Partial column

17 Apr 2020

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

BEFORE it all turned really ugly, the positions of the federal government in Islamabad and the PPP setup in Sindh appeared to be reconcilable. By all signs, the two parties were only a sensible meeting away. The centre appeared to want a more nuanced application of ‘lockdown’— a term whose Pakistani connotations were about to be discovered in ‘total’ and ‘not’ partial isolation to the world.

The prime minister kept repeating facts about the poor state of Pakistan’s economy, albeit at the risk of causing some unwanted dents in confidence at a critical point. But he was consistent in his argument. Not everything could be locked down in a country inhabited by the poor, who, unlike you and me, did not have the resources to endlessly stuff the fridge with provisions; the hoarders, like you and me, living at a distance from the prime minister’s ghareeb Pakistanis, reacted to his subtle selective opening of the lockdown as the prudes had reacted all those decades ago to Manto’s Khol Do.

Sindh liked its orders delivered hard. But Murad Ali Shah has been around in this country for long enough to know that commands and rules here are always subject to conditions and exemptions. Ultimately, the strict veneer had to have beneath it a softer zone where life had to be allowed to proceed with as much freedom as the circumstances realistically allowed.

All you had to do in Lahore or Karachi, in theory at least, was to convince the law enforcers that you had a genuine reason to venture out during the lockdown. And genuine reasons can be plenty — from the urgent need of going to get medicines to seeing a friend to taking your wife for a lifesaving few minutes in the open, away from the oppressive souls who populate your house, not in all cases due to a collaboration between you and her.

The attack on the Sindh CM must have been all the more necessary to combat the good press the PPP was getting.

From the people’s movement in various provinces alone, you could see for yourself that the positions taken by the centre and Sindh were not unbridgeable and there was no bar on politicians of all schools and description to try and exploit the situation to their advantage. So long as their politicking was beneficial to the people.

Thus it was absolutely fine for Prime Minister Imran Khan to reinvent the Tiger Force from his Shaukat Khanum Hospital days as the saviour of the large number of Pakistanis affected by Covid-19. And it was alright for Murad Ali Shah’s ill-reputed PPP to somehow rise from the depths to use this fight against the coronavirus as a sign of some kind of revival in its ranks.

The remarkably civil relationship on display between Islamabad and Sindh during the first few weeks of the coronavirus outbreak in the country needs to be preserved as a monument to the potential of our politicians. Not that the period was free of differences or feelings of rivalry seething beneath the surface, but for the mild-hearted, an effort had at least been made to not overtly flaunt the old mutual acrimony nurtured and exhibited for so long.

Maybe it was the fear of death, the scare caused by the virus that saw everyone everywhere in Pakistan behaving — something that also affected the politicians who seemed to have sobered up, although briefly before the tit-for-tat battle began at full volume on the national stage.

There are speculations about what could have caused this rather unfortunate collapse into a past full of verbal violence. Some murmurs blame it on facts from Sindh that were never brought to light — including the suspected Covid-19 deaths that a news report earlier this week said were never reported from Karachi. On the other hand, the ‘arrogant’ tone of the federal government, where a non-politician adviser on health has been compelled to silently identify Sindh as the ‘worst case’, is rooted in an understanding of what could have been.

The theory is that the country has been lucky to have not lost as many lives as it was feared it could lose by this time and this has kind of emboldened the ruling PTI to go after the PPP. The attack on Murad Ali Shah must have been all the more necessary to combat the good press that the PPP was getting on a sustained basis after a long time.

Before this, over the last so many years, any positive mention of a PPP politician was more in the context of an individual having been caught in the wrong party. Such as a Nadeem Afzal Chann who thinks he has escaped the curse of the PPP. Or a Qamar Zaman Kaira, who is so good that he has someone as pious and ideologically pure as Sheikh Rashid promoting him as his choice for prime minister.

Murad Ali Shah is another good man in bad company. He has had his own advisers who had been willing, egging him on to turn against the corrupt leadership and chart a glorious course of his own. But even with such a record of sincere promptings from well-wishers, he has managed to carry the party with him in this Covid-19 fight — initially with good results but he has a bigger battle now as the opponents, with as big drones as is possible, target him and his party with the trademark allegations that the PPP has suffered from.

Blaming one another is politics the politicians must always be prepared for. But this is politics of an inferior quality in the race between various parties to provide direct relief to the people in times of trouble, through a tiger force, if one must.

It’s about not holding that one important sensible meeting which could flatten the differences — that meeting which is kept deliberately elusive by all sides — the victims and the victors, those who are accused of hiding facts and the ones who are happy that the death count is not what it should or could have been — in aid of their own arguments. It was only a matter of collecting at a place and moving in each other’s direction until the middle ground was found. That meeting cannot take place.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, April 17th, 2020