Author : Sushant Sareen

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 15, 2020
The bittersweet politics of Pakistan’s sugar scandal

Even as the rest of the world is struggling against the COVID19 pandemic, in Pakistan the Coronavirus crisis has taken something of a backseat to two inquiry reports into an alleged scandal involving powerful sugar and flour cartels. What makes the report into the sugar and flour scam so compelling is the fact that it points in the direction of people who are not only part of the ruling dispensation but have also played a pivotal role in installing Imran Khan as Prime Minister of Pakistan and forming his party’s government in the Centre and in Punjab by corralling independent lawmakers and smaller parties. That one of those who has figured in the report on the sugar ‘scam’ – Jehangir Tareen – has been the lynchpin in Imran Khan’s rise to the top in Pakistani politics, the man who bankrolled Imran Khan, has been his political trouble-shooter, his advisor on both governance and organisational matters, and his go-to man on agricultural issues, adds an edge to the political drama that is unfolding in Pakistan around this inquiry. What remains to be seen is whether this drama will climax into a major political change in the next few weeks, or it will end in an anti-climax right now but set the stage for a political coup in the not too distant a future.

The inquiry report in and of itself is not a big deal. Normally, in Pakistan's Byzantine politics, such reports create some ripples before fading into oblivion. The reason is that the primary purpose of such inquiries is not to fix responsibility and hold people accountable; it is to either tide over a controversy before it becomes a crisis – when the prices of medicines suddenly spiked last year because of an alleged collusion between drug companies and the health minister Aamir Kiani, the minister was sacked, but far from taking action against, he was inducted as general secretary of the party once things cooled down – or to fix an opponent and settle political scores or even deflect focus from an unfolding crisis to something completely different. This time it seems to be all of the above.

First, the Imran Khan government has come under tremendous criticism for mishandling the COVID19 crisis. The government woke up rather late in the day to the magnitude of the crisis, and that too after the army started pushing it. The sugar inquiry therefore has shifted focus from the government’s handling of the pandemic to something more political.

Second, the inquiry was initiated because the government had come under a lot of flak for the sudden rise in prices of sugar and flour in January. There were allegations that the markets and supply were rigged by people in the government to earn supernormal profits at the expense of the people. The inquiry helped to defuse the crisis of credibility that was dogging the government.

Finally, Imran Khan and some of his cronies were quite uncomfortable with the influence that Tareen was wielding in the government. Despite having been disqualified for life from holding any public position by the Supreme Court for not being sadiq and ameen (truthful and honest), Tareen remained a very important and powerful member of Imran Khan’s team. Because he had Imran Khan’s ear and up to a point even his trust, Tareen called the shots in both the party and the government. Not surprisingly, his rivals in the party and government had for long had their knives out for him. The sugar and flour crisis gave them an opportunity to settle their scores. They also managed to convince Imran Khan that Tareen was emerging as an alternate power centre and needed to be cut to size, more so because he was alleged to be conspiring with political opponents and making political concessions that were not in the interest of the party or the government. Putting it simply, there is a very strong factional fight dimension to the entire episode that cannot be ignored.

It isn’t therefore so much about what the inquiry reports say – interestingly it only makes insinuations against the people named, and doesn’t quite state what illegality was committed by the sugar barons because all the transactions took place as a result of policy that was made by the cabinet headed by none other than Imran Khan and subsidies given were by Imran Khan’s favourite Chief Minister, Usman Buzdar of Punjab – as it is the political portents they hold that is interesting.

As is always the case with such reports in Pakistan, there is more to the release of these reports than meets the eye. For one, the timing. That the reports have been made public in the midst of a monumental, even existential, crisis caused by a pandemic which could devastate the economy and fuel serious unrest in the country does raise many questions about what or who Imran Khan is aiming at. For another, there is the question about what Imran Khan hopes to achieve by playing a high-risk-high-stake gamble against the legendary sugar cartel, which like the Pakistan army has always been politics-proof and perpetually powerful. If Imran wins this battle, it will burnish his credentials as an unrelenting, uncompromising crusader against corruption, dealing a body blow to the sugar cartel. However, if he loses, then he might win some brownie points for standing up to entrenched and powerful cartels, but at the risk of losing not just his government in Punjab but also in Islamabad. Even if these governments don’t collapse, they will be weakened to a point where their continuation in any manner whatsoever will become extremely untenable.

