STRAIGHT TALK by Hafeez Khan

I was invited to friend’s farmhouse for dinner. The guests included close friends and I got introduced to some new people. The weather was changing; sitting outside cold and warm air were hugging each with firewood providing warmth and ambiance. Suddenly I saw a motorcade enter the gates. Expensive SUV’s with darkened glasses complete with Hilux seated armed guard. I thought our host had invited some political bigwigs.

They turned out to be Sugar Mill owners. Over dinner I observed them, and followed their flow of conversation. Their mannerism, confidence and dismissive approach regarding authorities reminded me of “Sugar Barons of the Caribbean” a book by British author Mathew Parker. It reveals their lifestyles, intrigue, political wheeling dealing and ruthlessness set in late 1600s. It also reminded me of Cuban Sugar Barons’ elite capture up to mid twentieth century whose remnants I have seen.

Pakistan is going through the same since the past thirty years. Local Sugar Barons have emerged as an unholy cartel bound by greed, ruthlessly sucking blood of the masses and farmers. They consider themselves above the law and are firmly entrenched in various political parties. They buy influence and cultivate relations in judiciary, police and bureaucracy at all levels; everyone is just a phone call away. They flaunt their riches and live lavish styles openly. They stand completely insulated against any threats to disrupt their criminal enterprises.

The recent sugar inquiry commission report has exposed these barons, stockists and market manipulators’ devilish machinations fleecing the suffering poor. Sugar prices in Pakistan have catapulted to their highest levels ever. Prime Minister Imran Khan has taken the challenge head on. However to saddle and control these wild stallions requires commitment and determination starting from lowest tiers to Magistrates and right up to the Chief Ministers in their Provinces.

It is truly an administrative challenge. The Punjab Government thus far has always fallen flat on its face in every instance barring some progress in dislodging Qabza Groups. This initiative has to expand to corner the criminals creating artificial inflation in poultry, vegetables and oil. The present set poorly lacks that capability.  Punjab Government is faring poorly in their wheat procurement efforts. Greed and incompetence jumps out at you while talking to the farmers. Can they perform any better in dealing with Barons and their ilk?

I have studied international trends and prices of lentils, palm oil and other commodities. They are stable and at times lower in comparison to previous years. It is all about reckless, criminal and ruthless profiteering.

PM IK must evaluate in depth the competence and capabilities of his team to wield the stick; watching over it like a hawk. The Police alone is not capable of dealing with such challenges, he must involve the Rangers and if necessary the Army. There should be no confusion in PM IK’s mind that controlling the runaway food inflation is his biggest political opponent; it can make or break his Government. The opposition stands neutered for now. It is a grand opportunity to win the hearts and minds of the nation.

Through his bold pronouncements of taking on these Mafias he is taking a huge credibility risk. If these tall claims don’t translate into real action on the ground giving relief to the common man, it will shatter his image as the one who delivers. This window of opportunity is time sensitive. PTI is into its 3rd year and the voters expect delivery in real terms.

After food inflation, the 2nd and 3rd agenda items on PTI’s action items should be cleaning its stables from deadwood, inject fresh blood into his team and speeding up accountability. 4th should be declaring an “Agricultural Emergency” and assemble a team of experts who can improve productivity, inputs and save wastage.  5th and equally important is the need to refocus its media team away from attacking the opposition solely, and project some very laudable achievements by the Government in the field green energy, safety net for poor, health cards, incentivizing housing, reducing the deficit, increasing exports, elevating Pakistan’s status in the world, and tourism.

PM IK continues to make bold pronouncements. He must bear in mind that actions speak louder than words. Without an unrelenting follow up and coming down hard on segments identified above, people will stop believing in him. It would be an enormous tragedy. PTI has a lot of talented youngsters within the parliament with strong political backgrounds. They need to be pulled up. He should get rid of “have been”. Status Quo exponents cannot unlearn their bad habits. Pick sharp minds who will learn quickly and are loyal and competent. Follow the adage hire for potential; watch out against weaknesses in temperament.

First and foremost get rid of the sinking weight of CM Buzdar in Punjab. Even PML(N) want him stay for his incompetence. Encouraging his greater exposure is proving to be a bigger disaster. Each time he opens his mouth, it is a reminder how poorly he comes across. PM IK needs to heed the strong rumblings within PTI. The Party is losing Punjab fast, if not done already. He must be cognizant of the fact that he is a lonely voice in CM’s support. Punjab lacks effective governance and unless that changes it could become our Waterloo. PTI is creating space for the return of PML(N). It is nothing short of hara-kiri.

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