The Prime Minister of Tawa – 67
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At nine in the night, Mash asked Nedeem to order the operation to go-ahead. Nedeem picked up the direct line to the army HQ and conveyed the message. There were four of them sitting around the table – Mash, Nedeem and two civil servants from the defence ministry. Mash had agonised over the decision for the last one week. If it failed, there would be hell to pay. Ever since the engineers had been abducted from the dam site seven months ago, their family members had been putting pressure on the government to agree to a prisoner exchange. Lt Gen Kareeman and the Army were dead against any such exchange. We shed out blood to capture these bastards. Now you can’t just let them go, the Army argued. The unfortunate thing was that all five engineers came from well-to-do backgrounds. The father of one of the abducted engineers was a retired senior civil servant who was their main coordinator. He arranged for marches and demonstrations in front of the Central Secretariat on a continuous basis – teams of families sitting in protest on the main road in front of the Secretariat or the Army HQ every week, providing good copy for the newspapers, especially the vernacular press.
‘Hold on, don’t compromise, I’ll get them for you,’ Kareeman had promised Mash many times ever since the engineers had been taken away from the dam site. Unlike others in his ministry, Mash was not in awe of Kareeman. The man was just a showman. He loved to appear in front of journalists and make bombastic statements. ‘Every soldier who dies will take at least five SFF men with him.’ ‘We fight with restraint in order to minimise civilian losses even if it puts us in greater danger.’ ‘The only reason we are taking so many casualties is because we are fighting with one arm tied behind our back.’ ‘Every act of terrorism by the SFF shows how desperate they are.’
There was no doubt that Kareeman was brave. He had personally led various operations. But what Kareeman lacked was a sense for long term strategy. In addition to being a born show-off, he always missed the woods for the trees. Moreover, he was a lousy manager who could not delegate or share responsibility or avoid micro-managing things.
Mash knew that it was actually his fault. Putting a man like Kareeman in charge of the entire Central Hill District and giving him a carte blanche was not the most sensible thing to do. He ought to have someone who would win the hearts and minds of the Seedas in command instead of Kareeman. Someone who could maintain pressure on the SFF without overdoing it and maybe kill a few key leaders like Hanoleeyan, while the politicians negotiated. Mash wished he could declare a unilateral ceasefire, withdraw all the soldiers from the Central Hill District and start negotiations with the Seedas. As he told Judy so very often, he trusted the SFF more than the Tawan army.
By now he was sure that the events which had led to the current round of fighting were orchestrated from Hepara. However, he wasn’t sure if the army had acted on its own or if Horan or Peelee were also involved. But he just could not bring himself to fire Kareeman and appoint someone else. For one, Kareeman was too popular. Also, as long as Kareeman was in charge of the operations, no one would blame him for anything that went wrong.
Soon after Nedeem’s order to commence the operation was conveyed to Kareeman at his HQ in Eko, twenty commandos trotted out of their camp in the jungle towards their destination which was a two-hour march away. An informer had told them that the five engineers were being held in a village which was just a mile away from the dam site. The dam site was now entirely abandoned. The SFF had gambled that the army would not expect them to hide the engineers so close to the place from where they had been abducted.
The people in that village where the engineers were held were fanatically loyal to the SFF. Five of those who had been killed in Eko when the helicopter gunships strafed the crowd around the army garrison were from that village. Practically every villager could be expected to come out fighting if they realised that a rescue attempt was being mounted. Success in the operation depended on whether the commandos could reach the village quietly without being seen, locate the hut in which the men were locked up, kill the guards and then retreat towards a designated spot from where they would be picked up by helicopters. The pick-up spot was a good three miles away from the village. The wholly place was so hilly and mountainous that a better pick-up was not available anywhere closer.
As Mash and the three others sat around the table waiting for events to unfold, Kubeda joined them. A feeling of irritation swept over Mash. Who on earth asked Kubeda to hang around so late? Why didn’t someone ask her what she was doing in that meeting room? But no one seemed to be willing to question Kubeda. As far as the others were concerned, Kubeda was the favoured one. Mash had no idea how the word spread, but everyone seemed to know that Kubeda was to be treated with kid gloves. Mash looked at Kubeda with irritation, hoping that she would get the hint and leave. But she didn’t. “Ambition on two legs,” Mash had heard someone describe Kubeda behind his back. “Two legs which she will spread apart without a moment’s hesitation if it gives her an advantage,” the response had been swift and sharp. The worst thing was that Mash could not bring himself to throw Kubeda out of the Central Secretariat. He ought to have her fired but couldn’t bring himself to ask the stationary superintendent to do so. It was not that she was pretty or beautiful. Far from it, she was very ordinary. But her eagerness to please Mash and do his bidding gave him a feeling of happiness that he had not experienced elsewhere. Kubeda made Mash feel like a ruler. Her ruler, if not the ruler of Tawa.
It would all be over by midnight. If any of the engineers got killed, their families would be bound to raise hell. Even now, some of the parents and wives had appeared on the same platform as Kemon Padusee and accused the government of incompetence. ‘If any of the engineers die, their parents will join the PDA and campaign against us in the elections. I am two hundred percent sure of it,’ Peelee Threeman had pronounced ominously at the last party meeting. There was no need to say, ‘next elections.’ The word ‘elections’ was good enough since the next elections were less than 2 years away. Peelee’s words still rang in Mash’s head. He could imagine the effect a few sobbing parents could have on the electorate if they joined the PDA and accused Mash and the TFP of incompetence.
