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January 19, 2020

Boot on the table


January 19, 2020

There is this frozen image of Faisal Vawda holding the combat boot that he has put on the table during a television talk show. Grabbed from a video, this image will stay in your memory. It is usually a still photograph that tells a moving story. And worth how many thousands of words is this portrayal of a brash, young warrior of Imran Khan?

I concede that this potentially scandalous story of the week has already been covered so exhaustively and has unleashed such a torrent of headlines and comments that its topicality now seems faded. That is how a week can be a long time in politics.

It was only on Tuesday evening that the honourable federal minister brought out a boot from his bag and put it on the table to make a point that has not yet been fully deciphered. But the act in itself was so dramatic and sensational that, to use that idiom, all hell broke loose.

Incidentally, a collection of all the irreverent comments and jokes that the incident has sparked in social media and private conversations would be of immense interest for the practitioners and students of Pakistan’s politics. A compilation of this kind, of course, is not possible.

However, I think that the image of Faisal Vawda holding that boot, with that wicked look on his face, is a document that should be kept for the future historians of Pakistan’s politics in these tumultuous times. Imagine a lecture hall in a prestigious university in a somewhat distant future where the professor projects this image on a huge screen and invites comments from his students, who would hopefully be allowed free expression.

This flight of fancy, I confess, is prompted by my interest in how a number of iconic photographs have illustrated different phases of history in modern times. I recall a quotation that said that still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world.

It should be possible for you to summon up a few of those pictures that have preserved the terror of war or the great moments of glory. I can cite many examples but that would be a distraction. Besides, I am not suggesting that the image I have invoked at the outset, Faisal Vawda with the boot on the table, belongs in that gallery.

Still, the point I am making is that if we make an album of this specific period, with the purpose of telling the story in still photographs, then this image must be included in it. We do feel that it says a lot more than what has been explained or understood.

By the way, it would be an interesting exercise to select other images that would portray the state of Pakistan’s politics and society at this time. We may all have our own selection, dictated by our personal political and ideological biases. Or would you want Imran Khan to form a committee to do this?

And yes, one photograph that got the attention of the prime minister this week was of the ailing Nawaz Sharif sitting with his family in a restaurant in London. It does not matter that Nawaz Sharif is not facing the camera. Questions have been raised about the seriousness of the former prime minister’s illness that had necessitated his departure for London for treatment.

However, questions that are raised by Faisal Vawda’s performance in a live television show are even more intriguing. We have to be mindful of what he said and what he seemed to have meant. On the face of it, his boss, the prime minister, would totally disapprove of this behaviour, particularly because of its possible interpretations.

There was, though, no immediate response from Imran Khan. It took some time for him to convey the message that the federal minister was banned from appearing on television for two weeks, after Pemra had announced its abortive 60-day ban on the talk show and its host. This means that the viewers of our talk shows will have to bear a short absence of one of the more colourful and characteristically bizarre panellists.

It is unlikely that our news channels and the hosts of the talk shows will find time to evaluate their choice of guests on their shows and the topics on which these guests are asked to pontificate. This, in fact, is a serious matter that the boot incident should also raise.

Why, for heaven’s sake, should Faisal Vawda be invited to a talk show in the first place, given the absurdity of his previous utterances on television? This is something that would baffle a future historian of our media.

The ultimate irony here is that this person is the federal minister of water resources, a very important portfolio that deserves serious and conscientious attention. Yet, I have never heard him speak about water resources. One wonders what qualifications and experience he has brought to the assignment given to him by a person who untiringly talks about merit and performance.

At another level, though, Faisal Vawda merits media attention. He is a character in his own right, including as the caricature of a politician. How he has earned his fortune would also be a tale to be told. We have repeatedly seen his clips. Not too long ago, he promised more jobs than there are applicants.

He has his own prescription to sort out the problem of corruption in our society. Execute around five thousand people or better still, first drag them on the streets and then execute them. And he is still invited to talk shows and remains in the federal cabinet.

But the focus should not be restricted to him when we look at the boot episode. It may serve as a window on the entire scene where power games are being played. Since our knowledge of all this is very restricted, we may leave it for a future historian. Or for that professor of political science, ten or twenty years from now.

The writer is a senior journalist.

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