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Defending the indefensible

Updated November 20, 2018

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

WORDS matter. The message may be important but so is its packaging. And yet Prime Minister Imran Khan and his party are defending indefensible ‘words’. So convinced are they that only the intention matters that the entire party has waxed lyrical about the virtues of a U-turn.

Indeed, this was a weekend dedicated to the U-turn, thanks to Prime Minister Khan’s candour during an interaction with some journalists on Friday.

He isn’t entirely wrong. Politicians go back on their word all the time; it would be worrisome if they didn’t. Remember, George Bush’s (the first one) election promise: “read my lips: no new taxes.” It was a promise he failed to keep. During his election campaign, Barack Obama pledged to close Guantanamo Bay but he too was unable to live up to this promise; resistance from various quarters made it impossible for him to do so. By the time he left, there were still around 40 ­prisoners at the facility.

Closer to home, we can find countless examples. There was Mian Nawaz Sharif himself who announced boycotting the 2008 election, only to change his mind on the urging of Asif Ali Zardari who was then playing statesman.

Not all words can be salvaged or defended — some, like ‘U-turn’, are doomed to be interpreted negatively.

Zardari himself in one of his first speeches after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto called the PML-Q the ‘qatil’ League. Later, he would form an alliance with the same party (and make Pervez Elahi the deputy prime minister) when the PPP got tired of the shenanigans of the Altaf Hussain-led MQM, which wouldn’t stop playing musical chairs with the treasury benches.

There was also Zardari’s back and forth on the issue of the judiciary’s restoration on which he once famously said that promises were not like the “Quran or hadith”. And let’s not forget, the former president’s famous speech in which he warned ‘some’ people that ‘they’ could only stick around for three years while politicians such as Zardari himself were here to stay. And soon after this declaration of ‘war’, he left the country and returned only when the ‘three years’ were up and a new man had taken over.

The PML-N has not been far behind. The 2008 election flip-flop aside, these days, we are all busy wondering if Nawaz Sharif’s recent silence (for all his men and women’s explanations concerning his recent bereavement) is not a sign of his changing mood and strategy which earlier was about taking on the khalai makhlooq. As someone commented on social media that if the rumours were true, this would be quite the ‘U-turn’.

Earlier, the party also suddenly changed its mind about how to run the economy when Sharif senior was sent packing and his finance minister sent fleeing. The new team — ostensibly from the same party — shaped an economic policy which was starkly different from the previous one. And while everyone questioned the different pages that Ishaq Dar and Miftah Ismail were reading from, there were few questions about what the PML-N’s economic vision was. Was it a strong-rupee and low-exports vision, or a more realistic rupee-value one which might aid exports? And where did Nawaz Sharif stand on the issue? Or had he changed his mind somewhere between the summer of 2017 and January 2018?

Indeed, inflexibility is not always good politics. Not even for Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who is being quoted frequently these days. Let’s not forget that the man who was known to be the greatest advocate of Hindu-Muslim unity ended up leading the movement for a separate country for the Muslims. Or that he accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan (which envisaged a united India) only to accept a ‘moth-eaten’ Pakistan a year later. Political ­realities change and so do plans and strategies.

But then, why the brouhaha over the PTI?

Partly, because the party has at times replaced flexible decision-making with what appears to be mood swings. It is one thing to accept political realities; it is another to publicly declaim one thing and then suddenly and equally vociferously take the opposite position, creating the ­impression that the party just had not done its homework earlier.

Its acceptance and then overnight rejection of Nasir Khosa as caretaker chief minister of Punjab was a case in point. Personally, nothing the party has done since it came to power beats that bit of kabhi haan, kabhi naan. But the flip-flop over Atif Mian, IMF and the dharna provide some serious competition.

As a party that has little experience of governance or power, the PTI was expected to do more flip-flops than the PPP and PML-N put together. After all, this was the first time, this party was going to experience the results of idealism clashing with hard-nosed realities. And of course, it garners criticism — sometimes justified and sometimes not. But that too — like the flip-flops — are the hazards of power.

However, it is not just about quick U-turns and inexperience. It is also about the PTI’s inability to separate the defensible from the indefensible. For instance, these days, instead of defending a policy or change of policy, the party has been busy defending the idea of a U-turn. Why? Because the prime minister himself did it in off-the-cuff remarks (which also highlights the hazards of people in important offices speaking to the media without doing their homework first about what should and should not be said).

Another way of looking at it is to say the packaging of the message is important. The decision should be justified; that is the job of every government. But to focus on the words used to attack or criticise — that is surely a waste.

Not all words can be salvaged (or defended) — some are doomed to be forever interpreted negatively. ‘U-turn’ is one as is ‘appeasement’. It boggles the mind that the ruling party has spent two days defending not its policies but a word that cannot be defended. When will the PTI and the prime minister realise the difference?

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, November 20th, 2018