If the Punjab government wanted popular violence to register its opposition to the PPP, it has got more than the measure it perhaps, desired. In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP), the incumbent ANP is under pressure from mobs gone berserk as outage went up to 20 hours in rural areas and Fata. In Punjab, after the mobs had their fill, public opinion swung more in favour of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf; in KP the mood could have swung to the Taliban as democracy’s alternative.
Public and private property was damaged or burned as the mobs, spearheaded by teen and pre-teen youths, went on a spree of destruction. Wapda installations were destroyed, which may actually further complicate the crisis: vandalism became the new creed for a generation that will make Pakistan even more ungovernable in the coming days.
In Punjab, the shortfall of 5,139 megawatts trashed the federal government’s pledge that there will be no loadshedding during sehri and iftar. Multan, otherwise inclined in favour of the PPP, erupted in destructive violence, urchins hitting the streets and putting everything in sight to the torch, including vehicles and eventually burning the Multan Electricity Supply Corporation (Mepco) offices. Mepco estimated the losses at Rs500,000, counting also the items the crowd stole.
There was no water to drink after the long outage, which provoked the mob to more felony regardless of the pieties of the holy month of fasting. Close to Lahore, Muridke saw 300 mobsters burn tyres and chant slogans against the government. They headed towards the Shamka grid station where the police tried to stop them in vain. They ignored the baton charge and vandalised the station as well as a police van. On Ferozpur Road, mobs blocked the traffic for hours in protest.
The tragic breakdown of civilised behaviour spread to Faisalabad, where the crowd besieged the Faisalabad Electricity Supply Corporation grid station, pelted stones and chanted slogans. Some of them were from a neighbouring suburb and had endured a 24-hour outage. Shockingly, in Attock, bordering KP, ‘journalists decided to launch an indefinite but peaceful protest against loadshedding’. Shocking, because this is what the Punjab government should have encouraged. In India, where loadshedding spread to seven states on July 29, this was what the citizens did.
There is politics in this anti-loadshedding protest. No doubt the common man is at the end of his patience and will be inclined to violent acts but not to the extent it is happening today. The crowds that come out are not the most educated lot, which means our ramshackle system of education has let us down, but the abandon and righteousness with which they attack public and private property is bordering on the criminal. MNAs and MPAs come on TV and harangue the citizenry against one another’s parties and raise the temperature. The mob almost expects to see themselves on the TV screen ‘teaching the government a lesson’.
The drama unfolds in the provinces while the federal government is deemed responsible. The politician in the opposition wants early elections and wants the PPP government on its knees, agreeing to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections. The chief minister of Punjab says that he has sympathy for the suffering masses of his province and has even joined a march or two. This has unleashed a change in the collective behaviour of his voters. He, perhaps, doesn’t realise how much damage his strategy is doing to his own constituency. If one glances at the spectacle of negative coverage by TV channels, he is getting flak from his ‘beloved’ masses equally with the PPP.
Like everything else, loadshedding, too, is being politicised, including the strategy of going to the Supreme Court with puny points of law. It will come to no good. The stock of the protest-supporting PML-N is down too. It may have shot itself in the foot but it has also done permanent damage by habituating the next generation of citizens to outlawed behaviour.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 31st, 2012.