A mess made by arrogance
NO one should be surprised. Mian Nawaz Sharif has a well-honed talent for shooting himself in the foot. With the PIA privatisation fiasco he and his closest advisers have done it again, turning a manageable affair into a full-blown crisis. True, PIA, once a symbol of pride, had become one of the nation's biggest white elephants. There was not much public sympathy for it - for its declining standards and for being a burden on the public purse. But hand it to this government and its management skills that in the space of a morning it swung public sympathy in favour of the workers. Its hamhanded tactics have also ensured the success of the PIA strike. To begin with there was unrest only in Karachi with pilots still flying and stations like Lahore and Islamabad unaffected. But when shots were fired and two striking workers lay dead on the pavement, with several more injured, everything changed. The strike spread and flights were grounded as pilots joined the strikers.
There are prizes for idiocy here and they go to two knights: 1) the information minister, Pervaiz Rashid, who with his usual gift for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time declared a day before the strike that those taking part in it would have their wings cut and face the treatment reserved for thieves when they break into a house; and 2) the Rangers pushed by God knows who to take up policing duties outside Karachi airport. As Ranger jawans were seen on TV screens swinging their sticks over the heads of protesters, much of the gratitude and goodwill earned by the force for restoring peace in Karachi seemed to be going down the drain. The Rangers are now protesting furiously that they were not the ones to fire at the protesters. But the question to ask the DG Rangers, Maj Gen Bilal Akbar, now quite a public figure in Karachi because of his frequent media appearances: what pushed him into this mess? And if he had to go in why couldn't his jawans have conducted themselves with greater poise instead of behaving in a manner more suited to the Punjab Police when it is in one of its crazed moods, usually against the weak and defenceless?
Whatever the Maj Gen now says they must be wringing their hands at Ranger HQs. Let no one be surprised if elements at the receiving end of the Karachi operation rejoice at this outcome. The Sindh government has given a further 90-day extension to the Rangers in Karachi. This no longer matters as much as it would have in other circumstances. The Rangers have their powers on paper. But their ability to conduct future operations in Karachi has been seriously undermined by these events. Does the PML-N realise the soup it has got itself into? Before this affair it stood on top of the political situation with nothing to oppose it. There were those who were already saying that it was on course to win the next elections - in 2018 - and rule Pakistan for another seven years. Sometimes even a day is a long time in politics. On the evening before the strike there was not a cloud on the PML-N's horizon. By next morning when two people lay dead in Karachi it was a different horizon. The government is here and it is staying and not about to go. But its image has been battered and its competence, never a strong suit, called into question once more.
Opposition parties which had nothing to hold on to are sensing their opportunity and seizing upon the PIA strike as something with which to hit the government. And the government far from being alive to the danger has been slow to react. It seems to be sulking, as if to say…how dare they do this? If Pervaiz Rashid was doing what comes best to him, the gusto for the misjudged statement, the prime minister should have been more accommodating and flexible. At least he should have given this impression. But he has been as intransigent as his information minister. If the threats, open and veiled, had worked it would have been a different matter. If the charged stick of the Essential Services Act had worked again matters would have stood differently. But these tactics have badly backfired, securing the unity of PIA workers which earlier wasn't there and giving an opportunity to Imran Khan and others to seize upon this mess and make of it what they can. It's all of a piece and fits in neatly with the PML-N's past. Left to itself the PML-N has not shown much talent for governing, even if there's no denying the fact that Nawaz Sharif is the luckiest political figure in Pakistan's history. Bigger and better leaders with more going for them have fallen by the wayside or been destroyed by circumstances. He has prospered and so has his party…but not by ability, which is an important point to note. Call it the alignment of the stars or the power of sheer luck. Benazir Bhutto had the PML-N on the run in her second turn as prime minister.