No time for a honeymoon
Prime minster Khan has appealed to the media to give him three months before criticizing his government. Fair enough. After all he has been barely two weeks in office.
But unfortunately the nature of the animal is such that the prime minister and his cohorts will not get a free lunch. The hyperactive 24/7 electronic media hungry for ratings will not let such niceties as giving a grace period come in the way of a good story.
In a way the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) chief is being hoisted by his own petard. After all his relentless campaign against the Sharifs boosted by the media brought him political dividends. In fact, the Khan has inculcated a culture where fair or sometimes even unfair criticism of the powers that be is considered perfectly alright.
Recent incidents — one directly involving the prime minister and the other the former husband of his present wife — perfectly illustrates the newfound power of the media.
The Khan had made a big deal of his austerity plans in his initial speeches. He claimed that he would shun VIP culture. Now why shouldn’t the media judge him in the light of his own statements? After all the Sharifs, were never spared by the PTI’s rank and file on this very count.
It is perfectly kosher for the prime minister to commute on a helicopter from his Bani Gala abode for security reasons. But in this case the proverbial bull in a china shop has proved to be his own information minister by brazenly claiming that the helicopter ride cost merely RS 55 per minute.
It was cheaper traveling by helicopter than by surface, Fawad Choudhry spuriously claimed. Naturally, he became a butt of all kinds of jokes on the media. This became the biggest trending story on the social media.
The controversy has generated a debate on whether it will not be better to marry security concerns with exigencies of demonstrating an austere regime? Was the prime minister permanently moving to the purpose-built Prime Minister House not a better option? As the Khan would know by now the PM House is not a luxury mansion but simply designed for a prime minister to live comfortably and also conduct the business of the state.
Another controversy that is hogging the air waves as well as dominating the headlines is the so called Khawar Maneka affair involving the first lady’s former husband using his influence to get the DPO (District Police Officer) Pakpattan Rizwan Gondal demoted and transferred. The controversy that this was done on the behest of the freshly minted chief minister of Punjab Usman Buzdar to curry favour with the first family has further complicated matters. The issue generated so much heat that the CJP (Chief Justice of Pakistan) Mian Saqib Nisar was forced to take suo moto notice of the matter.
Such seemingly mundane issues can be simply brushed aside as teething troubles of the new government. Nonetheless they shift the focus from much more serious and urgent matters confronting the state. It also relegates to the background some of the good steps the new government is taking towards better governance.
After all his relentless campaign against the Sharifs boosted by the media brought him political dividends. In fact, the Khan has inculcated a culture where fair or sometimes even unfair criticism of the powers that be is considered perfectly kosher.
Take the case of the prime minister paying a visit to the General Head Quarters(GHQ) of the Army along with relevant ministers. He spent eight hours being briefed on all aspects of national security by the top military brass. The Khan’s predecessor would rarely visit the GHQ owing to his perennial power struggle with the military leadership and would rather prefer to summon them to the Prime Minister House.
And the chief executive being briefed for eight hours at the GHQ for eight hours was unheard of during the PML-N regime. Going by the optics it was a good beginning. The military leadership assuring full support to the civilian government and the prime minister in return comforting the military that the government will fulfill all its needs, was the need of the hour.
It is no secret that the Army needs hard cash to replenish its obsolete equipment. But under the present circumstances the country is so impoverished that it is barely able to keep its head above water.
Despite the bonhomie there is a lot of slip between the cup and the lip. There is an unsavory history of civ- mil relations of the recent past. Hence it will take a lot of effort and shedding of old stereotypes to develop a seamless relationship bereft of unnecessary tensions.
Instead of trying to dominate each other the institution of national security committee of the cabinet should be energized to evolve a good civilian-military working relationship. A lot is made about the principal of civilian control over the armed forces being sacrosanct in a democracy.
But in Pakistan it will remain a pipedream unless all stakeholders are content work in their respective domains. Such a relationship can only evolve with time, patience and constant consultations.
Every government faces the conundrum of guns and butter. More so, in a resource-deficient Pakistan.
It is no surprise to learn from no less than the finance minister himself that $9 billion is urgently needed to run Pakistan. Asad Umar has also indicated the urgency of negotiating an IMF bailout within weeks.
Prior to the visit of the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo along with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford the prime minister also paid a visit to the foreign office. In this sense he is now fully briefed on the intricacies of US-Pak relations.
Naturally from the American point of view the security aspect of the forthcoming visit is of the utmost importance. Fortunately after the unnecessary spat created by our own foreign minister over the readout on the Khan-Pompeo telecon we have decided to move on.
Washington fully embroiled in the Afghanistan quagmire wants Islamabad to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table . Ironically it was Khan who had consistently maintained to talk to the Taliban rather then bombing them. That is why his critics derisively labeled him as “Taliban Khan”.
Now things have come full circle. It is the US that is keen to exit Afghanistan through a negotiated settlement with the Taliban leadership. A western diplomat while pointing out this touch of irony implored with the Khan to play his role to bring the stakeholders to the conference table.
Obviously Pakistan’s interest is to restore its security and economic relationship with the US. Axiomatically Washington’s nod will be needed for a workable IMF bailout for Pakistan. On the other hand, the military would like its recently terminated training program with the US military restored during the visit.
Nonetheless the visit which, is more in the nature of a stopover before the US team landing in New Delhi for strategic talks is crucial for Islamabad. According to some western diplomats the developments emanating from this visit will determine in the next few weeks the future of US-Pakistan relations.