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Analysis

In A Major Setback For Imran Khan Govt, Jehangir Tareen Incites Revolt Of PTI Backbenchers

The emergence of Tareen Group allies as a forward bloc is a threat to Imran Khan’s shaky government. Will they strike at the budget 2021 session?

As predicted earlier, Imran Khan’s government would be under immense pressure in the coming weeks, and could face the fight of its political life in the upcoming budget sessions. Khan’s estranged comrade, Jehangir Khan Tareen, held another meeting of PTI legislators and beholden party members at his residence on Tuesday night. After discussions that lasted for more than four hours, Salman Naeem and Awn Chaudhry emerged to inform reporters gathered outside that the PTI members in the National and Punjab provincial assemblies would form a ‘forward bloc’. Salman Naeem is a Punjab MPA who was forced to contest the 2018 general elections as an independent from Multan, and surprisingly ended up defeating incumbent foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and ruining his dreams of becoming Punjab’s chief minister. Awn Chaudhry is Khan’s former private secretary whose primary claim to fame is being a signatory on the paperwork for Khan’s third and latest marriage. He was rewarded with a special assistant portfolio in the Punjab government, but has since fallen out of favor with the party boss.

It has been reported that Jehangir Tareen himself claimed to have support from nearly 40 PTI lawmakers. But according to the most credible estimates, Tareen would command the fealty of no more than a dozen MNAs and nearly 20 MPAs in Punjab. Those who have openly sided with Tareen are legislators who were convinced by Tareen himself to join the PTI and bolster the party’s chances to secure a majority in Parliament. Many hail from South Punjab’s Seraiki belt, while some belong to constituencies where they have a solid vote bank of their own. Others, like Raja Riaz who has been nominated as the bloc’s Parliamentary leader in the National Assembly, is alleged to have had close ties with Tareen since the 2000s. It must also be noted that while an MNA for Muslim League-Functional, Tareen formed a forward bloc of likeminded parliamentarians in 2011 – he endeavored to ally with PTI, but was instead asked to join the party, which he refused at the time. So, just like Imran Khan, Jehangir Tareen also maintains a clique of well-placed politicians who continue to remain his staunch supporters and devoted allies.

Since its creation after the 2018 general elections, Imran Khan’s PTI government has been on tenterhooks. It maintained a slim majority which began diminishing as soon as the first bye-elections were held in October that year: out of the five National Assembly seats Imran Khan won, the party lost two. Khan’s selection of Usman Buzdar – a “soldier of change” who jumped ship from PML-N and joined PTI only in May 2018 – as Punjab’s chief minister was seen as a move to forestall the ambitions of party stalwart Abdul Aleem Khan, and install someone who would allow Khan to run the province ‘via remote control’ from Islamabad. Nearly three years later, Buzdar has become the primary reason for loss of confidence in Khan’s leadership abilities, with many voices calling for Buzdar’s replacement due to his pathetic performance and abject governance. As time has progressed, the PTI government has been reduced to a razor-thin majority in the legislatures.

The following infographic reveals the potential impact of Tareen’s forward bloc on the PTI majority of 176 in the National Assembly and of 192 in the Punjab Assembly:

The above estimates – which use conservative assessments of the forward bloc (Tareen group’s) strength, rather than the claimed 40 – show that PTI fails to retain his majority if legislators allied with Jehangir Tareen vote against the party on the budget. Similarly, if the forward bloc votes against Imran Khan in a no-confidence motion, Khan loses his position as leader of the house in the National Assembly and as Prime Minister.

As forecasted before, the ‘numbers game’ appears to tip the scales against Imran Khan’s favor. Nevertheless, Khan still seems to have a few options to retain his government: he could acquiesce to all of Tareen’s demands and surrender an ‘NRO’ to him; he could negotiate with Tareen to not disrupt the budget; he could also elicit the support of Punjab Assembly speaker Chaudhry Pervez Elahi to activate defections from the PML-N. However, the latter two options appear unlikely: Tareen holds all the cards to exact his pound of flesh during the budget session – as the PTI is more keen to govern by ordinance than through parliamentary sessions and legislative approvals – and it is rumored that the Chaudhry’s of Gujrat are also not on cordial terms with Khan.

While a broader legislative agenda is yet to be announced by the newly created forward bloc, it is clear that Tareen’s grievances at being relegated by the party and the money laundering cases against him are driving this revolt in the PTI’s ranks. It appears that he has set his sights not just on Shahzad Akbar, but also on Shah Mehmood Qureshi and other PTI bigwigs who oppose him. And as the forward bloc prepares to show its strength in the Punjab Assembly on Friday 21 May, it seems that Tareen would first target the removal of Punjab chief minister Usman Buzdar – a move that would be supported by the opposition and the citizenry of the largest province. Such a move could only succeed if Pervez Elahi does not impede it with procedural lacunae in his capacity as assembly speaker. And for this move to succeed, it appears that the PML-N is also appealing to the ‘establishment’.

Even if Imran Khan relents now and personally undertakes efforts to seek rapprochement with Tareen, it looks as if the ‘establishment’ is tired of Khan’s obduracy and wishes to teach him a lesson in governance by removing Usman Buzdar and restoring a modicum of hope to the people of Pakistan.

If PM Khan is able to read between the lines, he just might understand what a unique opportunity he has – to jettison his corrupt cronies and incompetent associates – in this crisis. If he sticks to his guns and does not perform a timely ‘U-turn’, he could end up relinquishing his government and sitting resignedly on the opposition benches or, worse, he could dissolve the National Assembly and call fresh general elections – during a global pandemic, mind you – where the general public would let him know how popular he and his government really is.

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Naya Daur