Red zone files: They worry

Updated 16 Apr 2020

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Prime Minister Imran Khan has announced a lockdown for another two weeks but you wouldn’t know it if you stepped out into the city. There is clearly a disconnect between what the government is saying and what the people are hearing.

Surprised? You should really not be. For more than six weeks now, Pakistan is torn between conflicting messages emanating from conflicting quarters exuding conflicting priorities wrapped in conflicting policies that display a conflicted understanding of the crisis by conflicted governments.

The simmering tension between the federal government and Sindh has created a strangely toxic situation. A crisis tailor-made for suppressing conflicts has somehow inflamed them to a level where the politics of the virus is adversely affecting the fight against the virus. The National Coordination Committee meeting on Tuesday was expected to culminate in a national strategy reflecting a national outlook translating into national actions.

Yet on Wednesday, the Sindh chief minister’s press conference was followed by a barrage of criticism from PTI cabinet members. It was almost as if Pakistani leadership had become hostage of its own severe inadequacies.

Inside Islamabad’s Red Zone, important people are troubled. Things are not unfolding as they were expected to. The dynamics of the corona crisis are mutating like the virus itself and producing strange heroes and stranger villains. There is worry — and for good reason — that the virus is also affecting how people perceive politics and performance. You can’t see the virus, but you can see how leaders are reacting to the virus.

No wonder, all eyes are on Karachi.

And not just because of its policies. No, ladies and gentlemen, something deeper is unfolding below the political surface — and for once, it is not a conspiracy. In a minefield littered with meaningless press conferences full of rhetoric and bluster, a smidgen of sincerity is standing out like a flare in a moonless night. This is exactly why there is worry inside the Red Zone.

There is worry because Islamabad is mishandling Karachi. There is also worry because many in Islamabad are realising that many in Islamabad are failing to realise that Islamabad is mishandling Karachi. Murad Ali Shah may or may not be winning the battle against coronavirus but he is winning the battle of optics. And optics matter now more than ever.

In times of crises citizens feel vulnerable. When they are vulnerable they desire reassurance. Such reassurance has to be delivered through words that reflect honesty, transparency and a hint — just a hint — of vulnerability itself. It makes the connection between citizens and leaders and generates a feeling that all are in it together.

In such an environment, PTI’s combative and partisan attacks on the PPP government in Sindh are not going down well. The worry in Islamabad, among some people who sense the sense of politics, is that PTI is misreading the moment and the mood that the moment is generating. And by doing so, it is ceding space to the PPP when the entire country’s leadership is being tested.

Two things: first, what space? Second, how?

PPP figures nowhere on the national landscape. Pulverised in Punjab and beaten to quasi-irrelevance in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, PPP has holed itself up inside fortress Sindh waiting for better electoral climes. In fact, electorally, it is no match for the PTI. But this is not election season. This is also not a provincial crisis.

The virus resonates in Islamabad as it does in Karachi. When Murad Ali Shah speaks, he resonates as much in Islamabad as in Karachi. Or for that matter in Quetta and Peshawar and Lahore. On the TV screen, Imran Khan and Murad Ali Shah are equals. They are both seen across the country speaking about the same issue that holds universal relevance today. When screen time is the same, and issue is the same, and audience is the same, what differentiates the two? For that matter, what differentiates any two leaders at times like these?

The simplicity of the complexity of the answer to this question may not surprise you. Two words: clarity and empathy. Today PTI seems to be struggling with both.

And this is what has many people in Islamabad worried. PTI’s strength was its combativeness and aggression and single-mindedness in a zero-sum game. Times of yore demanded such strengths. Abrasiveness worked. Partisanship worked. Running down opponents worked. Insults worked. Us against them worked.

But today none of it does. Instead, what works today is empathy, and inclusiveness and togetherness and ‘us with them’. Today what also works is clarity and focus and a premium on human life. More importantly, the optics of these attributes find traction at a time of collective vulnerability. This may explain why Murad Ali Shah is striking the right chords while politically un-savvy PTI ministers — flapping their mouths and spitting venom — are eliciting derision. This may also explain the negative fallout of Governor Sindh’s random visits in cavalcades of a few dozen vehicles and how these are constituting optical disasters. Who can ever forget Asif Zardari visiting his Surrey palace in a helicopter when Pakistan was drowning in floods? Imran Ismail is tempting comparisons that he and his party can do without.

Those who know the significance of timing in politics, and those who respect the value of moments that matter — all such people are worried that coronavirus may shape our politics at the detriment of those who should have known better. They look at PTI’s political newbies saying the wrong things at the wrong time at the wrong people for all the wrong reasons and they shake their heads in frustration. They see citizens responding to Murad Ali Shah because he appears genuine in his focus, clarity and empathy. Genuineness as a trait, they recall, was PTI’s greatest strength. But that was then. This is now.

In the red zone, they worry.

Published in Dawn, April 16th, 2020