading Imran Khan to take action against the three ministers. In particular, he wanted Atif Khan to be cut down to size. Pervez Khattak accompanied Mahmood Khan and backed him fully when he met the prime minister to plead his case against Atif Khan, Shahram Tarakai and Shakeel Ahmad. In fact, Pervez Khattak was one of the few PTI leaders who supported the disciplinary action publicly against the three ministers and declared that a conspiracy against the PTI government and Chief Minister Mahmood Khan had been foiled. It was obvious he was settling scores with Atif Khan, who being the frontrunner for the chief minister’s job after the 2018 polls had in a way blocked Pervez Khattak from retaining the position. The prime minister had shifted Pervez Khattak from KP to the centre by making him a federal minister. Not to be outmaneuvered, Pervez Khattak had ensured that Atif Khan didn’t become the chief minister by backing Mahmood Khan’s candidature for the office.

The tussle between Atif Khan and Pervez Khattak, and now the confrontation involving Atif Khan and Mahmood Khan is just a glimpse of the groupings in the PTI. The party has been suffering from indiscipline not only in KP, but also in other provinces. It is often said the PTI faces a bigger threat from internal differences than from the opposition parties. The sacking of the three KP ministers was also meant to send a message to the party lawmakers all over the country to refrain from forming groups or face the consequences.

There is no evidence that the three sacked ministers were planning to initiate a no-confidence move against the chief minister. They also weren’t really forming a ‘forward bloc’ in the PTI. However, they were certainly sounding out likeminded MPAs and building a support base to be able to put pressure on the chief minister to address their grievances and accept some of their demands. One can term it an effort to form a pressure group rather than a ‘forward bloc’.

The meeting reportedly called by Atif Khan in Hayatabad, Peshawar became the cause of the subsequent disciplinary action against the three ministers. Initially, media reports said more than 25 MPAs attended the meeting in a show of strength by the estranged ministers. However, sources close to Chief Minister Mahmood Khan claimed that only nine lawmakers came to the meeting and some of them later tried to clarify their position and distance themselves from Atif Khan and Shahram Tarakai. These sources even claimed that one of the MPAs was purposely sent by chief minister’s camp to attend the meeting to learn more about the plans and strategy of the group opposed to Mahmood Khan.

The prime minister stood by Mahmood Khan in the same way he has consistently backed Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar. He reportedly remarked that challenging Mahmood Khan was like putting up a challenge to him. Despite his shortcomings, Mahmood Khan has emerged stronger from the crisis. However, he has to perform better and address the concerns of the 95 MPAs who are part of the PTI-led KP government to be able to enjoy the firm backing of Imran Khan. As for the sacked ministers, they will eventually be reinstated, but won’t be able to wield power the way they did before being removed from the cabinet.

The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. He can be reached at [email protected]

Sacking Mohammad Atif Khan, Shahram Khan Tarakai, Shakeel Ahmad sends a message within PTI