Although Imran Khan is waiting for the ‘forensic report’ before he takes any action against the people named, so far all that has happened since the inquiry report was released is that Tareen has been side-lined and is being targeted by his rivals in the party and by Imran’s cronies whose only claim to fame is their proximity to him. Many of the others named in the report have remained unaffected. Moonis Elahi, son of Punjab Assembly speaker Pervaiz Elahi and a crucial coalition partner of the ruling party has been untouched. A federal minister, Khusro Bakhtiar, has had his portfolio changed, being moved from the food ministry to economic affairs. A powerful political family from South Punjab – Dreshaks – have also not been bothered.

This then begs the question whether the entire charade of accountability is only a convenient weapon to be used against possible challengers, or people who pose a real or imagined threat. Of course, since every inquiry demands some blood, apart from those against whom an axe is there to grind, there is the collateral damage – light-weight ministers, government officials and other such dispensable people. Taking on some of the more prominent people however is a very risky proposition. Bakhtiar and Dreshaks were among the prominent ‘electables’ from south Punjab who ditched Nawaz Sharif and switched to Imran Khan’s side just before the 2018 elections (apparently after a wink and nudge from the ‘department of agriculture’ – a euphemism for the dirty tricks department of the ISI). The loyalties of these people are entirely fungible and they can very easily shake up the governments in Islamabad and Lahore because of the support and influence they enjoy with other lawmakers from the same region. Similarly, if push comes to shove, Elahi’s party has the numbers to bring down the government in Punjab, something that Imran Khan cannot afford.

Therefore, anyone who thinks that Imran Khan is going to go ahead and commit political suicide is likely to be disappointed. What he is trying to achieve is something more mundane. By taking aim at Tareen, until recently his closest political advisor, he is stamping his authority in the party. This is a pet tactic in Imran’s playbook, something he demonstrated when he summarily sacked three ministers (again his very close associates, and from very powerful political families) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa because they were alleged to be plotting a rebellion against the chief minister. Since Imran has already got what he wanted out of Tareen – he neither needs his private aircraft nor his wealth anymore – making Tareen dispensable. More importantly, Tareen being junked puts the fear in others who might have some wrong notions about their proximity to Imran or their own importance in the party and government.

But Tareen is not the only bird Imran is aiming at. For some months now, there are rumours and reports of the military getting restive with the feckless, reckless, and clueless governance of Imran Khan. There has been talk of bringing about some change to fix the drift in the affairs of state. The army is also facing a lot of flak from foisting Imran Khan on the country. For their part, the military has been pushing Imran to start focussing on areas where things are sliding out of control. Even amidst the COVID19 crisis, the military not only forced Imran’s hand by getting him to call a National Security Committee meeting in mid-March to set the ball rolling on Pakistan's response to the pandemic, but has also now created a National Command and Operations Centre to implement decisions. Imran desperately needs to raise his stock with the army. He is trying to do that in two ways: one, trying to get a debt relief package for Pakistan, something that will go down well with the military; two, tying the hands of the military by once again pretending to crusade against corruption. It is the latter in which the sugar scam comes handy.

If at all the military was planning to get rid of him in the next few weeks, then it will now find it difficult to do so because Imran Khan will project himself as a political martyr who was done in by the corrupt mafia. In other words, Imran hopes to regain his fast dwindling popularity and resurrect his image by aiming at the sugar cartel, something that will make taking any action against him by the army extremely difficult because the army will then be seen to be standing with the mafia rather than the ‘incorruptible’ Prime Minister.

But, it is not so much Imran’s shenanigans that will hold the hand of the army, as it is the lack of options before the army if they get rid of Imran. The in-house change is easier said than done. National government is going to be even more unwieldy. Fresh elections will most likely see the return of the Sharifs back to power, and directly taking control is a rather unpalatable proposition because the army will then have to bear responsibility for the extremely unpopular decisions to pull Pakistan out of the hole in which Pakistan finds itself in, more so with the economy likely to be in the midst of a perfect storm as a result of the disruption, dislocation and devastation caused by the COVID19 pandemic. For now, Imran Khan’s gambit might pay off and there is probably no immediate threat to him staying on as Prime Minister. But he might have also set into motion new political alignments that going forward could prove to be his nemesis.

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Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. His published works include: Balochistan: Forgotten War, Forsaken People (Monograph, 2017) Corridor Calculus: China-Pakistan Economic Corridor & China’s comprador   ...

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