He’s no Jack Welch! Anjum Niaz

Does the name Jack Welch makes a ding dong when you let your mind straddle across to Raiwind and its chieftains who control Punjab? Ask the governor of that province and you get a straight ‘No.’ The Sharif brothers come nowhere near that economic warlock who not only saved General Electric from ruin but raised it to dizzying heights during his 20 year tenure as the chairman of GE. Perhaps Governor Salmaan Taseer, who has built an eclectic empire in telecommunications, considers himself the contender to this title. He derides the Raiwind royal family lacking economic élan.

Shahbaz Sharif may not be a Jack Welch, but he certainly is a Frank Sinatra! Did you hear the crooner sing Habib Jalib’s revolutionary poem on October 12, the day the Sharifs were overthrown by Musharraf nine years ago? He sang from the bottom of his heart; while big brother Nawaz Sharif spoke from the bottom of his heart. The duo made their point: they are here to stay and no force (including the PPP) can dislodge them.

But Salmaan Taseer is a born-again jiyala, an avowed fan of his boss Asif Ali Zardari. He is determined to displace the Sharifs from Punjab and install BBZ (Bilawal Bhutto Zardari) as the new ‘king’ of Lahore. Until the Oxford undergrad enters the world of adulthood, Taseer is keeping the seat warm and assiduously pushing his dad.

“It’s most unfair to say that the president just sits and smiles” Governor Salmaan Taseer tells me while reacting to a recent column where I mention the president and the prime minister constantly being snapped in their gaudy designer suits and grinning. “I was with him last night when he arrived from Dubai. His plane got diverted to Lahore,” he continues earnestly. “The president put in a straight 14-16 hours of work before flying down to Islamabad.” Considering that Asif Ali Zardari is running the country and making all the decisions, despite having a prime minister and a cabinet of sorts, it’s not surprising to hear our president morphing into a workaholic. I am told that Zardari’s latest Dubai visit was meant to generate funds for Pakistan from the oil-rich sheikhdom.

Taseer is himself a chartered accountant who has made pots of money giving financial advice to his clients in the Middle East decades ago. So, when he tells me that his leader is trying to get cash from the petro-dollar-dripping sheikhs, I take notes. It’s not fluff that his phone call is airbrushing but a crash course on “how to win friends and cash money from influential circles.”

One such ‘Friend of Pakistan’ (not to be mistaken for the stillborn ‘Friends of Pakistan’ launched by Zardari in New York recently) arrived last week from Abu Dhabi. He went on record and told Geo TV “I am sure that my commitment and dedication for a prosperous Pakistan will only grow.” Nahyan Bin Mubarak is a big gun. He’s the chairman of the Abu Dhabi Group; he’s also the education minister; furthermore he’s the founding chairman of Bank Al-Falah Ltd; and to top it all he has the same last name as the UAE ruler Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. With such family and financial credentials to punt, Pakistan is fortunate to bag his support. And the credit for Al-Nahyan’s arrival on the heels of Zardari naturally goes to Zardari himself.

Suffice it to say then that Salmaan Taseer’s words of praise for his boss were not just an exercise in media PR but genuine. However before we reach for that proverbial champagne bottle to pop it open and toast our president and his long life, we have to wait and see how many of the promised millions/billions arrive from UAE. In case you’ve forgotten: the president has put in a $100 billion request from wherever he can get it to help Pakistan from defaulting. And here’s my humble contribution: given Taseer’s money-making skills and proven fiduciary track record, the president should pull him out from the Governor’s House in Lahore and bring him to the Minister’s Colony to resuscitate the economic, commerce and finance ministries. In other words, give him a target and tell him go meet it. Musharraf made him his caretaker commerce minister earlier this year after Shaukat Aziz fled and his government packed up.

The governor Punjab thinks that his chief minister lacks prescience despite coming from a business background. “The PML-N has no vision or foresight. It has yet to come up with a concrete policy on how to take the province forward,” says the governor. “The party leadership is locked in a time warp; it has no agenda or enterprise worked out. Its governance is based on ad-hoc decisions – sack this one; threaten that one; cajole someone; buy another one.” The Sharifs are meant to be the Jack Welch of Pakistan who like the former CEO of General Electric are expected to introduce innovative management strategies based on their business acumen and uncanny ways of making money. “He’s (Shahbaz Sharif) is no Jack Welch!” says Taseer, who by the way considers himself to be the cat’s whiskers in looks, sharpshooting and financial planning.

Say whatever, but Taseer’s roughshod style laced with an acerbic tongue has left the Sharifs scampering for cover.

Zardari made a smart move to give his governor free rein. Taseer tasered his opponents and stun-gunned them into temporary shock. Lahore is no longer the sole domain of the PML-N. Taseer has cranked up the PPP lily-livered and injected them with heavy doses of self-confidence and bravura, qualities that were missing in them. These MPAs were like scared rabbits in front of Mian Shahbaz Sharif who would call them with a mere chutki or snap of his fingers. They’d go running. But now they look him in the eye and challenge him to throw them out of his cabinet.

Whenever the PML-N tries to make a furtive forward bloc, chief cop Taseer gets wind of it and hurls the constitution at them. “No floor crossing!” Thus far he has thwarted their designs of getting parliamentarians from other parties to join them so that they can finally get rid of their coalition partners which are the PPP. “Listen, if the PPP quits today, the PML-N will not be able to muster 186 members. As governor Punjab it’s my right to ask them to show their majority and if they can’t I am constitutionally bound to sack their government.”

That may be so, but then Taseer and his PPP should also stop seducing the Chaudhrys of Gujrat. Like geckos, they are ready and willing to change colour and join anyone giving them the best offer? When I put this question to Taseer, he says there’s no bar in meeting people from different parties. Well said! But Taseer and Shujaat Pervez are no birds of the same feather that they should flock together! Their gravitas does not match each other’s style, politics and mannerism. Taseer’s boss called the PML-Q the ‘Qatil League’ and his leader sent an email message to her long-time friend Mark Siegel that if she’s killed, Pervez Elahi along with others should be named.

With such damning testimony against the Q-League from the late Benazir Bhutto and her husband Asif Ali Zardari, why is Governor Salmaan Taseer bent upon sleeping with the enemy? He himself has raised the stakes and now must work overtime like his boss Zardari to keep the Sharifs out of the loop. All’s fair in politics, I guess.

The battle for Punjab promises to be the defining moment for the PPP and the PML-N.

The writer is a freelance journalist with over twenty years of experience in national and international reporting.

Email: aniaz@fas.harvard.edu

The News, Tuesday, October 14, 2008

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