Shifting deadlines and cheerleaders of doom in Pakistani media – by Ayaz Amir

Star-gazing — for what it is worth
Islamabad diary

Ayaz Amir

As I have had occasion to mention before, Islamabad since its birth has been a city dedicated to nothing so much as intrigue and conspiracy. It has always been a dead city. But without the grist to its mills provided by conspiracy it would be deader still.

And March, no doubt because of the influence of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar — the one Shakespearean play most educated Pakistanis seem to have read — has a strange influence on the Pakistani mood. Ever since I entered the hallowed portals of journalism — and this was a good thirty years ago — I have seen March bringing forth its regular crop of stories about upheavals in the halls of government.

So it is this year, with any number of dedicated weathermen foretelling storm and thunder, and the twilight of this or that god, in the days that remain before ‘cruel’ April comes along — which in turn will give rise to more theories and the setting of more precious deadlines.

Eliot is another poet the educated Pakistani is familiar with, if only in brief and in passing. And it is his line — April is the cruellest month — which has a sharp impact on all veterans of the conspiracy trail. If March looks to be exciting, wait for the first week of April.

If conspiracy theories were our only headache it would be no great matter. Conspiracies are born and they die. But the lawyers’ movement and the subsequent rise of a judiciary assailed by intimations of greatness — I don’t know how else to put it — have given rise to the birth of a warrior class in the media whose swordsmen flatter themselves that it was they who got rid of Musharraf and they who, in tandem with the lawyers, installed and reinstalled their lordships on their exalted chairs of justice.

This is a narrative of self-assertion — history not so much written, much less revised, as history entirely self-invented. From this embellished account of the past, in which the fable-writers are the self-appointed heroes and the knights in shining armour, arises the conviction that those writing these tales are invested with the authority to lay down the parameters of the good and the bad. If there’s one thing we have been surplus in, it is self-righteousness. Now comes this added dimension. Not one amongst these knights would be elected a councillor in a local election. This does not stop them from thinking they must have the last word on how to run the Republic.

Adding to the pain-in-the-neck feeling is a total absence of a sense of humour. These reformers do not take themselves lightly. My sneaking suspicion is that if they had the power they would be little different from Muslim Khan of Swat or the other icons of the true path now scattered by the army’s advance.

Last September was set as the hour of the system’s demise by these cheerleaders of doom. After President Asif Ali Zardari sacrificed a few more black rams — I joke not — to ward off the evil eye, the deadline was pushed to October, then November. Winter was a winter of discontent for this crowd because the object of its affections, the President, just wouldn’t go away. Now the alarm clocks are set for March when much is expected to happen — bruising arguments over Swiss cases, a package of constitutional amendments, and, arising from these, fresh tensions between the executive and judiciary.

My take — and let there be egg on my face if I am out of sync with the prevailing winds– is more akin to what the great Faiz Ahmed Faiz once said about the state of the republic when asked as to what was likely to happen. Nothing much, he said. At least this line has the merit of mirroring the condition of the Pakistani soul. We yearn for things to be different. But we lack the capacity, or the will, to make this happen. Which makes us the children of the status quo, from whom it is foolish to expect any mad rush to the barricades.

In fact taking to the barricades is no longer an option in Pakistan. The working class is dead, all signs of life fled from its care-worn battalions. Pakistan’s students, the mass of them, are confused or they are under the sway of the student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba. Indeed, being confused and under the influence of the Jamiat amount to much the same thing. When the obituary of Pakistani education is written — and it shouldn’t be long before this task comes to the fore — the role of the Jamaat/Jamiat in bringing education to its knees should figure in a big way.

Those centres of education, like LUMS, which have some traces of idealism in them are too small to matter. What matters are the fortresses of reaction, such as the Punjab University and what was once such an open place, the Quaid-e-Azam University. And they, sadly, will not be taken out or reduced short of something like the army’s current manoeuvres in the tribal areas.

Thus, the only change possible in Pakistan is through palace intrigue or army movement (the two of course closely connected). But even palace intrigue requires a measure of audacity and, I suspect, that despite the revival of army confidence because of the success of its arms in Swat and Waziristan, the army’s hands are so full, and therefore tied, because of its military commitments, that the space which has traditionally permitted it, in fact encouraged it, to dream dreams of ambition and political glory is very restricted.

The desire for adventurism may be there and today’s generals would scarcely be mortal if the thought did not flit through their minds occasionally — occasionally? — that the politicians were again making a mess of things and the country would be better served if the army were to step in. But the circumstances are not propitious for fleshing out such thoughts.

The times are hard for the country. They are also hard for the army. And as our relationship today with the United States is more physical than anything else — thanks to the Afghan conflict we are locked arm-in-arm as never before — external sensibilities become a factor in domestic calculations like never before. Given the record of military rule in Pakistan, the Americans would have to be out of their minds to encourage or even countenance any notions of Bonapartism.

This leaves, to use a shorthand phrase, judicial activism. Their lordships are expanding the sphere of their influence but whether this leads to the kind of structure-threatening clash some of the media are talking about, and indeed eagerly expecting, is a matter of speculation.

It doesn’t help matters of course that we have a President on whose flak jacket every barb sticks, such is the reputation he carries. Ronald Reagan was called the Teflon president because nothing would stick to him. Here we have the opposite phenomenon. And it’s not just a matter of sticking. The President carries heavy baggage. There’s nothing make-believe about that.

But March may just bring about the miracle which can stabilise things. If the 17th Amendment goes, and the President not only bids farewell to his extraordinary powers but has the good sense to willingly acquiesce in this diminution of authority, he becomes a Rafiq Tarar or Fazal Ellahi Ch. If this were to happen — meaning thereby, that if the government has the collective wisdom to bring this about — the storm clouds abate and the focus shifts from the Presidency to the government and Parliament, as it should. In other words, the nature of the debate at once changes.

This will be bad news for the media warriors who are virtually frothing at the mouth about corruption and national cleansing. But it will be good news for Parliament and democracy. The political class will still face the challenge of improving its performance and getting down to the brass tacks of addressing the economic crisis. But that’s another story.


Source: The News, March 05, 2010



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