WHEN Sheikh Rashid is at a loss for words, you know we are in trouble.
The voluble interior minister is a picture of dismay and distress. As the Tehreek-i-Labbaik marches on towards the federal capital, the good Sheikh’s personae is experiencing a slow but steady process of meltdown. Within him, he is carrying the weight not just of his lofty office, but also of his government’s multifarious contradictions. The man needs a break.
That’s a break he will not get. Not at least till the TLP decides to abandon its plans to reach Islamabad and trace its steps back to Lahore. For that to happen, someone other than the good Sheikh will need to take centre stage. The bad news is that the Sheikh is already wearing the look of a defeated man. The good news is that someone other than him has taken charge. When in doubt, dial the establishment.
This is where the TLP episode slams into the larger political context of the day like an asteroid hurtling down from the skies.
The chicken aren’t really so chicken when they brandish weapons, and the roost isn’t really the roost when it’s the federal capital.
Prime Minister Imran Khan chaired a meeting of the National Security Committee on Wednesday in order to hone a policy on the TLP challenge. The participants — many of whom were weighed down by the brass on their shoulders — also included those who should be weighed down by the irony of the situation. Here was the highest security forum of the nation deliberating not on the evolving difficulties in Afghanistan, or the fresh provocations from India, or even the deep stratagems of nuclear deterrence — not so at all, the august forum was embroiled in dealing with a threat that should, in fact, have not been a threat had it not been made into one for reasons that had little to do with national security.
The tough talk that emanated after the NSC meeting was unwittingly haunted by the paradox of the past. Here were gentlemen who were only a few years back egging on the TLP to pile pressure on the then government; people who had milked the situation back then for partisan brinkmanship knowing full well the damage it would do to — yes, irony galore — the writ of the state. Unless this writ has mutated into something alien in the last few years, it was the same one then that they were willing to barter for, that today they are dying to uphold.
But uphold with what? Words that cut through the soul? Or weapons that cut through the flesh? The information minister said on Wednesday the government would go to any extent to stop the TLP from taking the law into its hands. Really? What extent? And at what cost? The enforcement arm of the government — the police — has already failed to establish the much-touted writ of the state. The police can of course go to “any extent” as the bombastic ministers keep on reminding us, but it will not. Never. The Model Town tragedy is still fresh in the minds of these policemen. Their ‘full extent’ has been reduced to baton-charge and shelling because these policemen know full well that if they go to the extent that their ministers are threatening the TLP with, it will be the policemen who will, at the end, be made to pay for the extent that they were told to go for.
So who will then establish the writ of the state that the information minister promised? The Rangers? Ah, now that is an intriguing proposition if ever there was one. If the TLP refuse to accept the government’s terms, and if they reject the government’s offers, and if they turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the pleadings of various other officials, will the prime minister, or the interior and information ministers, or the Punjab chief minister, give the orders for the Rangers to go the “full extent”? Do they have what it takes to do this?
The PML-N government did not. It could not. It preferred to throw its own ministers under the bus rather than go the full extent to establish the writ of the state. The TLP took its pound of flesh, and returned triumphantly. Oh, of course they also got cash for their return fare from members of the state whose writ they had successfully violated. The paradox of the past often makes a mockery of the present.
Which is why the ministers seem oblivious to the fact that the irony of the situation is mocking them more than the TLP is. One look at the exalted NSC meeting is enough to drive home this bitter point. You manufacture an entity, boost its stature, weaponise its rhetoric, politicise its ideology, turbo-charge its appeal, enhance its electoral muscle and then use it like a cleaver against your political opponent. Mission accomplished. Except not really. The chickens decide to come home to roost.
The idioms and metaphors then start to wreak havoc. The chicken aren’t really so chicken when they brandish weapons, and the roost isn’t really the roost when it’s the federal capital. Lacerated by the whiplash of their own past statements, and mauled by the claws of their devious positions, the decision-makers today cut a sorry figure. Battling one’s own hubris is never easy.
The TLP marchers will stop at some point. They will also return at some point. But they will extract a cost. Perhaps they already have. Today the state cuts a sorry figure, the government an even sorrier one. But the nation? It’s a laughing stock wrestling with itself at a time of great regional turmoil. Those donning the mandate, and those donning the brass, there they sit around that large rectangular table grappling with the absurdity of the situation created by the reckless use of unrestrained power and fanned by the myopic pursuit of it by those ill-equipped to wield it.
And yet, we never learn. The interior minister is a defeated man today, but is he a chastened one? The answer may be writ large on GT Road.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, October 30th, 2021