SOMETIMES even rhetorical questions deserve answers.
Twenty-five years since it was formed, and 31 months since it came into power, PTI is faced with this inevitable question, which may be triggered by its inability to reduce the gap between what it says and what it does. In this rather peculiar matter of judging yourself against your own set standards, PTI stands as an outlier among the array of political parties that have over the decades taken turns to mismanage the governance of Pakistan. For Imran Khan’s party, it is a strange and alien place to be. All those years in the political wilderness, relegated to the margins of mainstream politics, often made fun of and neglected — yes all these years the leader and his ragtag army of dedicated followers braved the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune because they believed they would change the world.
Today, they look exhausted. And frustrated. And bewildered. What happened? How could they — with all their good intention and clear-eyed vision — trip so bad and fall so hard? Only a few years back, it was inconceivable; only a few years ahead it will be a case study.
The firing of Special Assistant on Petroleum Nadeem Babar on Friday is a seminal moment in this journey of angst for the party that aimed to sculpt a new and exciting future for the country. There was nothing gentle about the petroleum czar’s axing. Which in a way is good because it reflects, among other things, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s penchant for taking hard and uncomfortable decisions in his stride. But it also reflects something a bit darker, and a tad bit more ominous: an admission that all these years the PTI leadership kept embarking on the wrong course with the wrong management for the most critical area of governance today.
Something is going on deep inside the soul of PTI; something that is very slowly but very surely rearranging the building blocks of its DNA.
Did Nadeem Babar really mess up the petroleum sector through unwise decision-making? Did his conflict of interest pollute the clarity required to steer a sector as huge as this? PTI’s case study — whenever it is written and taught — will address these questions and attempt to answer them, but for now, in the fog of immediacy, what can be said with an element of certainty is that PTI’s absolute certainty in its own ability to do no wrong has itself become a victim of acute uncertainty.
For Imran Khan’s party today, Nadeem Babar’s unceremonious ouster is but a speck on the tapestry of challenges that flutter outside the Prime Minister’s Office. And they all amalgamate into one simple but obvious question that the party never wished, and never believed, would be asked of it: why cannot PTI govern?
There are stock answers, of course. We did not know how bad the situation was; the bureaucracy is not letting us work; the opposition is destroying institutional equilibrium; Khan doesn’t have the right team; the media is not projecting our successes — the list goes on and on. But in their heart of hearts, key people in the party — only the key people, because most others continue to digest their own rhetoric — know that things are off-track. Something, somewhere has gone horribly wrong.
But do they know what has gone wrong? Here’s where the situation gets a bit complicated.
Let’s start with some definitives. PTI is not a failure — yet. Failure can be a subjective word when measuring a political party, and the electorate is expected to provide an answer at the end of PTI’s term. However, in the absence of free and transparent elections, the answer remains — to an extent — elusive, and prone to be shaped by popular perceptions. Today, PTI may be a failure in terms of its own targets, but the final judgement should await the end of the term.
Can the judgement really wait? Formally yes, but informally perhaps no. More so when you acknowledge that failure is more a process than an event. If that be the case, the cascading torrents of dashed expectations are gurgling out their own verdict without waiting for any external timelines and deadlines. It was this wave that swept PTI into power; it is this wave that is now threatening to drown it.
But this still does not explain the fundamental question: why is PTI failing?
It is a question that is consumed like contraband at private party gatherings. People are concerned. They whisper. They crib. And they mourn the faltering end to an excitement that fuelled the party DNA all these years. Performance is a by-product of a number of variables. Those who have lived PTI and breathed PTI can sense the change in variables. They can sense a change in the culture of their party. Something is going on deep inside the soul of PTI; something that is very slowly but very surely rearranging the building blocks — the nucleotides if you will — of its DNA and transforming its culture into something resembling traditional parties.
It’s hard to put a finger on it. Sometimes it is reflected in the rising tide of sycophancy in leadership meetings; other times it manifests itself in the inability of the leadership to accept and internalise genuine feedback; and often it displays itself in the rigid and intractable reaction to unexpected events. PTI has become brittle. And brittle things break.
Grounded people do not change quickly. Same for parties and organisations. PTI had a quasi-revolutionary manifesto and the country’s biggest brand as its leader. It should have been in a far better position midway through its term than it is today. The external challenge may be measured in projects, schemes and deliverables, but the internal challenge — the real one dragging the party down — is much harder to measure in tangibles. Failure is an outcome of something deeper than a drop-down list. If PTI wants to resurrect its fortunes, it may need to look closer to home.
For this to happen, it may want to start by being honest with itself.