It is great to see PIA flying again when the tussle between the steely Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and PIA’s striking workers over the privatization of the national airline appeared to be taking both to a crash. When the flood of advice from good Samaritans in the media failed to budge the two sides from their firm stands, it fell to the prime minister’s brother, Mian Shahbaz Sharif, to avert the crash.

Many accounts are doing the rounds in the corridors of power, about how the Chief Minister of Punjab came to play a role in putting out the furiously burning fire. After all, it was odd that the gutsy brother was absent from the two crisis meetings that the prime minister held last week when his threats to the strikers, and the extention of the Essential Services Act to PIA, were met with a complete shutdown of the airlines’ operations by the workers’ Joint Action Committee.

His absence was uncharacteristic as he is known within the party as a ‘Doer’ and has jumped in as troubleshooter in less threatening situations before.

It is said he offered to intervene after two striking PIA workers were killed in a mysterious shooting outside the PIA headquarters at Karachi airport on February 2, but was asked to stay put.

A PML-N official, who works in close cooperation with the chief minister’s office in Lahore, said Shahbaz Sharif has some “very good contacts” in Karachi who could have helped reverse the rising tide.

“But he took the advice to stay put because the prime minister had taken a firm, unequivocal stand against the PIA strikers. Then, the opposition parties are always on the lookout to accuse him of interfering in issues of the federal government,” said the party official.

He noted that Shahbaz Sharif’s visits to Islamabad are no longer as frequent and long as they used to be in the early days of the PML-N government.

However, according to a PML-N cabinet minister privy to the developments, the go-getter younger Sharif couldn’t resist the temptation after he saw the extreme positions taken by the prime minister and the PIA leading to a catastrophe. He took the jump and activated his contacts in Karachi to reach the head of the JAC Mr Sohail Baloch.

Shahbaz Sharif was informed that the JAC was willing to call off the strike but only after a meeting with the prime minister. When he conveyed the same to the prime minister, his response, according to the minister, was “nothing doing until the strike is called off and the workers resume duties.”

The intense discussions that followed between the Shahbaz’s contacts and the JAC resulted in the end of the strike - and hopefully the crisis too.

Once the JAC announced its decision of resuming work, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told his brother to go ahead with his meeting with strike leader Sohail Baloch.

PIA insiders, however, say the strike was breached when the government managed partial resumption of flight operations by threatening the PIA employees that they are going to lose their jobs.

A senior PIA official said the government succeeded in dividing the protesting employees by its tough talk and moves.

Those returning to their jobs were promised all sorts of guarantees. “In a number of cases, the government provided police security to them and this panicked the rest,” he said.

But, according to the minister, though the government won the day, workers may still hold resentments.

Published in Dawn, February 12th, 2016

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