WINNING is everything. Right?
Prime Minister Imran Khan stepped on to the stage late morning on Friday to deliver what appeared to be a routine speech on IT projects. This was his first major public appearance in front of live cameras since the murder of Hazara miners in Balochistan. For six days the controversy had continued to rage — mourners sitting outside in below freezing temperatures refusing to bury their loved ones till the prime minister came to them, and the prime minister maintaining a stony silence. Would he break his silence this morning?
Break it? He smashed it. In a blunt tone, the prime minister declared he had accepted all demands of the mourners but he would not be ‘blackmailed’ by them into going to Quetta. ‘You bury the bodies first and then I will visit,’ he stated definitively. The leader of the country had just put a condition on his condolence.
The nation was dumbfounded by the insensitivity of these remarks. The rest of the day was consumed by an outpouring of rage and revulsion that cut across party lines and gelled into one organic stream flowing across social media platforms. Soon this stream transformed into a wave that roared its way into the heart of national discourse and devoured all feeble resistance coming from official quarters. The veritable army of government spokespersons — who meet regularly under the direct guidance of the prime minister and weaponise their communication offensives — was stunned into silence. Some whimpered feebly on social media timelines but were summarily shamed into silence.
This was not an opponent he had to vanquish. This was a crestfallen people wanting him to shed a tear for them, and with them. That’s it.
By evening, sit-ins had sprouted across many cities and the number of people gathering at these spots had started to swell. Reports of road blockages also began to pour in from various places. The PTI government, it seemed, had gone AWOL.
So what did the prime minister really do wrong?
The cut and dried logic may carry some weight. Leaders can become hostages to precedence — that much is true. The prime minister may have been advised — or he may have concluded himself — that if he now travelled to Quetta in response to the demand of the mourners, he would keep facing such demands in the future and would risk losing his political capital if he refused. So wouldn’t it be better to set the ground rules himself — as he has done all through his life — that he would decide what he must do, and no one else? Yes no one, not even a hounded and persecuted community that had lost its loved ones to horrendous murders, not even they should be allowed to determine where the prime minister should and when he should go. This logic was peddled internally in official meetings early into the crisis. We know this because the prime minister’s cabinet colleague Zulfi Bokhari vocalised this very line of argument while negotiating with the mourners two days ago.
If this was indeed the decision, it was a tone-deaf one. The logic may have appeared valid in theory, but did no one bother to explain to the prime minister that he was not in a contest with the PML-N or PPP, where he could power on his aggression and stare down his opponents? Did no one remind him that he was not fighting a battle in which the only option was to win by forcing the others to do his bidding, and compelling them through sheer force of his will to bend and break? Did no one explain to him that a bludgeoned, beaten and persecuted community, burdened with the agony of unimaginable grief, was pleading for sympathy, and care, and consolation? No, this was not a contest that the prime minister had to win, none at all, and this was not an opponent he had to vanquish in order to self-actualise his worth in his own eyes. This was a crestfallen people wanting him to embrace them, and shed a tear for them, and with them. That’s it.
But he read them wrong. He read the situation wrong. And he read the politics wrong. So he went by the book, and by his gut, and he did what he has always done with opponents on the cricketing pitch and on the political outfield — he dominated them. “Don’t blackmail me,” he said to the broken old man who lost a son, and the tearful woman who lost a brother, and a howling and shattered little girl who lost a father. “Don’t blackmail me,” he told them and others sitting there shivering with cold and grief and apathy raining down from above.
Now it does not matter anymore. The damage has been done. The wound has opened. The shocking callousness has registered. The government has been diminished. It is a sad day in the life of Pakistan.
It has been made sadder by the spectacle of random PTI spokespersons stuttering their way through questions about the prime minister’s statements. There are long and sullen faces everywhere. Some in PTI circles are shaking their heads and whispering they had advised the prime minister to visit the mourners immediately. Their advice was dismissed.
The mourners will bury their dead soon. How can they — bludgeoned, bloodied and battered as they are — take on the prime minister of a nuclear-armed state? That’s right. So they will accept defeat against their own leader, shoulder the corpses, trudge along to the graveyard and lower their loved ones into the ground. They would have been taught a lesson by the government of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf: you cannot win against their powerful leader who has struggled for 22 years to gain power. Suitably chastened, they will bow their heads, stoop their shoulders, and head home. Then they will wait for the next round of slaughter.
But little do they know that they are not the ones who have been defeated on Friday. Little do they know that they are not the ones who should bow their heads, stoop their shoulders and walk back broken, battered and bludgeoned.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, January 9th, 2021