Talk of belling the cat: What is the agenda of Shaheen Sehbai?

Talk of belling the cat
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
By Anjum Niaz

The writer is a freelance journalist with over twenty years of experience in national and international reporting

Shaheen Sehbai’s surgical strike on President Zardari in this newspaper on Dec 26 offered an eclectic mix of facts and speculation. While swathing populist sentiments of the voiceless millions averse to a one-man rule, it also raised some serious questions. The timing; tone and tenor; and a Washington dateline warrant a critique. The presidential exposé came a day before his wife’s first death anniversary. Is there a link between the two or mere happenstance?

Mr Sehbai sweeps us off our feet by predicting the demise of this government. He bases his prophesy on events – past and present- verified by the blowhards on our TV channels ad infinitum. Sehbai sums it thus: Zardari’s is a self-fulfilling prophesy – where he himself is facilitating his own fall by the actions numbered ten in his editorializing. However he stops short of packing high-grade dynamite that can blow up the presidency. It may well provide ample fireworks for drawing room chatter, but Sehbai needs to scrabble more uncanny information that he may be privy to. He needs to calibrate the next steps: how a change will come and more importantly who will bring it. Lastly, why fire his stinger missile from across the other side of the Atlantic, unless the idea is to maintain an oceanic stretch between him (currently in Washington) and the presidency?

Still, Sehbai is the first of his tribe to trawl through parlous waters that most of us have so far studiously avoided. Perhaps President Zardari and his media-friendly information minister Sherry Rehman have successfully tamed the press (with the exception of Sehbai) the way President Bush and his busy bees did. One is reminded of that famous quote by an unnamed Bush aide (Karl Rove?) to American journalist Ron Suskind on the eve of 2003 Iraq war:

We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re (Ron Suskind) studying that reality—judiciously as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

Zardari is our very own “history’s actor” embroiled in “creating new realities” that daily lacerate our belief forcing us to adjust our moral compass to “study” and judge his actions that often stun-gun most into sullied shock. Excoriating his past alleged misdeeds is the only antacid that relieves our heartburn. Tongues unravel, red flags fly and blogs light up when the president is referenced. But didn’t Pervez Musharraf personally power wash the president’s unproven corruption cases with concentrates of chlorinated NRO? Didn’t the National Accountability Bureau silo the radioactive material flaring with damning evidence against the former first couple so none could fire these ballistic missiles ever again?

However, those who have read Shaheen Sehbai’s viewpoint against the present government think better it would have been for the writer to reveal some startling facts that could spool the legal duo, Messrs Naek and Khosa into a corner. “Does the writer not claim to know the president from close quarters?” Asks an initiated reader. “Does he not have impeachable information that can shake the presidency? I think Shaheen Sehbai does.”

Others feel that to target the president is being untethered from reality. He may be flawed and conflicted; still he’s no demon like his predecessor Musharraf.
“Why has the media not demanded accountability of the general and his cronies whose malfeasance is well-documented?” The military dictator’s duplicity and sophistry finally pulled him down. He vacated his seat not because some Pakistani investigative journalist discovered a Watergate like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein did to drive out Musharraf but Zardari trumped him and rushed in to take his seat. “I am sure Mr Sehbai, if he’s willing to launch into such an enterprise as the Watergate scandal will have many ‘Deep Throats’ to assist him in his mission,” writes a Pakistan-watcher from America.

Jettisoned by the self-censuring media too skittish to shine light on PPP’s unrighteousness, the nation repeatedly questions how a corrupt claque can overrun the land with a spoil system that blatantly privileges only the family, friends and favourites of the rulers. Unsurprisingly then, most Pakistanis are stricken with the same mental symptoms that, as cited by the Financial Times, Asif Ali Zardari suffered as recently as last year.

An Islamabad-based psychiatrist says the majority of Pakistanis have developed similar “severe psychiatric problems” today as they sit on the sidelines and watch the jaw-dropping deformed joke being played on them by their greedy rulers. The critical mass of our Les Misérables will continue to suffer from “emotional instability” as our president did. The Financial Times quoted Stephen Reich, a New York state-based psychologist saying Zardari was “unable to remember the birthdays of his wife and children, was persistently apprehensive and had thought about suicide.” The 70 per cent poor of this country don’t celebrate birthdays! But they regularly commit suicides not because they are “persistently apprehensive,” but for totally different reasons – there’s none to save them.

Our politicians have no souls. Few in the synchronous head-bobbing press stand up and ask what an email questions: “Why are they (ruling and opposition leaders) not grounding themselves to change the destiny of the poor instead of playing politics and fattening their fortunes while straddling across their luxury-lined penthouses and palaces abroad?”

“What could be better than President Zardari(and Mian Nawaz Sharif & company) taking a lead and setting up a historical precedence,” writes Naeem Sadiq in the blogosphere. “He could easily bring back what is already well recorded fortune. He could then make a public declaration asking all his countrymen to do the same. Even if the 100 billion dollar estimate is a twenty times exaggeration, we could still have $10 billion of our own – enough to restart a new Pakistan.”

At a wedding I meet a Pakistani who lives in Qatar. He has horror stories to tell. “My friends want to set up businesses in Pakistan, but are waiting for this government to go because it suffers from a huge trust deficit.”

If President Zardari wants to complete five years as he vows he will, he needs to coral his cronies. He needs to be a model of humility, honesty and hard work himself. He needs to bring traction to issues crying out loud for resolution like accountability; good governance; transparency in public dealing; and jobs on merit. These are moral certitudes that apparently don’t matter to our rulers. They feel they can do no wrong. The chief justice of the Supreme Court; ministers Makhdoom Amin Fahim and Farooq Naek appear immune to national outrage, media and public animadversion, when their daughters receive undue favours; ministers Khurshid Shah and Naveed Qamar make a production of their sons’ marriages by blatantly misusing their clout. Why does the PPP turn into a juggernaut whenever it gets power, behaving as if Pakistan is their personal playing ground?

President Zardari figures as one of the 20 ‘People Who Mattered’ in Time magazine. The list has winners as well as losers. There is for example the Olympic super swimmer Michael Phelps; Sarah Palin- impersonator and comedienne Tina Fey; self-help guru of The Purpose Driven Life Rick Warren whom Obama has assigned the invocation at his presidential inauguration; and powerhouse Hillary Clinton. Included also are losers like failure George Bush, blackmailer Rod Blagojevich; also-ran John McCain; foxy Somali Pirates and dictator Robert Mugabe!

So what do you think – which list will you put President Zardari in – the winners or the losers category?