As the country awaited the crucial relief with bated breath ahead of the IMF meeting on Monday, the PML-N-led ruling coalition and the PTI locked horns over the latter’s alleged attempts to employ ‘hardball tactics’ to thrust the crucial loan into “jeopardy”.

The matter spiraled into an acrimonious verbal slugfest after two audio clips surfaced of a telephone conversation of PTI Senator Shaukat Tarin instructing party ministers in K-P and Punjab – where the PTI is at the helm of affairs – to refuse to commit to a provincial surplus in light of the recent floods that have wreaked havoc in Pakistan.

While the PTI grew feistier in the defence of its stance and tamped it down as a genuine issue, the government ministers accused the PTI of putting the country’s interests in peril and sought to bring the “conspiracy” before the National Security Committee (NSC).

In one of the audio clips, Shaukat Tarin can be heard guiding Punjab Finance Minister Mohsin Leghari to tell the federal government and the IMF that he would not be able to commit to a provincial budget surplus in light of the recent floods that have wreaked havoc in Pakistan.

“We only wanted the provincial finance minister to write to the federal government so “pressure falls on these b*** … they’re jailing us, filing terrorism charges against us and they’re going away completely scot-free. We can’t allow this to happen,” Tarin is heard telling Leghari.

Leghari asks Tarin whether the activity would hurt the state, to which Tarin responds: “Well … frankly speaking, isn’t the state suffering the way they are treating your chairman and everybody else? This will definitely happen that the IMF will ask ‘where will you arrange the money from’ and they (the government) will bring another mini-budget.”

Tarin further says that it could not be allowed that “they mistreat us and we stand on one side and they blackmail us in the name of the state and ask for help and we keep helping them.”

Later in the leaked conversation, Tarin tells Leghari that the mechanism of the information’s release to the public would be decided later.

“We will do something so it doesn’t seem we are hurting the state but we should at least present the facts that you won’t be able to give [budget surplus] so our commitment is zero.”

In the other audio, Tarin can be heard asking Jhagra whether he had drawn up a similar letter.

“[The IMF commitment] is a blackmailing tactic and no one will release money anyway. I won’t release them, I don’t know about Leghari,” says the man, alleged to be Jhagra.

Tarin says the letter, once drafted, would also be sent to the IMF representative so “these b*** know that the money they were forcing us into giving will be kept by us”.

Meanwhile, at a press conference in Islamabad, Jhagra acknowledged the authenticity of a letter penned to the IMF three days earlier by the K-P government whereby the international money lender was informed that the province would not be able to meet the agreed-upon budget surplus.

Pinning the province’s inability to meet the surplus target on the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) merger with K-P province and related administrative concerns, the minister said, “I own the letter” and “I wrote it myself” and requested the federal government to resolve the budgetary issue.

Defending the leaked conversation in a press conference, PTI Secretary General Asad Umar said that there was “nothing wrong” with Tarin “advising” the ministers as he “understands the country’s economy” and that the request was in fact “needed” considering the current natural disaster the country faces.

In an attempt to “make the people aware of the facts,” the PTI leader alleged that the government was guilty of “cutting, pasting and editing” the leaked audio.

Umar argued that Tarin had merely “told both ministers to tell the federal government they should go back to the IMF and inform them that we have been hit by floods and face extraordinary circumstances”.

“Can anybody claim the advice isn’t good?” retorted Umar as he held that the ministers had been asked to seek concessions in the previously signed budget surplus agreement and added that the decision was in line with party chief Imran Khan’s policy during the Covid-19 pandemic as well.

On the other hand, addressing a press conference holding a meeting with K-P’s Finance Minister Taimur Jhagra, Finance Minister Miftah Ismail threw the ball in the court of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to convene a meeting of the National Security Committee to discuss alleged conspiracy by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf to sabotage the IMF deal.

Miftah demanded an apology from former Prime Minister Imran Khan for allegedly hatching the conspiracy, asking Jhagra to resign and Shaukat Tarin – who executed the plan – to quit politics.

Ismail also termed the K-P’s demand for additional funds unjustified, disclosing that the provincial government hired 54,020 more employees after the merger of the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas, which were 160% of the original strength of the employees.

It is the discretion of PM Shehbaz whether he wanted to take up the matter of the audio leak in the National Security Committee, he said while responding to a question during the press conference. But Ismail said that any such decision should be unanimous.

He termed the PTI’s move the “most shameful thing”, saying that the real faces of the party leaders had now been exposed.