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Relief of the visual kind

Updated September 28, 2018

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The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

THE joke in Lahore in the period leading up to the 2018 general election was that we, the people, had become tired of watching the same politicians forever occupying official space. There was a nonstop supply of Sharif images, which picked up speed with the approach of the election, as all those schemes were readied for inauguration.

Nawaz Sharif opening something somewhere. Shahbaz Sharif waving his hand triumphantly, adding on to all those pictures of his expeditions where he would be seen consoling with a ‘victim’ at some godforsaken place, or threatening a political opponent at the top of his voice at a jalsa. Serious scientists involved in the study of the subject might get upset with the revelation, but for many of those sitting in the audience, the possibility of getting a much-awaited break from the relentless always-running Sharif show was in itself some kind of a worthy end to look forward to. There needed to be some change, if for nothing else, then for the sake of providing the people long served by the standard Sharif fare some visual relief.

The relief has since arrived. It has arrived in a big way. The PML-N leadership has displayed a talent for adaptability many thought was beyond them. From hogging the limelight and running the exhibition without too much help from any supporting actors, the Sharifs — in post-election defeat — appeared to have chosen a pattern that has very little of them stealing the scene from those now in power.

For many, the possibility of getting a much-awaited break from the relentless Sharif show was in itself some kind of a worthy end to look forward to.

There have been very few sparks promising the erstwhile most-visible family warming up to some kind of constant lurking presence that befits the size of the opposition at their command. Statements that have come out have been few and far between, and apparently lacking is a will to counter the PTI government word for word, statement for statement.

Shahbaz Sharif did eventually rise to try and do some justice to his role as opposition leader following the presentation of the budget proposals recently. He did try to take on the stern opposition leader tone and momentarily stoke expectations that he might well be on track to rediscovering some of his old, pre-poll thunder. Finance Minister Asad Umar hit back strongly and, unfortunately for those expecting any return to form for SS, there was no one there to strongly repel this PTI counter-attack.

Sometime later, it was Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry’s turn to remind everyone what drastic measures were needed to turn the country around, and just how bad the situation was — all because of the PML-N. And, again, it felt as if there was not enough protest on display by the PML-N against the obviously disputable sweeping statements that are part and parcel of Mr Chaudhry’s exciting assignment.

The PTI ministers have betrayed an early bias for the camera. Apart from Prime Minister Imran Khan and Fawad Chaudhry, Minister of State for Interior Shehryar Afridi is another one who has spoken to the people through the media in recent days. He addressed Pakistanis after a peaceful passage of Youm-i-Ashur last week, but had the presence of mind to also use the occasion to send across to the world at large a message defying Pakistan’s typecasting.

This was certainly a welcome addition to the wide variety the PTI has already flaunted as a departure from the monotone, the pit of the boring sameness that the last PML-N government had allowed itself to slip into. And for a long, long period.

There are many PTI members of the cabinet who have shown a willingness to share responsibility for providing the audio-visual commentary accompanying the proceedings in this first Imran Khan government. There’s Dr Shireen Mazari, striving to bring a new, inquisitive quality to Pakistan’s correspondence with prying outsiders. There is, of course, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, proving that a change of party has not by any means cost him the velvet touch that he must have perfected over long sessions in the most suitable environs of Multan before using these to extract the most impossible favours out of unyielding international counterparts.

There are surely those who have been a little less chirpy than some of their colleagues. For instance, some of us may say that Shafqat Mahmood, who is in the National Assembly for his second successive term, could have been a little more forthcoming with his statements had he not chosen to hand over the very central slot of PTI information secretary to Fawad Chaudhry not too far from the election. But even in the less decidedly visible role that he has chosen for himself, Mr Mahmood did manage to shine with the very awami declarations about the intent to use the grand government residences and other sites for some other useful purposes.

This government is all about Imran Khan. The PTI is but a most powerful manifestation of his thinking, his experiences, his compromises and his resolve. This is an impression that needs no overstressing, and an over-imposition of the Imran image could jeopardise the pledge for change that, among other things, entailed a shift from the personal — and the autocratic — to an initiative of the collective.

A democratic distribution of space on stage by the PTI’s core team can be most useful in sending across a message about the possibilities of sharing, and about pluralistic character in the making, which would benefit the ruling party in the long run. There have been a few doomed dashes and some false starts by the government in the short span the PTI — or, more realistically, Imran Khan — has been in power. There must be a few threads that those in key positions in the government would consider worthy of following with purpose. A system where other faces are there to take the focus away from the ‘supreme leader’ from time to time could well be one of them.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, September 28th, 2018