Kubeda was trying to catch Mash’s eye. What did she want? What on earth did Kubeda want? Did she want to do it at this time of the night? Not now! Not at this time of the night! Mash wanted to laugh out loud at the sheer audacity of the girl.
Three months ago, Kubeda who was a minor party functionary had handed over a petition to Mash at an all-party meeting asking him for a job. Mash had accepted the petition and forgot all about it. A week later when Mash was walking into a conference room to have a meeting with a few TFP members from the eastern coast, Kubeda had rushed towards him. ‘Maheshdas-raan, have you been able to decide on my petition?’ she had asked him.
‘What petition?’ Mash asked and turned to the aide by his side for help.
‘The petition I gave you a week ago?’ Kubeda had replied. ‘Requesting you to give me a government job? Any job. I’ve been a party member since my college days,’ she had added. There was something in Kubeda’s manner – was it her eagerness and the way she leaned slightly forward? – that made Mash say, ‘come and meet me the day after at ten in the morning in my office. Not only had Mash said that he had also given sufficient instructions for Kubeda to be able to gain access to his office when she arrived to meet him.
To say that Kubeda had thrown herself at him would not be entirely wrong. It had been an easy conquest. Too easy! Kubeda was delighted with the job in the Central Secretariat’s stationary department. And Kubeda had the power to make Mash feel very powerful, something he wanted pretty badly. It had worked out well for both of them, except in instances like this when Kubeda decided to stay on without Mash asking her to do so. It was not the first time Kubeda was butting in and proving to be a pain in his next. Next week I will get her transferred to somewhere outside Hepara, Mash promised himself.
The phone rang and Mash dragged himself back to reality. ‘They have reached the house, have they?’ Nedeem was saying. ‘Keep us posted.’
‘All the five engineers were locked up in that house. Three guards in there, and all of them went down without a fight!’
‘So, our intelligence was right. Thank goodness,’ one of the Civil Servants said.
‘They haven’t been detected, have they?’ Mash asked Nedeem.
‘So far No.’
They all looked exhilarated. Mash looked at the large clock on the wall. It was ten to eleven. They were slightly ahead of schedule. He needed some good news quite badly. If only the commandos could carry it off, it would give him the break he so desperately needed. There was no other potential good news on the horizon. There was unlikely to be any other investor willing to invest in Tawa. Urushambo and Mr. Cheung had taken possession of the land on the east coast and construction work had started. But the government could not claim too much credit for such a private initiative. Not after they had given away so much land free of cost on the grounds that it would generate employment in the region.
In desperation, Mash had got in touch with his ex-boss Norman Lumley at Halboroughs. Did Norman know of any company which might want to make a brave high-return investment? Norman had promised to get back to him, but he had not. Mash had been hurt. He was hurt all the more because he knew the real reason Norman had not responded positively was not out of spite. If Norman knew of someone who wanted to invest in a country like Tawa, Norman would definitely have introduced such person to Mash. He was too good a businessman to be churlish. If Norman had shown a definite lack of interest, it was because no one was even remotely interested in investing in Tawa.
‘When do we get the next progress report?’ Mash asked Nedeem.
‘I sort of promised that we will not call them, but only wait for their calls.’ As if in answer to Mash’s question, the phone rang.
‘Apparently there’s heavy fighting as the soldiers try to retreat to the pick-up zone.’
‘Oh Guardian! Help us against these pagan bastards!’ One of the civil servants said. Mash opened his mouth and then closed it again. This was not the time and place for a lesson in political correctness. They sat in silence for ten minutes. The phone rang again. ‘Kareeman has decided to order helicopters to airdrop troops along the route of retreat in order to support our commandos,’ Nedeem announced and put the phone down. Why the heck didn’t Kareeman have more troops involved in this operation? Why didn’t he send fifty commandos instead of twenty? Once the commandos reached the house where the captives were held, why weren’t more commandos airdropped along the retreat route to provide them with support? Why did he have to wait for things to get really bad before he ordered more troops to the scene? The problem with Kareeman, Mash told himself, was that he believed he was Superman. Moreover, he also expected the men under him to be mini-Supermen. Why didn’t he do things the way they ought to be done? It was all about organisation, wasn’t it? And teamwork? Where everyone chipped in a little bit?
‘Two of the engineers have been killed,’ Nedeem informed him when the phone rang next. ‘And three commandos as well. Apparently, there are too many Seedas near the landing site. So, the pick-up helicopters cannot land there safely.’ He put the phone down once more.
‘I don’t believe it. Why wasn’t the pick-up site secured with troops as soon as the commandos reached the hut where the captives were held?’ No one replied to Mash’s questions. The Civil Servants looked away, avoiding Mash’s eyes.
‘So, what’s happening?’
‘Apparently they will have to hold on somehow till day breaks when we can send in reinforcements.’
‘Wow! And this is supposed to be a commando operation!’
Mash got up and told Nedeem, ‘I don’t see the point in staying here and suffering in silence. Let me know tomorrow morning what happened.’ As he walked out, he told Kubeda ‘why don’t you go home as well?’ in as kind a voice as possible.
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