December issue 2018

By | Newsbeat National | Published 4 weeks ago

Puppet on a string? Usman Buzdar

In Pakistan’s politics, Punjab is said to be the gateway to the centre; winning a majority in the most populous province is the passage that ultimately leads to Islamabad. Results of the July 25 general elections were the latest vindication of this, when, in a major blow to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) emerged as the largest party in the province.

PTI’s next task was to choose the chief executive. Speculation within the party had been hinting that the new chief minister would not be the usual veteran, confidante type. 

Party insiders suggest that those who made the initial cut included PTI Central Punjab President Abdul Aleem Khan, former Punjab Assembly opposition leader Mian Mahmoodur Rasheed, Mian Aslam Iqbal, Dr Yasmin Rashid, PTI Information Secretary Fawad Chaudhry, Sibtain Khan and Raja Yasir Humayun Sarfraz. 

The contenders from South Punjab included PTI Vice Chairman Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Federal Minister for Planning, Development and Reforms, Makhdoom Khusro Bakhtiar – even though the former had lost his Punjab Assembly seat and would have had to contest a by-election.

But Prime Minister Imran Khan had already made up his mind, or was convinced, that a relatively unfamiliar face would make a better chief minister. Enter, Usman Buzdar. 

The decision raised many an eyebrow. Buzdar was a newbie, with little to no administrative experience. In his own words, he “never even dreamt of” becoming chief executive of the most powerful province.

In Buzdar, Imran saw a man who could empathise with the downtrodden as he was the “only MPA to not have electricity at his home.” Imran’s decision to place Buzdar at the top in Punjab was targeted by critics as ‘lacking merit.’ But the ostensible criterion was that he hailed from the most impoverished area of Punjab and the PTI had already pledged to uplift the lower sections of society.

Buzdar, a resident of Taunsa Sharif, had secured the PP-286 (Dera Ghazi Khan-II) constituency by bagging 26,897 votes. This was his maiden victory as an MPA. He had contested the provincial assembly seat in 2013 on a PML-N ticket, but was defeated by a PPP-P candidate. He served as a tehsil nazim of a mountainous tribal area of Dera Ghazi Khan, in the Musharraf government. His father, chief of the Buzdar tribe, Fateh Muhammed Khan Buzdar, had been an MPA in 1985, 2002, and 2008.

While the decision generated tremendous controversy and criticism, the prime minister and other party affiliates continued to defend the choice. Imran had found Buzdar to be an honest man, who could carry forward his vision and ideology of Naya Pakistan. 

The defence came in the wake of local media reports that Buzdar was allegedly involved in corruption and criminal activities. The matter was finally put to rest after it was revealed that the person at the centre of attention in the mentioned reports was in fact a namesake of Buzdar’s, who had paid blood money to fend off a murder case in 2000.

The chief minister later found himself embroiled in yet another fiasco when he reportedly ordered the transfer of a Pakpattan police official, who was allegedly involved in an altercation with Khawar Maneka, former husband of the First Lady, Bushra Maneka. The matter, which remained in the headlines for quite some time, caught the attention of Chief Justice Saqib Nisar, who ordered Buzdar to tender an apology, and he duly obliged.

While Buzdar was considered too mellow to have made any political enemies, party insiders reveal that he developed issues with Punjab Governor Chaudhry Sarwar soon after taking charge. 

The matter came to light in the form of a video which showed Punjab Assembly Speaker Pervaiz Elahi, Housing Minister Tariq Bashir Cheema and Minister for Mines Hafiz Ammar Yasir sharing their grievances with PTI leader Jahangir Tareen about Sarwar ‘interfering’ in Buzdar’s work.

Elahi later addressed a press conference in which he went out of his way to dismiss reports of factionalism within PTI ranks, saying discussions to resolve issues were a norm followed by all political parties. Governor Sarwar also downplayed the incident and referred to Buzdar as the “only power centre in Punjab.”

While Buzdar appears to be the man in-charge, the video highlighted an open secret: that Jahangir Tareen is the ultimate power-broker in the corridors of Punjab. 

Several sections of the media see Buzdar as a puppet chief minister who has been installed to make room for Tareen, widely seen as the benefactor of PTI. 

Tareen was instrumental in PTI’s victory in the general elections, especially in Punjab, after he convinced many independent candidates to join the PTI, enabling the party to secure the maximum number of seats, and prompting a flood of Tareen memes that broke the internet in the lead-up to the chief minister’s election.

However, the PTI leadership has been quick to dismiss this allegation. “There is no question mark over the command [of the province]. The video in question showed our political partners showcasing their views, which is an integral part of coalition governments,” said PTI leader Aleem Khan. “It is our responsibility to address their concerns.”

Even so, the PML-N leadership has been quick to claim that confusion over who actually rules the Punjab has resulted in the PTI government’s failures to fulfil its 100-day promises. “The PTI government is leaderless and directionless. Also, it is a collection of incompetent people who have been selected for being turncoats and for their ability to abuse others,” said PML-N leader Tariq Fazal Chaudhry. “The masses have lost hope in the PTI as it has not made any progress in the fulfillment of its vows, and does not seem to have a team that can deliver.”

While political analyst and former Punjab Chief Minister, Hasan Askari Rizvi says that 100 days is too early to judge the progress of any government, he believes that leadership remains an issue in the province.

“There is a problem of leadership in Punjab. This is the biggest province in terms of population and resources, but here you have a chief minister who is new in the field. Therefore, he has not been able to really make a significant impact on the power system and decision-making process,” says Rizvi. “The success or failure of the chief minister and the Punjab government will depend on the extent to which they can provide basic services to the public. If they can make positive changes in the lives of the ordinary people, then we can say that they have succeeded.”