PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan is visibly unhappy about the lockdown measures in place to control the spread of Covid-19 in the country. He expressed his reservations at a recent event when he said that the decision to impose the lockdown was taken by the “elite without thinking of the poor”.
During a speech that largely targeted the ruling elite of the past for its apathy towards development, he turned his attention to the present lockdown and its adverse impact on daily wagers. In an attempt to illustrate his earlier point that selfish rulers have brought misery to the common person, he railed against ‘rich people’ for being responsible for the lockdown. The remarks are baffling. Who exactly is the unidentified elite he is referring to and why is the prime minister undermining a decision ostensibly made by the very administration he heads?
It is no secret that Mr Khan along with some prominent voices in his party harbour a disdain for the ‘elite’. The word has become a common political epithet invoked by the PTI to deride political opponents from dynastic political parties and also the rich in the country who ‘take but don’t give’.
Yet what is ironic about the refrain is that Mr Khan and many members of his party — which includes private jet owners and more than one affluent businessman — don’t see themselves as part of this elite. Given the premier’s past and present privileges and that he is the head of the government of the day, such posturing is misplaced.
The fact is that Mr Khan’s party is in power and not just a cog in the wheel of the government machinery — he is in the driving seat. Even if he feels the lockdown was ‘imposed’ on him when Sindh took the lead, the fact remains that it was also adopted by the other provinces and eventually backed by the government — which made the right decision, albeit belatedly. Ironically, Mr Khan on multiple occasions in the past month has even taken credit for the government’s lockdown resulting in lower than projected infection and death rates.
The premier’s criticism betrays an inner conflict and confusion as regards the coronavirus strategy. Mr Khan must be clear about the government’s approach to tackling Covid-19 as it is far from over.
Infection and death rates for Pakistan may not be as dire as they are in other countries, but they are certainly not good and continue to climb. Health ministry data suggests that over 150,000 people will be infected with the virus by May 30. In this situation, the prime minister would be well advised to focus on how targeted relief can be provided to those worst affected by lockdowns if a further extension is needed after May 9. Mixed signals will unnecessarily befuddle the nation as it confronts an unprecedented healthcare crisis.
IN SPITE of all its efforts, the government appears to have failed to convince the opposition to back its proposal for holding a ‘virtual parliamentary session’ as it is not safe to meet in person for a routine sitting because of the clear and present danger of Covid-19. The opposition is insisting on holding a session where members are physically present; it argues that the Constitution does not provide for virtual sessions, and wants the government to make arrangements in the house to ensure social distancing instead of insisting on videoconferencing. With the National Assembly yet to meet for another 58 days to complete the mandated 130 days sitting for the current year, and with the budget session just around the corner, both sides need to take a step back from their stated positions and find a middle ground soon.
Pakistan would not be the first country to organise a virtual parliamentary session through a video link. Canada has recently experimented with the idea quite successfully despite some glitches. If our parliamentarians are not inclined to follow the Canadian example, they may have something to learn from the UK where the House of Commons held a ‘hybrid session’ recently. For the first time in its 700-year history, 120 members of the House of Commons participated in the session via videoconferencing, restricting the number of MPs present in the chamber at any time to 50. The remaining 480 MPs were given access to the live session through parliament’s website. It should not be difficult for Pakistani politicians to agree to hold a similar hybrid sitting. Each party could ask a third of their members to be present in the house with the remaining politicians participating in the proceedings remotely through videoconferencing. Indeed, this arrangement will not be flawless and many who would want to speak their mind may not be able to express their views on issues to be debated, or intervene as they do during routine sittings. Yet this kind of arrangement should help organise future sittings for some time to come, without fear of anyone catching the infection. With the Speaker of the National Assembly already quarantined along with his family after contracting Covid-19, it is advisable for opposition parliamentarians to realise the seriousness of the situation and agree to this kind of hybrid arrangement in the larger interest of all lawmakers.
Two unscripted exits
POPULAR movie actors Irrfan Khan and Rishi Kapoor made unscripted exits this week in Mumbai, each succumbing to a stoic battle with cancer. The outpouring of grief from across the seas marked a catharsis not only for the loss on two consecutive days of the much-loved men, but also for the quickened waning of the idea of inclusion and diversity they symbolised and enacted in a range of roles. Kapoor (67) and Khan (53) cultivated different approaches to the cinema and both were capable of producing a surprise trick in their repertoire with disarming ease. Ideologically, they defied the narrow prism of cultural nationalism and struck an easy rapport with picky audiences in Pakistan.
Kapoor expressed this perspective early on in Henna, a cross-border love story he did with Zeba Bakhtiyar. Khan played one of his more memorable roles with Saba Qamar in Hindi Medium, a sharp comment on class snobbery injected into unsuspecting schoolchildren, a scourge that thrives in both India and Pakistan. Kapoor was a flamboyant hero, mostly, singing amazing songs and wooing young hearts. Khan hardly ever needed to sing in his movies. His expressive eyes, cultured voice and body language did the work for him. Khan benefited greatly from rigorous training at Delhi’s National School of Drama, the iconic theatre institution that has produced actors of the calibre of Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri. Kapoor was born into a clan of movie legends, beginning with his grandfather Prithviraj Kapoor who started his career in the silent-era movies of the 1920s. Khan worked his way through a hard struggle, toggling between theatre and TV before embracing the tinsel town. His grooming in theatre spurred his cross-over with ease into Hollywood, where he was applauded for all-round acting abilities in well-regarded movies, including Life of Pi. Rishi Kapoor and Irrfan Khan have left a void at a time when the dreams and reveries they helped conjure for millions of fans were more needed than ever before.