Nitish Kumar at the Karachi airport lounge
Karachi, Nov. 9: The red carpet rolled out for Nitish Kumar is actually a black Mercedes. It is an especially souped-up limo, double-proofed against bullets and bombs, and it is the same vehicle that Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari uses when he comes home to Karachi.
It says at least two things that the Bihar chief minister has been accorded President Zardari’s car. One, that he is being feted at the highest level in this province and provided the utmost care. Two, and probably more important, that Karachi is the most dangerous city in Pakistan. A third could well be a subtle signal to a people who foreground their grumble over the export of terror that Pakistan itself lives a shivered and precarious existence.
Nitish would never have seen so many guns, nor such press of boots and protective metal around him. The downtown five-star hotel where he stays over the next three days is routinely fortified, for Karachi is a tinder-box that blows up every other day.
Just yesterday, suicide bombers rammed an ammo-laden truck into the gates of a paramilitary rangers’ facility, killing three soldiers; elsewhere in Karachi 10 others died in sectarian gun battling.
That’s routine, that’s Karachi, hub of business and bloodshed. But it wouldn’t do to log that and carry casually on when a significant visitor arrives. The hotel that will host Nitish lies especially garrisoned, be-ringed by jawans of all manner of denominations and uniforms, lethal hardware clicking in their palms.
When Nitish arrived at a VIP terminal of the Mohammed Ali Jinnah Airport late evening, more than a score police outriders were lined up in the forecourt, their sirens blaring, their lights dancing like strobes; it was like a highly secured discotheque with nobody on the floor other than taut jawans.
Soon more evidence surfaced of a summit-level reception having been laid out. Instead of a mid-level functionary detailed to conduct formalities at the airport, Sindh chief minister Qaim Ali Shah himself arrived with a tail of seven cabinet colleagues, local chieftains of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the Karachi police boss and several other top officials.
The event went live on several Pakistani channels. “I have been looking forward to this for a long time and I am extremely happy to be here,” Nitish told a jostling bouquet of boom microphones, “Aman, bhaichara aur tarakki dono mulkon ke logon ki pukar hai aur usi silsile mein main aaya hoon (peace, brotherhood and development is the call of people in both countries, that is why I am here).”
While his hosts treated Nitish and his 12-member delegation to tea and savouries in the lounge, a happy commotion unfurled outside. The PPP had tasked cadres to hold up a variety of vinyl posters welcoming the Bihari Wazir-e-Aala; a couple of them had photographs of Nitish and the late Benazir Bhutto morphed in smiling mutual admiration — a trick of technology and politics capturing a moment that never ever happened.
“Benazir Bhutto Zindabad! Zindabad, Zindabad!!” they shouted, never mind the other face on the posters they held aloft they barely even knew to pronounce his name.
Nitish’s name was not germane to their purposes, he is what his symbolism is. In a city like Karachi, which probably has the highest concentration of people of Bihari origin in Pakistan, a visitor from Patna matters.
The PPP has good reason to make a spectacle of greeting Nitish. It is not just that he is a Bihari leader arriving in Pakistan’s most Bihari city. It is also a showcasing of Pakistan’s effort to expand interaction with India and Indians beyond New Delhi and the foreign office-home ministry complex. General elections are only a few months away and the PPP is in need of talking points — pushing peace with India, despite the acrimonious detritus of 26/11, could be one of them.
But there could be another reason why Nitish has been picked for salutation by the PPP, which heads the government both here and in Islamabad. Nitish has come to be seen as a development icon in a country where the development deficit is severe.
“This could well be the PPP’s way of telling the people that they are keen on giving development a fillip,” said a member of chief minister Qaim Ali Shah’s welcome group as tea was being served around.
“India has so many chief ministers, why only him? Because he has got notice in Pakistan and someone who has managed a turnaround in a backward state like Bihar. That has value, to people in Bihar, of course, but to people here too. He is a man we can learn from.”
It’s best left to the coming days to get a sense of what Nitish might learn from Karachi. It cannot escape him this is a far more insecure and hazardous place than the worst of Bihar ever was. That sense would have accosted him stepping into that hotel for his first night in Pakistan.
Behind the clusters of jawans scudding the lobby, he would have noticed unpacked on the floors the promotion of a formidable arms bazaar — menacing fighter-jets, sleek gunships, multi-barrel artillery launchers, commando warfare suits.
Pakistan’s biggest international defenceware exposition has opened and Nitish’s hotel is its PR headquarters. Good thing he arrived in Zardari’s armoured limousine.