Malik Nasir Mahmood Aslam looks at a developing story
The Punjab crisis of governance is actually an evolving situation and may not end soon. The acute disconnect between the public perception of politics and the shenanigans of politicians now part of the drama enacted in the largest province of Pakistan is made distinctly visible causing deep concerns within the rational circles of the country. Many observers have been consistently pointing out that the political instability will increase manifold once the governance battle reaches Punjab and this is precisely what is taking place now. It is however more than manifest that the political uncertainty generated by untenable actions taken by many stakeholders involved in the current political game are going to leave longer trails of governance mishaps that may prove horrendously difficult to negotiate and contain. The various factions taking part in the political power play in Punjab are quite sure what they are up to but either do not care about the consequences or are assured of immunity by certain powerful quarters of the country. It is quite expected that the situation will get further complicated and may result in something unexpected and unacceptable.
Though the Lahore High Court reinstated PMLQ leader Chaudhry Parvez Elahi as the Punjab chief minister after he submitted an undertaking assuring the court that he would not dissolve the provincial assembly until the next hearing scheduled for 11 January, 2023 but this action deepened the crisis. The court issued the directives as a five-member bench took up Elahi’s plea challenging Punjab Governor’ orders to de-notify him as the provincial chief executive. The written order said that the governor’s orders dated 19 and 22 December were held in abeyance until the next hearing and the chief minister was restored in his position along with his cabinet. This order appears quite sweeping in nature but the court practically had no space but to give it but the court added a crucial proviso by adding that its decision is an interim measure and that this order will not preclude the petitioner from taking vote of confidence on his own accord.
It was debated that the court may hold the action without much ado as certain observers were of the view that the court may show judicial restraint following the example set by the establishment that is doing precisely that. Anyhow, what actually happened was something indicating that the judicial perception was altering itself though it was not prepared to show its aloofness in totality. At the outset, the court listened to the petition that contested the order of the Punjab governor that stated that since the chief minister had refrained from taking a vote of confidence at the appo¬i¬nted day and time, he ceased to hold the office. The governor, however, asked Elahi to continue working as chief minister until his successor takes charge. Interestingly, the court went through the preliminaries and subsequent arguments but then put off the hearing for an hour as the court asked Elahi’s counsel to seek an assurance from his client with regards to not dissolving the assembly. When the hearing resumed Elahi, through his counsel, submitted an undertaking wherein he said he would not dissolve the provincial assembly until the next hearing. This was quite a consequential interference and speaks volumes about the changing judicial thinking process.
The immediate impact of the proviso inserted by the court was that speaking to the media outside the courtroom, Elahi’s son, Moonis Elahi, said that the PMLQ respected the judiciary and that it will seek a vote of confidence and will dissolve the assembly the same day. Apparently, the court decisively curtailed the freedom of action on part of the aggrieved CM who might have assumed that the judiciary will just hold in abeyance the governor’s order that will restore the status quo allowing him to continue governing till the next election. He was quite sure that once the court stays the order his very-minority regime would be immune to any assault from the majority parties. The court verdict must have come as a shock to the CM as it has placed him on a very weak wicket and leaving him no option but to prove his majority in the house which currently looks next to impossible unless the London rains come his way.
It is very worrying to note that Punjab has been in an unsettled state for the past eight months and its vicissitudes have destablised the country. More significantly, the continuing uncertainty is causing an adverse impact on the economy that is already under tremendous pressure and has shown no signs of picking up the pieces. It is a matter of general consensus that more political turmoil will exact an even heavier price on the economy as Punjab is the economic engine of the country and if it lags behind due to faulty governance then the whole country suffers. Even if general elections are announced and subsequently held it may hardly be helpful in solving the complicated problems facing the country. Though the Lahore High Court’s recent order has provided an opportunity to all sides to review their political agendas, the on-going political turmoil seems to be far from over. Punjab’s ruling parties appear to be drifting apart and it may not be possible to cobble out a renewed understanding between both the parties. The minority CM may not be able to keep on getting support of the majority party that has so far propped him up but now will not be willing to do so.
Both the ruling coalitions –in Punjab and at centre – are currently trying very hard to humble their respective opponents and the chances of them sitting down and hammering out a satisfactory formula for future look remote. Though the crisis in Punjab has been going on for more than four weeks but the situation has gone from bad to worse as all stakeholders are unwilling to follow a specific course of action. They are paying no attention to the fact that amid the political volatility coupled with delay in receiving monetary support from global lenders and friendly countries, terrorism is rearing its ugly head again and terrorist incidents are increasing by the day. The ruling alliance in the centre, being the opposition in the Punjab assembly, is extremely unwilling to throw away this opportunity which they think is the best of its kind to grab Punjab again and corner PTI.
This appears to be the general belief of the leadership of PMLN that through Punjab it can put PTI on the defensive nationally. It expects that the PTI leadership will not be able to sustain its aggressive stance once power slips from its hands in Punjab and the feeling is that half of the job is already done. Out of this whole rumpus one thing has emerged that the Punjab assembly cannot be dissolved and that its fate will be determined in the courts of law and that would completely disrupt the future plans of most stakeholders. The crisis has been compounded by the fact that PTI wants to dissolve the assemblies but the CM Punjab, despite being an ally and frequently vowing that it would dissolve the assembly if Imran says so has no desire to give up power. This complicated axis may keep the political situation in Punjab on the tenterhooks for the foreseeable future. TW