While governments at each level in Pakistan are engaged in fighting over a strategy to ward off the coronavirus, important political changes, mostly imperceptible but potentially highly consequential, are also taking place in the country. Some of the changes are taking place behind the scenes while others are quite explicit. Of the political changes, the most important is the admission by one of the closest confidantes of Prime Minister Imran Khan, Jehangir Tareen, who recently said that his relations with the former were no longer warm. The acknowledgement on part of Tareen came as a big surprise to many people in the political circles of the country as he has always been considered as the mainstay of PM Khan’s government.
The second most vivid political development is the removal of Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Information and Broadcasting Firdous Ashiq Awan. She has been replaced by a full-fledged federal minister for information, Senator Shibli Faraz. More intriguingly, a recently-retired lieutenant general of the Pakistan Army, Asim Bajwa, has been appointment prime minister’s adviser on information. It is indeed something unprecedented in the history of Pakistan during normal democratic times. Why the information and media team of the government has been changed is best known to Prime Minister Khan but it means that Ms. Awan was not truly representing the government. However, the former adviser pointed fingers at PM Khan’s Principal Secretary Azam Khan for her ouster. She claimed that Azam Khan was meddling into the affairs of her ministry and, therefore, she had no option but to resign. Why did she not submit her resignation is anybody’s guess?
The third important political development that has taken place is that the federal government has quite openly said that it may attempt to revise the 18th Constitutional Amendment of 2010. The amendment was made by consensus of all political parties that were part of the parliament and then through which the Concurrent Legislative List of the original constitution was abolished and some departments were handed over to the provincial governments. Two important federal ministers, including Planning and Development Minister Asad Umar and Railway Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, stated that the 18th Constitutional Amendment needed changes as it had curtailed the capacity of the federal government to deal with financial and administrative problems of the state. They argued that the 18th Amendment needed to be revised as the provincial governments could not increase their capacities to deal with the departments devolved to them, particularly raising revenue while simultaneously asking the federal government to provide them with financial bailouts which is not possible anymore.
The fourth important development is the revelation by Leader of the Opposition Shahbaz Sharif that he had discussed his cabinet members and plans with officials from the establishment before the July 2018 national elections as he was pretty sure to win the polls. The reported revelation to a journalist, which has not been denied by Sharif, has raised serious question marks on the existing democratic dispensation. Importantly, Sharif has divulged “facts” at a time when he faces investigations by the National Accountability Commission (NAB) for alleged money laundering and financial corruption. The revelation is so important that even senior leaders of the PML-N, like former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, have asked him to make a clarification.
Insofar as the admission by Jehangir Tareen that he is no longer close to PM Khan is concerned, it is very important. Tareen is the main accused behind a recent sugar and wheat crisis in the country, as discovered by a special commission formed to probe the issue. The commission, which was supposed to furnish its final report to the government by April 25, could not complete its task and sought more time to finalise its inquiry report. The delay in the submission of the report smells fishy as behind the scenes a lot of developments are taking place. One important development related to Jehangir Tareen’s alleged involvement in the sugar and wheat price hike and his admission to be no longer on friendly terms with PM Khan is the reported indication by at least 24 Members of National and Punjab Assembly, closed to Tareen, to submit resignation as and when desired. The legislative assembly members think that if Tareen is officially found guilty of wrongdoing, their political career would also be at stake. Indubitably, Tareen sensing that the noose is being tightened around his neck, would do his utmost to destabilize the government, which he clobbered painstakingly after the 2018 national elections. It must be remembered that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) governments at the Centre and the Punjab have a razor-thin majority and if the close confidantes of Tareen tender resignation, it would be impossible for PM Khan and Chief Minister Buzdar to survive. The development has been largely ignored by the mainstream and even social media but could be greatly consequential not only for the political future of the PTI and PM Khan but also the entire political system of the country. This also shows how feeble is the political structure of the country that even a handful of parliamentarians having a special vested interest could shake up the entire federal and provincial setups.
Although there have been reports making the rounds of the formation of a national government as well as an in-house political change, short of new elections for some time now, yet it would be very difficult to manage. But at the same time, the country cannot afford to go to polls, which is the other constitutional way to come out of the political chaos and crisis. The situation raises several questions in the minds of political observers and analysts. Whether the country is heading for another military rule or some sort of a “technocratic government” could be formed to oversee the situation?
So now when the existing political system is not working and there are no remedies within, another option for the country is to go for a new social contract. The social contract could be made among all constituent classes, social groups and civil society, keeping in view the objective realities of the state and society. It is the option that has seldom been discussed or dilated upon by the media and other public forums but is indeed the cry of the hour. If extra-constitutional measures are adopted to manage the affairs, like the installation of a technocratic government, it would only bring about a cosmetic change. The issues and problems of Pakistan are such that no technocratic or bureaucratic regime could address them. While the political parties and leaders of Pakistan are arguably not fully representative of society and communities forming Pakistan, the only way out is new constitutional arrangement with a system change.