Sardar Usman Buzdar is unlikely to go down in history as a very strong and effective Chief Minister of Punjab. Historically, Punjab has seen fifteen democratically elected chief ministers – excluding those who served under military regimes or as interim chief ministers. Out of these fifteen, only six can be categorized as “strong” Chief Ministers: Mumtaz Daultana, Feroz Khan Noon, Ghulam Mustafa Khar, Nawaz Sharif, Manzoor Wattoo and Shehbaz Sharif.
Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, elected as he was, has not been included in this list of fifteen Chief Ministers serving under a democratically elected civilian setup, since his tenure was part of the regime led by General Pervez Musharraf. Similarly, the Nawab of Kalabagh, undoubtedly one of the most effective civilian administrators that Punjab has produced, has also not been considered here, as he was Governor West Pakistan and not Chief Minister Punjab, under the regime of President Ayub Khan.
It has been seen that a strong democratically elected Chief Minister of Punjab – unless he is a family member of a dynasty – either becomes an actual rival to the Prime Minister or is viewed as as a potential rival and is removed. Buzdar belongs to the long list of nine relatively pliable CMs of Punjab who have traditionally been preferred by political parties as they do not pose a threat or can be remote-controlled by the centre. Nawab Iftikhar Mamdot, Sardar Abdul Hamid Khan Dasti, Malik Meraj Khalid, Haneef Ramay, Nawab Sadiq Hussein Qureshi, Ghulam Haider Wyne, Sardar Arif Nakai, Dost Mohammad Khosa and Sardar Usman Buzdar would be considered to be part of this category.
Nawab Iftikhar Mamdot, the first Chief Minister of Punjab after independence in 1947, belonged to a noted family of Punjab, loyal to the Muslim League and closely associated with Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah. His father, Nawab Zulfiqar Mamdot, often hosted the President of the Muslim League at Mamdot House in Lahore and personally bore the financial expenses for the famous 1940 session of the Muslim League, later known in history for the Lahore Resolution.
The Chief Minister of Punjab came to be seen as a threat to the Prime Minister, who would tend to remove such a CM, preferring someone with clipped wings instead
After his father’s death, Nawab Iftikhar assumed a prominent position in Punjab Muslim League and migrated to Pakistan at the time of Partition. He became the first Chief Minister of Punjab but since he had left his family estate (situated very close to border at Kasur) in Indian Punjab, he had no electoral constituency in a new country, which rendered him weak. He was hounded out of office in a few years by Mumtaz Daultana, a young but wily politician from southern Punjab. Oxford-educated Daultana was highly ambitious. Once he became Chief Minister, not only did he set his sights on the office of Prime Minister but was also accused of playing a deliberate role to weaken Prime Minister Khawaja Nazimuddin during the anti-Ahmadi riots in 1953.
Daultana, although he never achieved his ambition of becoming Prime Minister as he was initially dismissed and later barred from holding office during the Ayub Khan years, unfortunately started a trend. The Chief Minister of Punjab came to be seen as a threat to the Prime Minister, who would tend to remove such a CM, preferring someone with clipped wings instead.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, during 1971-77, had four Chief Ministers in Punjab: Meraj Khalid, Mustafa Khar, Haneef Ramay and Nawab Sadiq Qureshi.
Khar, once he became popular in the province, was viewed by Bhutto as becoming too big for his boots and was removed whereas the other three Chief Ministers remained subservient to Bhutto.
Nawaz Sharif, who had been Chief Minister of Punjab under General Zia’s administration, was elected Chief Minister in 1988 when Benazir Bhutto became Prime Minister. Egged on by the military establishment and President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, Sharif openly challenged Prime Minister Benazir and brooked no interference from the centre.
When Nawaz Sharif became Prime Minister in the 1990 elections, following Benazir’s dismissal, he appointed Ghulam Haider Wyne as the figurehead Chief Minister but the real power in Punjab rested with Shehbaz Sharif, who operated from behind the scenes and ran Punjab – even though he was an MNA and had no official position in the provincial government.
In the 1993 elections, following Nawaz Sharif’s dismissal, Benazir became Prime Minister again and, due to the electoral calculus in Punjab, was forced to appoint Manzoor Wattoo who belonged to her electoral allies PML (Junejo). Benazir did not tolerate Wattoo for long and chose a weaker figure Sardar Arif Nakai who was also from PML (Junejo).
In the last twenty two years, PML-N has been in power in Punjab for thirteen years apart from Musharraf years and the last one year after PTI won the elections. Shehbaz Sharif has been Chief Minister thrice, while the elder Sharif was Prime Minister during this period. He served as Chief Minister from 2008-2018 for two full terms, barring a few months when Dost Mohammad Khosa was the proxy Chief Minister keeping the seat warm for Shehbaz Sharif to be elected.
When Usman Buzdar was elected Chief Minister in 2018 it was clear that PTI has chosen a figurehead, like Wyne or Khosa, who will be run by other power centres. PTI’s strategy has been upended by Jehangir Tareen’s disqualification, Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s failure to get elected as MPA and Aleem Khan’s troubles with NAB. The common perception is that Buzdar is being “remote-controlled” from Islamabad but this experiment has yet to deliver actual results on the ground. So far it appears to have led mainly to confusion.
Punjab is the largest province, with a population exceeding 100 million and an economy larger than many countries. It is the most important political battlefield with the highest number of electoral seats in the National Assembly. Performance in Punjab can make or break the electoral fortunes of a party in the next elections. Given the complexity of the situation and enormity of the challenge, Prime Minister Imran Khan would be well advised to discard this policy of remote-controlling Punjab – a strategy which has been the preferred option of many political parties in the past too. It would benefit him in the long run to opt for an energetic, experienced and effective Chief Minister to run Punjab and rise to the challenges posed by Pakistan’s current situation.
The author is an independent researcher and consultant based in Islamabad. He can be reached at @AmmarAliQureshi and firstname.lastname@example.org