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November 17, 2019

Health of the nation


November 17, 2019

It is a matter of life and death. We have heard this fearsome expression a number of times during the past two weeks, after the Islamabad High Court suspended Nawaz Sharif’s sentence on medical grounds. And two weeks is a very long time when it comes to a medical emergency. Yet, the matter of the former prime minister’s travel abroad for treatment was dragged until now.

When Nawaz Sharif’s predicament is viewed in a larger perspective, it becomes evident that it is not just the health of a major political party leader that is in a precarious condition. Also very sick is the Pakistani society and its political system. Essentially, the present arrangement is in an extremely poor state of health.

In that sense, Nawaz Sharif’s condition has become a parable for this dangerous political moment. There is widespread mystification about what has happened to him. In fact, it is the inability of the physicians to properly diagnose the ailment that calls for his treatment in a hospital that has the required facilities.

It was the issue of the indemnity bond that the Sharif family was asked to provide to enable the patient to travel abroad that has exposed a major fault line in our politics. At one level, it is the continuing battle of two narratives, overlapping a lethal polarisation that Imran Khan’s PTI has fostered with great fervour.

Meanwhile, of course, Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s ‘Azadi March’ has departed from Islamabad after an impressive ‘dharna’ of thirteen days. Now his Plan B is in operation, with the blockade of key highways. Irrespective of how one would judge its impact, the protest continues and is likely to have its consequences.

We may look at it as another symptom of what ails Pakistan. Why is it that only a religious political party is capable of staging such a powerful and organised ‘march’ when its following, calculated in votes secured in the general elections, is not so impressive?

As I said, this is a dangerous political moment because so many different story-lines and movements, including some that are hard to decipher, are coming together. Many of these, such as the unfolding saga of Nawaz Sharif’s health, are bound to be consequential. Perhaps the most momentous is the condition of the proverbial common man who is struggling to survive in very adverse circumstances.

Sadly, the high functionaries of the present government do not seem much concerned about the fate of the poor and the oppressed masses of this sick country. One measure of this disdain for the sufferings of the ordinary people is the statements made by the leading ministers of Imran Khan. A careful analysis of what they constantly talk about in their encounters with the media should serve as another symptom of the disease our present system is suffering from.

Come to think of it, the players that the ‘kaptaan’ has assembled for his political game themselves project a pathological condition. Apparently, there is a method to their vitriolic attacks on their adversaries, invoking the spectre of corruption. That is how they have projected Nawaz Sharif, and seek to settle their score even when he is so unwell.

Remember how Imran Khan always prided himself for selecting the right people – or players? That is how the present chief minister of Punjab was chosen. But the batting line he has at the centre is a treat to watch, in an inverted sense. There, for instance, is Firdaus Ashiq Awan who, despite being the media mandarin, does not know what overexposure can do to your message.

What is alarming, in the context of the serious business that governance is supposed to be, is the idiom used by many ministers. In normal times, it would seem impossible for a federal minister to get away with saying what Faisal Vawda has said a number of times. But these are not normal times. Our politics is deeply infected by viruses that are not easy to identify.

Imran Khan and his party’s campaign in the name of corruption that relates to only some politicians is beginning to lose its efficacy. On the question of allowing Nawaz Sharif to go abroad without asking for the bond, some allies of the PTI have expressed their reservations.

Very significant is the stance now being taken by the Chaudhrys of the PML-Q, an important part of the ruling coalition. Chaudhry Shujaat, while advising Imran Khan to not take a position that may become an eternal mark of shame for him, has said something that deserves serious attention.

He warned, in the words of a report published in this newspaper on Friday, “that no one would be prepared to become prime minister of the country after three months at the face of rampant dearness and unemployment in the country since the salaried class is dying due to prevalent phenomenon”.

The truth of this observation should be present to all of us. Any casual encounter with the reality that exists on the ground can be heart-breaking. This week, the price of tomatoes has served to illustrate the inflation that has hurt even the middle-class citizens.

Ah, the tomato. An epic story, worth of a Cervantes or a Garcia Marquez, can be woven around this lovely vegetable that aspires to be a fruit. Yes, I am alluding to the remark that was made by Hafeez Shaikh, our IMF-certified wizard. The clip in which he clearly said that the price of tomatoes in the Karachi ‘sabzi mandi’ was Rs17 for a kilo has yielded a harvest of jokes, comments and cartoons.

But what on earth did he mean? Was this a slip that was somehow symptomatic of a monumental confusion about facts and figures? After all, he is such a sober, respected and clever economist. In any case, those who wanted to buy tomatoes were not laughing, unless they are beginning to lose their mind.

The writer is a senior journalist.

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