THE Jan 31 ‘deadline’ that the Pakistan Democratic Movement had set for the prime minister to resign has come and gone, and the PTI government is looking more confident than ever. Recent meetings between Prime Minister Imran Khan, army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa and DG ISI Lt Gen Faiz Hameed — the latest on Monday was the fourth in a mere 40 days — have reinforced the impression of institutional harmony and, thereby, smooth sailing for the current dispensation.
The PDM’s vessel on the other hand, while not exactly leaking, seems to be somewhat rudderless and adrift. PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari tweeted: “The selected PM has failed to resign by the deadline set by the PDM for this illegitimate regime and missed the opportunity to step aside in a respectable manner….” He added that a long march plan and no-confidence motion would “hopefully” be discussed in the PDM meeting reportedly scheduled for tomorrow in Islamabad.
At this point, the PDM campaign was supposed to have been snowballing towards the desired ‘denouement’. Its fire and brimstone rollout in September rattled the PTI government, but then it made a series of miscalculations. And Islamabad dug in its heels, betting on the PDM partners’ divergent political circumstances and agendas to weaken the alliance’s initial unity. So it has proven. The first real signs of cracks beneath the façade came in December on the issue of mass resignations from the national and provincial assemblies, and whether to do so before or after the Senate elections.
That step for the PML-N and the JUI-F was never as politically significant as for the PPP that governs Sindh and whose stakes are therefore much higher. The result is that the PPP’s stance is very different from what it was earlier; it recently came out with the proposal of bringing a no-confidence vote against the prime minister. Having been burned by their failure to oust Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani through a no-confidence motion in July 2019, the PML-N considers the idea too risky.
The confusion has enabled the PTI government to paint the PDM as a spent force that promised too much and failed to deliver because of its inherent contradictions. Certainly, the alliance, that started with the MPC document spelling out targets, priorities and sequence of events, fell short on working out the ‘how’ of achieving specific outcomes. Critically, they also misread the relationship between the establishment and the PTI. The dominos did not fall the way the PDM leaders assumed they would.
THERE has been an interesting twist in the situation as the government moves to shut retail outlets selling petrol and diesel smuggled from Iran. In a hearing before the Senate Standing Committee on Petroleum on Monday, some important voices from Balochistan, which is the main conduit for the smuggling, said that 2.2m people in the province derive their livelihoods from the oil-smuggling racket, and if the government moves to shut it down it is duty-bound to provide an alternative source of income to these individuals. They recommended that the proceeds the government aims to collect from shutting down this racket, and which is estimated by Customs to be in the vicinity of Rs150bn, should be used for this purpose. The argument is unlikely to get much traction, but the point raised should give us all some pause. The drive against smuggled oil must obviously not be halted; however, the number of people whose livelihoods will be impacted is very large — assuming that the figure is not being massively overstated — and it shows how deeply entrenched the economy of Balochistan has come to be in the cross-border rackets that thrive in that province.
It was in early January that the government announced a crackdown on illegal retail outlets selling smuggled oil, claiming more than 2,000 such outlets had sprung up across the country. This was to be the first phase of the crackdown, with action against cross-border movement to follow. It is not clear why this action needs to be phased in such a way. Why can the authorities not move simultaneously at the border as well as against illegal pumps selling smuggled fuel? Everybody already knows that the cross-border movement of tankers carrying the smuggled product happens under the nose of the authorities at the border. Perhaps the crackdown is phased in a manner so as to catch the low-hanging fruit first, which would be those pumps that have been geotagged by Customs as unlicensed and involved in the sale of smuggled fuel. All over Balochistan, it is common knowledge that LPG as well as petrol and diesel are smuggled from across the border, which not only means that large numbers of people will be deprived of a livelihood, but also that the province could face fuel shortages as a result. Shutting down this racket is important, but it is equally important to manage the aftermath.