Friday Mar 27 2020

A tale of two captains

Prime Minister Imran Khan admires CM Murad Ali Shah as an educated and capable leader, but has kept his distance due to political differences between the PPP and PTI.

This is a tale of two captains and how they have dealt with one of the biggest crises in Pakistan's history; an event which has truly shaken up the world. 

The ghostly 'coronavirus,' which spreads rapidly and has hit nearly 200 countries and counting, has already killed over 23,000 people and forced over 1.5 billion people into quarantine. 

In Pakistan alone, over 1,200 people have tested positive, and nine deaths have been recorded in the last one month.

On one side, we have Captain Imran Khan, the prime minister of Pakistan, who came into power on the back of a big reputation and a lot of hope. 

On the other, we have Captain Murad Ali Shah, Chief Minister of Sindh, who came to power burdened with the baggage of his party's decades of poor governance and corruption.

Despite their wildly different inheritances, in the last one month, it is the provincial captain who has surprised many, including his worst critics, in leading from the front during this crisis. His decisions have often been followed by others, including the 'baray Kaptaan' (senior captain). 

To be clear, it is a healthy competition, as both have good intentions for a common cause: i.e., to protect Pakistan from the coronavirus pandemic to the best of their ability.

Both captains are understandably worried, as they both know that if the world's most advanced and developed countries – with their well-equipped healthcare systems – can struggle under the strain of this crisis, Pakistan stands nowhere if the pandemic spreads here like it did in Italy, Iran, Spain, UK or USA.

They have each chosen their own way of handling the situation after they could not reach an early consensus. 

Team Khan's first and prompt decision to not allow Pakistanis who wanted to return from the Chinese city of Wuhan to do so turned out to be the right decision despite early criticism.

Likewise, in what became the first test for the provincial captain, Team Shah took immediate steps after the first test turned up positive in Sindh on Feb 26th. 

Murad Shah's quick decision-making and the way he engaged people across the board have earned him a special place. To this day, you will not find a dissenting voice even from the opposition because he has taken them on board as well.

Mutual respect

The two captains have gotten to know each other well ever since they first met in December 2018 during a meeting of the Council of Common Interests. The Prime Minister was quite pleased that Shah had come well prepared.

Their last close interaction before the coronavirus crisis was on the transfer of former Inspector General of Police (IGP) Sindh, Dr Kaleem Imam.

According to an unimpeachable source, one of the conversations between the two went like this: 

Shah: "Sir, it is the federal government which recommends three names [for the provincial police chief] and seeks the province's consent [over any one]." 

Khan:"Shah sb, it is you who have to work with the IGP. It would be better if you suggest the name and discuss it with [Secretary to the PM] Azam Khan." 

Although, the discussion and controversy over the transfer of the former IGP eventually stretched out over a few months, in the end the center accepted the name of Mushtaq Mehar, proposed by Sindh, as the new IGP.

Interestingly, on one occasion, when the PM was not sure whether to accept Mehar's name or not, it was Shah who reminded him that it was the prime minister himself who had promoted him from Grade-21 to Grade-22.

The coronavirus crisis

During the ongoing crisis, the Sindh government has emerged as the most aggressive, taking back-to-back initiatives and difficult decisions without dilly-dallying for too long. 

Chief Minister Shah has emerged as a strong and able leader, and his decisions – like the provincial lockdown and the suspension of intracity bus services – have been followed by other provinces, and even by the Centre.

One wonders why the prime minister, during this entire period, has avoided showing any appreciation for the Sindh government and its CM, even though he has clearly admired Shah's capabilities in the past. 

Fortunately, as the crisis deepens and a consensus on a countrywide 'lockdown' is more or less arrived at, they are now nearly on 'one page,' something which is good for Pakistan.

Taking the lead

This is perhaps for the first time in almost 12 years of the PPP's government in Sindh that the role played by its government has received appreciation from across the board. Steps taken by Shah and his team have been followed by all other provinces. 

It is also for the first time that the Sindh opposition is completely on board with the ruling party.

Shah's handling of the opposition has pleased rival politicians. From the Governor of Sindh, Dr Imran Ismail, to other PTI leaders, the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, the PML-N and the PML-F, he took all on board before announcing the lockdown.

The success of his outreach could well be one of the reasons why Sindh was able to take the lead in the fight. 

As one provincial opposition leader told me in a lighter vein, "It looks like both Mr [Asif Ali] Zardari and Ms Faryal Talpur are in self isolation and have allowed Shah to go forth on his own. And he has delivered well."

On the other hand, the federal government led by Prime Minister Imran Khan, with all its sincerity and good intentions, has delayed making some necessary decisions. Perhaps the prime minister has his own reasoning for doing so. 

Interestingly, the Punjab Chief Minister, Usman Buzdar, and his medical team have followed Sindh more closely than the centre and they have also remained directly in contact with CM Shah.

Politics getting in the way

Since the prime minister's political narrative clearly clashes with the PPP and the PML-N's, he has targeted both; including Sindh, despite his liking for Shah. 

Perhaps one thing which has kept the PM away from greater interaction with the Sindh CM are his serious differences with the PPP's top leadership, particularly former president Asif Ali Zardari.

The PM strongly believes that Sindh is the worst when it comes to cases of high-profile corruption and bad governance. He thinks that no matter how well-educated and decent Murad Ali Shah himself is, the decision-making remains in the hands of either Asif Ali Zardari or his sister, Ms Faryal Talpur, both of whom he despises. 

Thus, in the last 20 months, the relationship between the centre and Sindh has remained tense and the PM has kept his distance from the CM as well. 

On some occasions, the CM was not even invited during the PM's visit to Karachi, which is otherwise out of protocol as well.

A missed opportunity

The prime minister, as the captain of Pakistan, is now playing a proactive role in engaging all four provincial governments, something which is quite encouraging.

However, it was disappointing to see that the rare chance of bringing the national leadership on one page was missed when, during a multiparty conference called by National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser, the prime minister left the conversation after providing his views and did not wait to at least listen to the Leader of the Opposition Shehbaz Sharif and PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto. 

Angered by the snub, the two walked out of the meeting as well. 

This should not have happened. 

The PM could have waited and listened to their suggestions. The two should also have not walked out and instead, stayed back and registered their protest.

Yet, an opportunity for national unity was missed. 

It had always looked difficult that the PM would talk to Shehbaz and Bilawal, or any other key opposition leader for that matter. He, perhaps, want to go on on his own. 

However, he knows he cannot ignore Sindh for long, because, if nothing else, the CM Sindh has succeeded in making an impact on Pakistan.

What lies ahead?

There is every likelihood that Pakistan will, God willing, win this war against the coronavirus. The sooner, the better. 

When everything returns to normal, we will be in a better position to say whose decisions were right and who could have done what earlier.

What the PM needs to realize is the fact that the post-coronavirus challenge will be far more challenging, as its impact on our economy and social and political life will be immense. 

That moment will require difficult and even some unpopular decisions. They may not be possible without all parties and stakeholders being brought together on 'one page.'

Meanwhile, for the PPP leadership, there is but one lesson to learn: through good governance and by making the right decisions, the party can earn a good reputation after years of bad governance and serious charges of corruption.

The writer is a senior columnist and analyst at Geo, Jang and The News.

Twitter: @MazharAbbasGEO