Even before he could take on the external challenges of governance, it was always going to be a test of nerve and character for Imran Khan to deal with partners in his own coalition government. And it was never going to be easy — not just because coalitions anywhere and everywhere are notoriously demanding but because the incumbent prime minister has a completely contrasting background as a high profile unbending leader not given to blackmail and someone who takes pride in being his own man.
Ever since realising his ambition of leading Pakistan, Prime Minister Khan has had a tough ride that has oscillated between luck and pluck: luck because the opposition is too divided with the supremos of the two biggest political parties both out in the cold for health reasons and corruption baggage, and pluck because Khan is not one to throw in the towel regardless of the odds.
But keeping the coalition in business has obviously involved compromises that he loathes, but when the choice is between taking the path less trodden to somehow get to the destination or losing the plot on a self-righteous whim, there really is not much of a choice unless you accept defeat and go home with a whimper — well-nigh inconceivable given his public track record of the last four-and-a-half decade.
Benjamin Disraeli, a 19th century two-time British prime minister, had this to say about what is really standard in coalition politics: “There is no act of treachery or meanness of which a political party is not capable; for in politics there is no honour”. Khan may have had a fair idea of this as a firebrand opposition leader but of course, it is a completely different kettle of fish when you have to deal with it in government and that, too, one holding a razor thin majority in parliament.
In terms of arithmetic, Khan’s ruling Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) would be hard-pressed to survive if any of its key coalition partners walked out.
Earlier this week, after weeks of uncertainty hanging over its fate, the PTI finally managed to bring the Pakistan Muslim League - Quaid (PML-Q) – or simply Q League as it is known — around after conceding to its longstanding demands of effective power-sharing in both the Punjab province and at the Centre.
The Q League was not the only party venting its spleen; more or less the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) and Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) also used the opportunity to push for a greater pie with both Q League and MQM even threatening to part ways. Typical of how such coalition blues play out and are managed, the PTI leader set up a ruling party committee which held a number of meetings but whose composition was changed recently to the chagrin of Q League, which felt more comfortable with the earlier government team.
Notably, the prime minister dropped Jahangir Tareen, his quintessential negotiator, from the team. This rattled the Q League, which had hoped to get more out of him if the talks had proceeded. The new team was led by Punjab Governor Chaudhry Sarwar (with whom the Q League has had cold ties), Chief Minister Usman Buzdar and Education Minister Shafqat Mehmood.
The Q League is led by the Chaudhry cousins of Gujrat, the country’s 20th largest city in the Punjab province, of whom Pervaiz Elahi is currently, the speaker of the provincial assembly. Elahi was also a successful chief minister of the province after the two manoeuvred a split with ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) in the Nineties to curry favour with military strongman General Pervez Musharraf after he overthrew Sharif in a coup.
After becoming what was then called the ‘king’s party’, the Q League gradually declined as a political force following the return of both Benazir Bhutto, a two-time prime minister and chairperson of the Pakistan People’s Party, and Sharif from exile. However, they have managed to retain enough political space to be able to derive considerable mileage.
The two cousins are crafty politicians whose match is not easy to find in the rough and tumble of Pakistani politics. Perhaps, only Jamiat Ulema Islam chief Fazlur Rehman comes close, but for the first time, the cleric failed to find truck with the party in government when the PTI took power following the 2018 general elections.
The Q League, however, has historically managed to curry favour with all major political parties and players as well as the powerful security establishment, save for Sharif’s PML-N, but there too, lady luck recently brought the cousins some space as PML-N is, reportedly, no longer averse to the idea of hatching a coalition of its own with their support, if an opportunity presents itself.
However, the Q League has only used it as a bargaining chip with the PTI and they would prefer to keep the marriage of convenience with the sitting government for less than compromise heavily with the PML-N. After the agreement with the PTI this week, Pervaiz Elahi dropped hints about that being the understanding.
Talking to the media, Elahi, who had been upping the ante in recent weeks with predictable fanfare given the ruling party’s difficulties, was strikingly reconciliatory. Said he, “There has been a lot of talk on where the bottlenecks are and how they can be resolved. But one thing is very clear, we do not have any doubts about the leadership, intentions, and struggle of Imran Khan”.
He even cemented the rapprochement by suggesting that the Q League was committed to taking the relationship right till the end of the present government’s tenure. “We want our union (with the PTI) to continue till the next elections so that we can stand before the people after offering solutions to their problems”.
And pray how is that going to happen? The Q League had been demanding empowerment of its ministers — two in Punjab government and one at the Centre — as well as a share in administrative powers in three districts and three tehsils (administrative units). These are areas where it claims to have winning MPs.
On a broader canvas, the development will bring relief to both the parties since Punjab is key in Pakistan’s power matrix without which no government at the Centre can effectively function.
The writer is Features Editor. He tweets @kaamyabi
THE NEW NORMAL: PML-Q leader Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi speaks to the media after successful talks with the ruling PTI in Lahore.