When PTI Chief Minister Usman Buzdar last week unveiled his government’s policies for the first 100 days in order to implement PM Imran Khan’s reform agenda, there seemed not much difference between his statements of intent and those issued under the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz’s (PML-N) administration since 2008. Even Nawaz Sharif, when he was first chief minister, wanted to “strengthen the anti-corruption establishment and provide housing for the poor.” The only refreshing bit was the emphasis on tree plantation drives, an idea borrowed from the PTI’s previous government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
As Usman Buzdar settles in his new role headquartered in the palatial new residence in Lahore, it must dawn on the first-time MPA that he has some big shoes – or rather, rain boots – to fill as chief minister. After all, Shahbaz Sharif, his predecessor, has quite a reputation – one that he carefully crafted through his hyperactive management style. His hands-on approach not only induced fear in the hearts of those responsible for everyday functioning of government, but also created a perception of stable progress among citizens – that things were mostly working. For example, it is a commonly held view of waste workers in the city that the former chief minister was so fanatical about hygiene and cleanliness that he could not sleep at night and could be found on the Ring Roads worrying that they were not clean enough. Shahbaz’s enthusiasm for quick completion of mega projects have also reportedly earned him respect of the Chinese, who apparently fondly refer to this type of efficiency as ‘Shahbaz Speed.’
The first Buzdar to be elected to the parliament in Pakistan was Fateh Muhammad Khan Buzdar who contested in the party-less election held under General Zia’s regime. He did not find success in subsequent elections until another military ruler was in power
However, there must be some consolation for Chief Minister Buzdar in the thought that although Shahbaz has an impressive resume as chief minister, his brother Nawaz was once also an unknown and inexperienced rookie handpicked for the job in another time…and he went on to become prime minister thrice!
When news broke that Usman Buzdar, a hitherto unknown figure on the Punjab’s political landscape, was most likely to become chief minister, journalists rushed to find information about the man who was going govern this vital province. To their disappointment, they found nothing noteworthy, except a woefully inadequate Wikpedia page which claimed that Buzdar was involved in the murder of six people in 1998, and a photograph of him standing under the foot of a hill, with goats dotting the background. Absence of information fuelled speculation and created uncertainty and fear. How should one expect the Punjab, which is perceived by many to be the heartland of Pakistan, to function under the leadership of a novice who had, until now, existed on the peripheries? Who was this novice anyway, and why was he so important to the PTI’s project?
Since forming government, sources in the PTI are less willing to talk to journalists about internal discussions and they are particularly sensitive about the party’s choice of Usman Buzdar as chief minister. As a consequence, it is difficult to sort fact from fiction and one must rely on chatter to gauge how things came to be as they are and where they might go in the future.
A short history of the Buzdars
Usman Buzdar, chief of the Buzdar tribe, carries within him some wisdom acquired from his ancestors.
The Buzdar tribe traces its origin to the Rhind division of the Baloch. Their name is derived from the Persian word ‘Buz’ – a goat – as they were famous for the immense numbers of sheep and goats in their possession.
When the British Empire was expanding its influence in the subcontinent, the tribe was described by its officials as a turbulent one. British officials found Buzdars to be problematic because they resided in close proximity to the border of the Punjab and with a force of 2,500 men, the tribe had a certain nuisance value that all previous governments preferred to avoid. And so, it was found easier to bestow upon the tribe’s chief a yearly allowance in order to gain a degree of control and it is recorded as far back as the reign of Mughal ruler Jalaluddin Akbar that the Buzdars received an allowance of 80 maunds of grain per annum.
Despite these measures, the British officials could not ensure good behaviour from the tribe and they continued to “commit depredations,” according to R. B. J. Bruce, an assistant commissioner of Rajanpur who was compiling notes on Dera Ghazi Khan and its border tribes in 1870.
Finally, exasperated by their conduct and determined to punish them, a small British force marched to the hills where the Buzdars resided and caught them by completely surprise. This allowed plunder and destruction for at least three days before the Buzdars were able to recover. However, taking advantage of familiarity with the terrain, the Buzdars quickly reoccupied all the passes and proceeded to harass the invaders until they abandoned their plunder and fled.
Despite securing an allowance of Rs361 per year from this triumph and perhaps emboldened by their success, the tribe continued to behave errantly. After dealing with them for some more time and seeing all conciliatory measures fail, in March 1857, the government sanctioned an expedition against them.
Brigadier-General Chamberlain’s men assembled at Taunsa on March 6 and they entered the hills through the Sunghur Pass. This time, the Buzdars were better prepared. They had blocked the valley with large trees, obstructing further access. However, the British were better equipped and set the trees on fire. It took four days for the fire to die out. When the smoke cleared and the Buzdar chief descended from the hills to surrender, it is said that he remarked, “Sarkar mazay zarorayn!” (the state is very powerful!)
After this incident, the Buzdars showed more willingness to accept favors from the British government (which included small land grants and rent-free wells) and faded into the background.
Buzdars after Partition
The Buzdars re-emerged in the 1970s with different ambitions and a new approach with Usman Buzdar’s grandfather Sardar Dost Muhammad Khan Buzdar (son of Paind Khan Buzdar). He ran for an MPA seat as an independent candidate in the 1970 election against Rab Nawaz Khetran – a non-sardar from a relatively weaker, smaller tribe – and lost. By this time, Buzdars were no longer restricted to the hills with their goats, and had instead made their way to urban centers in search for education and better employment.
The first Buzdar to be elected to the parliament in Pakistan was Dost Muhammad’s son Fateh Muhammad Khan Buzdar who contested in the party-less election held under General Zia’s regime. He did not find success in subsequent elections until another military ruler was in power. In 2002, during General Musharraf’s rule, Fateh Muhammad Buzdar was able to secure a ticket from Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid. He won the election and remained MPA till 2013.
Usman Buzdar also joined the PML-Q during this time and was elected district nazim of Taunsa Sharif.
In 2013, Fateh Muhammad Khan approached the PML-N for an MPA ticket for his son. Usman Buzdar was awarded the ticket and contested with Amjad Farooq Khosa on the corresponding National Assembly seat. Khosa was successful but Buzdar lost out to the Khwajas of Taunsa.
By all accounts, the Buzdar chief does not have a good reputation in his hometown. There are many allegations against him – how he provided jobs to his family members through ghost schools, how he accepted bribes for favors in postings and transfers, how he interfered in the Border Military Police (BMP) and how his father was involved in a land grab case.
So, what is an urban Punjabi’s fascination with fringe tribal sardars such as Usman Buzdar? If you ask this question in Dera Ghazi Khan, the explanation provided is that urban dwellers associate a certain prestige with tribal leaders, who have dominated politics in this region for a much longer time than urban, middle class politicians. A more realistic explanation could be that it is easier to exercise control while ensuring affirmative action for the people of south Punjab.
Commentators have different ideas about what Buzdar’s role will be over the next few months but they all agree on one thing: he is temporary. Some say Buzdar is keeping the seat warm for someone else (a little birdie says Aleem Khan). Others say he is a contingency chief minister – so that, in case of a tragedy, the PTI could hold him responsible and fire him. Others say that the PTI did not want a hyperactive chief minister in the first place and would rather install a more pliant person who could allow the PTI think tank – Chaudhary Sarwar, Jahangir Tareen and the Chaudhrys – to determine main contours of the governance agenda of the Punjab.
Nobody can ever really be certain how Buzdar made his ascent to power. Some say the first lady proposed his name to the prime minister on the urging of a mutual friend. Some say Jahangir Tareen had him in mind for quite a while. For closure’s sake, let us call it divine intervention.