RED ZONE FILES: Alone?

Published November 11, 2021
A traffic police officer salutes a car carrying Prime Minister Imran Khan as he leaves the Supreme Court following his court appearance in Islamabad on Wednesday. — AP
A traffic police officer salutes a car carrying Prime Minister Imran Khan as he leaves the Supreme Court following his court appearance in Islamabad on Wednesday. — AP

For nearly twenty-five minutes, the man in blue stood on the rostrum and faced the lordships’ ire. He had his back towards the packed hall as he gazed at the elevated bench in front of him and tried to respond to the unending barrage of queries and comments. It was a spectacle rare for even this hall — and it has seen its share of dramatic moments.

Prime Minister Imran Khan was in an awkward situation this Wednesday morning in Hall 1 of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. It was only two hours ago that the three-member bench led by Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmad had given orders to summon the chief executive of the country to his court to answer why his government had not taken action against those responsible for the security lapse which led to the tragic and heart-wrenching murder of schoolchildren in APS Peshawar six years ago. Complying with the summons, the PM had arrived at the court with a posse of ministers and was now standing facing the three judges with the attorney general by his side.

Today, however, the PM was finding it difficult to speak without being interrupted. Prime ministers are not used to such interruptions. But this was the top court of the land and here was the top judge of the top court and he was having little patience for the rhetorical flourishes that the PM is so fond of. The exchange was curt. And pointed. The judges were in no mood to be generous with their time and the PM had no choice but to fall within the discipline of questioning.

Of one thing there was little doubt: in a room jam-packed with lawyers, ministers, journalists and judges — the PM was alone.

But there is more to the loneliness than one hearing at the court. The last few weeks have seen a subtle change in the ambience of the Red Zone. Subtle it might be but miss it you cannot. Initially there was a hint of it. Among the PTI ministers and sundry parliamentarians a little less swagger, a little less hubris, and a lot less patronising sarcasm. Among them there was also visible — if you sensed it right — a smidgen of humility, a sliver of patience and, ah yes, a whiff of vulnerability. If you sniffed hard, you could smell the odour of repressed fear.

Editorial: Notification lessons

Since then, perception has begun to shape its own strange reality. This reality is now reflecting in numbers. Or a lack of them, to be more specific. Who could have thought that the Treasury benches would suffer back-to-back defeats on the floor of the National Assembly in a single day? Should these defeats be considered a debacle? Not really. Should they however be seen as reflective of the times that are upon the Red Zone? Well, possibly.

In fact, even probably. In a political landscape that weaves itself around the prevalent mood of the establishment, there are now shifting sands of interpretation that are making their own dunes even as they flatten the earlier ones. And just like that, a mighty government is transforming into a beleaguered one. If there is a mortal danger hiding across the hill, it is not ready to show itself. But the echo of growls and snarls is unmistakable.

The joint session of parliament summoned for today (Thursday) was supposed to be the PTI government’s defiant answer to these growls and snarls. It was meant to re-stamp the government’s numerical authority and communicate to all those interested to listen that all was, in fact, rather well, thank you very much. As per plan, the prime minister addressed his members on Wednesday to get them primed for the joint session. General Maximus Decimus Meridius cantering around his troops just before the battle and shouting ‘what you do here echoes in eternity’ or some such thing. Except this battle got put off after the motivational address. It was a stunning climb-down.

What happened?

The answer, it so happens, is another piece of a puzzle that is falling into place. And on Wednesday, just like on Tuesday, it were the numbers — those darn pesky numbers that just so adamantly refuse to add up. The information minister tried to put a valiant spin to the last-minute postponement of the joint session by tweeting that the government wanted to give the opposition more time to discuss the electoral reforms that were expected to be voted on, but the spin could not hide the real issue: the government realised, to its horror, that it may face another defeat in the joint session. This would have been an absolute debacle.

The government has a majority. So where did the numbers go?

Something curious is happening. You can try to put a finger on it, but actually, you really can’t. It’s nebulous. It’s fluid. And it’s mutating by the hour. On the surface it is about the lack of consensus on the electronic voting machines and the coalition allies saying they remain unconvinced. Yes true, but that’s not the whole picture. At play is a growing perception that the walls are slowly closing in. The valiant hero is swinging his axe mightily as his warriors alongside him are felled one by one. The enemy is tightening the circle step by one menacing step. The hero cuts down one assailant after another, but his arms are aching, his shoulders stooping, his legs wobbling. There is a limit to human endurance.

This limit may not have been reached. Yet. But the list of declared enemies is getting longer and longer. There’s the election commission which is now seen as part of the enemy lineup. There’s the opposition that has suddenly found its voice and even its feet. There’s the citizenry ravaged by the economic downturn and vicious inflation. Then there’s the establishment that too has been grieved for no real reason. All that the government is left with is its core team, its non-core electables, and its coalition allies. The core will fight till the end. The core will.

The battle rages on yet. The tide has not turned yet. But something is in the air and it is whispering danger. Inside the Red Zone men and women of the government are speaking in hushed tones in quiet corners and attempting to figure out who among them is meeting people in dark alleys. Dread is curling its way into the capital like a silent fog.

The PTI government needs to claw back control of the city before the fog gets thicker. But every day brings new conflicts, new disagreements and new signs of non-page-ness. Who removed retired general Bilal Akbar as ambassador to Saudi Arabia only a few months into his job? And for what reason? There’s frustration in quarters. Who appointed former AJK president Masood Khan as ambassador to the US? And why weren’t relevant people taken on board? There’s frustration in quarters. And on and on these pinpricks go. A stitch in time should have saved nine. It didn’t.

There is still time. But not much.

Published in Dawn, November 11th, 2021

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