COVID-19 is getting on everyone’s nerves. Mercifully, no one is gloating over what is happening to arch-enemy India, knowing full well that if the infection hits us with the same ferocity we too will be in the soup. Having said that, if there is anything this government is handling well, it is Covid through the NCOC led by Asad Umar and Dr Faisal Sultan. The government is on top of the statistics that are being released in a timely fashion; adjustment in policy is being done in real time; the public is kept aware of vaccine supply even though no one took the initiative of buying the vaccine in time — surely impacted more by fear of NAB than lack of resources.
Vaccination arrangements have won the people’s hearts. They are wondering why the government can’t be as efficient in other sectors. One example is the interior ministry’s handling of the TLP episode. The government signed an agreement with the TLP in November 2020 to prevent a march on Islamabad. The main point of the agreement was that the government promised to take the issue of the expulsion of the French ambassador to parliament within three months (by Feb 17).
The interior ministry, which, it appears, is being run through press conferences, chose to ignore the deadline, perhaps out of over-confidence or casualness, leaving the TLP with no choice but to launch another campaign (any leadership has to ensure its credibility), which severely disrupted life, forcing the government to divert from more important matters to take on the party.
The government signed another agreement to ease pressure saying they would take the matter to parliament by April 20. As the date approached, the TLP saw no action and again started agitating. The government’s response went from one of total inaction to overaction. They proscribed the TLP under the law, bringing them to the level of the TTP and IS.
The government has set a bad precedent in its handling of TLP.
Now TLP protesters may look physically like members of the TTP, but this is an outfit which became a serious political party with elected members in parliament, and was being wooed by major political parties. All the government had to do was to take the matter of expulsion to parliament in time and manoeuvre to have it rejected.
Whether one likes it or not, the TLP got 2.1 million votes in the last election and was the fifth biggest party. You can’t casually declare a legitimately registered political party a terrorist group and hope to solve the problem. The interior ministry’s action is identical to the response of a typical SHO, who in cavalier fashion, and often in return for money, adds provisions of the Anti-Terrorism Act even to an offence as innocuous as a brawl.
To add insult to injury, the government went into negotiations with the banned party to get released policemen held hostage and in return freed hundreds of TLP ‘terrorists’. If a government negotiates with a party immediately after banning them for being terrorists, it is doubtful they can make a greater mockery of governance.
The most effective media these days is the social media. It was humbling to see a young army officer pleading with the TLP mob in Karachi requesting it to allow traffic to flow. Only 20 years back, this was the task of the magistrate — who was disenfranchised by Gen Musharraf’s reforms in the name of separation of the judiciary and executive.
In the same vein, the move to call in the army recently to make the public follow Covid SOPs may have some short-term benefits but is a bad governance precedent. It is like using a cannon to kill a fly. The army is the defender of last resort. On the other hand, we have been gradually lowering our threshold in using the army — from checking electricity meters and ghost schools, to having them supervise by-elections to now disciplining the people to make them wear masks.
The role of the army in aid of civil power is either in terms of their physical and logistic abilities including help during a national calamity such as floods, or fighting dangerous terrorists in unfriendly terrains. Their main strength is not firepower against civilians, but shock and awe.
A clip from India doing the rounds showed a district magistrate, along with a posse of policemen, instil the fear of God in those not following SOPs announced under legal authority by giving a few whacks on the back and a bit of a tongue-lashing. I am sure the clip was ‘released’ intentionally to instil the fear of the state and of being shamed. Since we don’t have a district magistrate in Pakistan anymore, the only option available to us is to call in the army.
Also, without the erstwhile buffer of the magistrate between the police and the mob, you get to see pathetic scenes of police bashing that we saw this time.
Our deputy commissioners without magisterial powers are reduced to taking on a role where they check prices; they have become the government’s main weapons against inflation. They would be more effective reporting to the finance ministry now.
The writer is a former civil servant.
Published in Dawn, May 11th, 2021