Red zone files: Politics of the virus

Updated March 26, 2020

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Coronavirus may be reshaping the future of the planet, but it has failed to dent the way politics is done in Pakistan.
Coronavirus may be reshaping the future of the planet, but it has failed to dent the way politics is done in Pakistan.

It all sounded too good to be true. As it turned out, it was.

On Wednesday Prime Minister Imran Khan addressed the parliamentary party leaders gathered by Speaker of the National Assembly Asad Qaisar to discuss the coronavirus crisis. The prime minister expressed his thoughts, followed by the health adviser and then the chairman of NDMA. When his turn came to speak to the political glitterati connected via video link, Leader of the Opposition Shahbaz Sharif asked the speaker if the prime minister was still present at the meeting. The speaker said he had to leave for another meeting. This led to the leader of the opposition as well as chairman of PPP Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari to walk out of the meeting.

Their grievance: how can the political leadership forge an understanding — despite its divisions — against the crisis when the prime minister was not even willing to sit through the meeting and hear what others had to say?

Good question. But apparently, there’s a back-story. The opposition is angry and this is what they confide: They say the speaker convened the meeting and from the PML-N Khawaja Asif and Mushahidullah were invited. But later on the speaker informed the opposition that Prime Minister Khan would also attend the meeting and as a result Mr Sharif and Mr Bhutto-Zardari consented to participate as well in the spirit of cooperation. When the PM left the video meeting, both the opposition leaders also walked off.

The government is also angry and this is what its leaders confide: They say the speaker convened the meeting and asked some senior cabinet members close to the prime minister to convince him to attend the meeting. These people persuaded the PM but suggested he did not need to stay for the entire duration of the meeting. They told the speaker to invite Mr Sharif and Mr Bhutto-Zardari and convinced the PM that he should listen to the speeches of the two leaders.

He reluctantly agreed. But there was no confirmation from the opposition leaders and it only came at 12.30pm from the PPP chairman and 1.30pm from the PML-N president on Wednesday. So when the PM started speaking he did not know Mr Sharif and Mr Bhutto were in attendance on video. He therefore finished his speech and left.

The opposition’s counter-version: How could the PM not know Mr Sharif and Mr Bhutto-Zardari were in the meeting? The Skype links were shared by the speaker’s office and the Zoom link (software for video conferencing) were shared by the PM Office. The PM could see all the people in the windows on his screen as could everyone else.

The government’s counter-version: When the PM sat in front of the screen he could not see who else was there. He had to ask one of his key ministers when he should start. This is why he left because this was the original plan when the leaders of PML-N and PPP were not coming. What the opposition is saying now is ridiculous. They played raw politics and this was their intention and nothing else.

Moral of the story: Coronavirus may be reshaping the future of the planet, but it has failed to dent the way politics is done in Pakistan.

The politics of the virus is in fact colouring our response to the virus. Regardless of how coronavirus is ravaging the rest of the world, and how the rest of the world is struggling to forge a response, here at home conflicting strategies are at play.

The sum total of these strategies has boiled down to one word: lockdown.

Imagine this: Sindh, AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan have opted for lockdown, Punjab has chosen slowdown and KP and Balochistan have decided on shutdown. The difference? Ah! Well since the prime minister has made it clear repeatedly that he is not in favour of a lockdown, how can the provinces ruled by PTI have a lockdown? So they avoid the word, not the deed.

If you define the federal government in geographical terms, it is the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT). And of course ICT is neither locked down, nor shut down, and partially slowed down. It is a rather strange situation to be in and perhaps not sustainable in terms of practical issues. Which is why there is talk that the shutdown of public transport will be lifted today (Thursday) in the National Coordination Committee (NCC) meeting. The argument within the Red Zone is that if governments are keeping essential services open, can citizens reach these services if public transport is not available. But this would also mean a significant dilution of the concept of a lockdown and hence a greater chance of the infection spreading. So what gives?

In the absence of clarity and consensus, political parties have hunkered down into their traditional trenches. Ruling party insiders say the prime minister isn’t about to change his views on the opposition. Opposition insiders for their part echo similar sentiments. They say they want to be a ‘responsible’ opposition during this moment of crisis but they will not put a halt to their criticism. Some said they had expressed their opinion in internal meetings that there was no need for the opposition to seek meetings with the prime minister in order to express solidarity during the coronavirus crises. They said when their offers were not reciprocated in kind, it made them look weak. “We will continue to bitterly criticise government’s handling of the Taftan blunder,” said one opposition leader.

“Shahbaz Sharif had come prepared for today’s parliamentary party leaders’ meeting with some very positive suggestions,” said another opposition parliamentarian. One of the suggestions was to turn this parliamentary committee into a monitoring committee for the coronavirus crisis and provide positive bipartisan input to the government. Another idea he planned to give to the prime minister was to constitute a task force comprising people from both sides of the aisle that could help in drafting proposals for the fight against coronavirus in the budget that is due in about three months. But all this remained unsaid.

Beyond its health and economic aspect, coronavirus today in Pakistan has primarily become a political issue. If our politics is dysfunctional, so will be our response to the crisis. Imagine the conflicts that are feeding into our response to the virus: Centre vs provinces, government vs opposition, federalism vs devolution, elected politicians vs technocratic leadership, health vs economy and of course some unsaid ones. Trouble is brewing in this brew.

The trouble is acknowledged in the Red Zone. Coronavirus is exposing the weakness in our health sector but it is also unveiling the dark soft underbelly of our political dynamics. All eyes are now on the NCC meeting scheduled for today that will be attended by the PM and all chief ministers.

A senior cabinet member said the PM has a good chemistry with Sindh CM Murad Ali Shah. He said we might have our political differences but the NCC meeting would come out with a positive outcome regardless of the negativity generated by Wednesday’s parliamentary leaders meeting.

For all our sakes, one hopes he’s right.

Published in Dawn, March 26th, 2020