Red zone files: Who has sinned?

Updated May 28 2020

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SINDH is on a tangent. And for once it appears to be the right one.

But there is a price for doing the right thing.

In the case of Sindh, it is a silent tug-of-war with the federal government, or more precisely, the ruling PTI. Ever since the coronavirus hit Pakistan, Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah has been leading the pack of provincial leaders — and the federal one — in tackling the disease head-on.

He has been swift, decisive and clued-up. The speed and determination with which he has moved the provincial machinery has taken everyone by surprise — most of all the people of Sindh who are used to governments that revel in their laziness and incompetence.

But this time something happened that remains unknown for now, and may become source material for a future book. For now however, the PPP leadership is basking in the glow of its success (or the perception of it). It must be an alien feeling.

And yet all is not milk and honey. Trouble between PPP and PTI is not a new phenomenon. In the 2018 elections, PTI clocked in an impressive showing in Karachi. At that time, PTI had much going for it, including the wind of narrative in its sails.

In 2018, PPP was perceived as the corrupt and incompetent party that could do no right. The joke was that there was a joke in Sindh: it was called the PPP government.

PTI was the new, dynamic, dashing young challenger with full-on glam factor and a turbo-charged narrative. PPP could win the constituencies, but PTI had won the imagination. That was then.

And now?

Today PPP in Sindh appears to be the party with a dynamic, dashing young leadership that is whipping up a performance frenzy, while PTI in the centre is seen as lazy, incompetent and indecisive. What a flip.

This may not be all true. Sindh still wallows in severe problems and criminal neglect of its people while PTI still retains its clean image. But here, now, today in the age of corona, the traits of these two parties that are being telescoped to the nation are very different from the past.

So there is tension.

The tension is manifesting itself in how the battle against coronavirus is being fought. The fundamental difference between ‘lockdown’ has come to define this latest cold war between PTI and PPP.

A tweet by PPP’s Senator Sherry Rehman on Wednesday reflected this. She wrote: “Is Sindh meant to be fighting a pandemic on its own. Federal govt? Nadra is not sharing data for relief transfers, sms number still waits clearance from PTA, FBR is on a go-slow to provide taxpayer details! Cash relief has to go out! Why slowdown Sindh if you’re not ready?”

That is a good question: “Why slowdown Sindh?” The answer may lie in something deeper.

Karachi was MQM territory, till it was not. That’s when PTI entered with its razzle dazzle and won 14 out of 21 National Assembly seats. That was a Shahid Afridi sixer. But then came the Javed Miandad sixer. Of the 14 PTI MNAs who won from Karachi, one became the President of Pakistan, another became prime minister and two became federal ministers. Another two from the MQM, an ally, also joined the federal cabinet.

PTI could rightfully boast that it had taken Karachi by storm.

Or did it?

Local body elections are due in August this year. PPP insiders say Murad Ali Shah has also hit a sixer with his battle against coronavirus and given PPP the image that it did not have. The party has an eye on the local body polls and is salivating at the possibility of translating this performance “high” into votes.

PTI and MQM are expected to form an alliance to take on PPP. If the people of Karachi now see their chief minister as the performer Pakistan needed, they may be willing to trust PPP with their city. Or so PPP hopes.

Oh, and there’s another thing: The Peoples Party now, with this high-profile performance on coronavirus, has mayoral candidates.

PTI does not, yet. There are at least two PPP leaders who will be very strong candidates in Karachi for mayor if the party puts them up. Guess who these two are!

But PTI leaders are dismissive of these prospects. One key party leader from Sindh says Murad Ali Shah has not hit a sixer, he has ruined PPP politically. Why? Well, he argues, the lockdown in Sindh is an elite DHA residents’ demand while the poor people of Sindh are suffering more than the government would want to admit.

He says the economic ruin that the lockdown has brought about is pushing people into desperation and they are cursing the ruling party. He wonders how these people can win local body elections.

And that’s where the problem is: a collision of narratives that has landed PPP and PTI in confrontation just when the country needed to move in one direction to win the war against coronavirus.

It is a sad situation and it does compel one to ask: Who has sinned?

Tailpiece: Speaking about Karachi, what’s happening at the Karachi Port Trust (KPT)? Recently the federal cabinet approved the removal of the Chairman who was appointed by the previous government. The matter went to court and the decision may be out today (Thursday). Insiders in the know say an audit of KPT has not been done since 2010 and one was recently ordered by the federal minister for maritime affairs whose Ministry oversees KPT. There’s a tussle going on and plenty of things may bubble to the surface as the Minister is said to be tightening the screws and demanding greater transparency in KPT with the full support of Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, April 2nd, 2020