Thou shalt not

This country’s future does not depend on one man or one political party.

Muhammad Ali Ehsan April 26, 2020
The writer is a member faculty of contemporary studies at NDU Islamabad and can be reached at

‘Thou shalt not’ is the initial phrase used in the King James Version of the Bible for most of the Ten Commandments but under the current ‘Corona Crisis’ our governments ‘Thou shalt not’ for us remains very unclear and confusing. Evolving from a complete lockdown to a partial lockdown and now down to a smart lockdown, the overall strategy to fight coronavirus seems to be moving in the right direction. But it is not the grand strategy to fight the virus that the people have a problem with. The problem is with the different components of the strategy — the diverse and dissimilar ‘thou shalt not’ that they are being commanded to obey by both the Centre and the provinces (more precisely federal government and the province of Sindh).

Whether it is the subject of the opening of the small businesses, assembly of congressional prayers or extension of relief to people through Ehsaas programme, all good intentions seem to be marred by false propaganda and politics. The general impression that people sitting at home get is that both Centre and Sindh are engaged in this grand clash of ‘supremacy of ideas’ to justify that they are the ones that propagate the right strategy to combat the coronavirus. It seems the battle is not more about how to fight and defeat the virus but how to prove that the strategy employed by the other side is wrong.

While the public is concerned with true facts about the coronavirus and how to fight against it, all that politics is doing is sharing with the public conflicting provincial and federal interpretations. This not only makes the joint fight against the virus a joke but also clearly signals the lack of any joint strategy to combat the disease. Coronavirus is a harsh reality and an undeniable truth. ‘Personal interpretations’ no matter coming from where can only be described as ideas and they should not suffer from political self-supremacy — whether coming from the federal government in Islamabad or the provincial government in Sindh.

Giving the public their version of ‘thou shalt not’ the doctors in Karachi a couple of days back held a press conference and warned the people that “relaxation in lockdown will cause a spike in the coronavirus cases in the country”. They also asked for “ban on congressional prayers” otherwise warning that “the virus could spread rapidly next week”. This ‘thou shalt not’ coming from the Sindh province was immediately set aside by the spokesperson for the Centre calling it a ‘politically motivated’ framed activity. If this was not enough, within 12 hours of the doctors’ presser in Karachi, our Prime Minister came on the national television to give his version of ‘thy shalt not’ during the fund-raising ‘Ehsaas Telethon’ explaining that the way out now is ‘smart lockdown’ with the small businesses and shops to open up and no more remain locked down.

In the coronavirus gifted environment, politics today seems to be impersonating wisdom. People are confused and don’t know whom to look up to. While they are interested in truth, all they are being subjected to is politics of ‘personal interpretations ’on coronavirus. In the middle of this confusion, a sane voice spoke about the ‘failure of leadership’. It also said that it is not the time for ‘populous electoral politics’. The sane voice was of PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. But my question to the chairman is — has the leadership failed today?

Bilawal Bhutto is very fond of asserting that “democracy is the best revenge” but in Pakistan democracy has meant more corruption. Under the watchful eyes of the outgoing rulers it was allowed to spread from the executive branch to the legislature to the state institutions and judiciary to the local governments and even media. If this was not enough, the 18th amendment decentralised the federal budget to the provinces and opened up new avenues and opportunities for leaders to utilise public money and do whatever they wanted with it unchecked and unsupervised by the federal agencies. Massive scandals implicating provincial authorities have been unearthed today. That actually was the failure of political leadership that let this country down.

In today’s coronavirus-troubled environment, the leadership has to be very patient in formulating a strategy but once a decision is taken political leadership has to be ruthless in executing and implementing that decision. No political decisions in this corona-infested environment can be made that only responds to the public sentiments. Political leadership that reconciles to a political end based on public sentiments alone will most definitely fail. This is time to shape instead of being shaped by a trend of confused public sentiments.

The redeemer of the political and economic system, the one who shook up the political status quo that was in place does not have to act as a polarising figure. He should not be viewed as a ‘divider’. Showing good political grace and yet not compromising on his stand on corruption, the Prime Minister must extend an invitation to the chairman of PPP for a meeting. This because the people cannot afford to have two kinds of ‘thou shalt not’. Pakistan cannot afford to have erratic and contradictory policies to fight the virus. The general impression that the people are getting is that both the Centre and the province of Sindh are engaged more in politics rather than agreeing on a broad-based policy to fight the virus and provide them with necessary relief.

I would appeal to all the holders of political wisdom to play their role in convincing the Prime Minister to extend an invitation to PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto for a meeting to formulate a joint strategy in how to address the fight against the virus.

Such a meeting would not only lower the bar of political stubbornness most frequently associated with our Prime Minister but also provide an opportunity to a young leader to have his political worth not only recognised but appreciated.

This country’s future does not depend on one man or one political party. If today our bodies need immunity to fight the virus then today our political culture also demands an immunity and exemption from Prime Minister’s longstanding vouch of not sharing a political couch with the outgoing rulers. Only when this happens that we will have one set of ‘thou shalt not’ and maybe a unified strategy to fight the virus.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 26th, 2020.

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