Jun 042008

WANT political paralysis? Then try a game of ‘will-he-or-won’t-he’. First, pick your option: sack the president; replace the army chief; amend the constitution; impeach the president; restore the judges; break the coalition; dissolve parliament; declare martial law; or spill state secrets. Then pair your choice with one of these men: Asif, Nawaz, Musharraf, Kayani, A.Q. Khan. Confused? Not sure who wants what? Don’t worry — that’s the paralysis part.

Madness has descended on Islamabad. The already faint line between fake and real news is now invisible; rumours of news now pass for the real thing. Off the record, media executives admit freewheeling news channels are damaging the industry’s credibility; on air, their channels are rabid competitors in the lucrative race to the bottom. Anonymous sources purvey opinion as fact and hope as reality, and the channels lap it up.

As ‘news’ of Musharraf’s demise was flashed on screens across the country, I asked a top media executive if it was true. Yes, the president is receiving guests who have come to say goodbye, he said. Then, the punch line: the president is asking his guests where they are going. Yet the circus went on, the non-credibility of the presidential camp rendering its denials futile. You almost — almost — felt sorry for them: denial only fuelled the rumour, while silence would have all but confirmed it.

True, many in the media do have their knives out for Musharraf but this whispering campaign wasn’t orchestrated by them. The explanation is more pedestrian. When barebones news gathering operations are asked to fill a 24/7 void, the beeper becomes a producer’s best friend. A beeper is industry jargon for the phone-in news that you hear rather than see — radio journalism, as a newspaper editor disparagingly referred to it. You’ve seen it countless times: a newsreader is patched through to a reporter on a mobile phone and asks some basic questions while an appropriate — sometimes inappropriate — headline appears on screen. ‘Rumours of president’s resignation’. Or, sullying its good name, a question mark is employed: ‘President to resign?’ It’s immediate, cheap and efficient — everything on-the-fly reportage demands.

From there a story takes on a life of its own. Every newsroom has a wall of TV screens that is closely monitored at all times. When, for whatever reason, one channel flashes breaking news, the other newsrooms erupt. After some quick consultation, standard operating procedure kicks in: a reporter is lined up to narrate the rumour; a spokesman for the affected party is contacted to deny or admit the news; a rival party is allowed to counter the affected party’s spokesman; and an analyst is roped in to air his tuppence. If enough channels do it — and they have only minutes to decide what they will air — the ‘news’ assumes a semblance of the truth in the media echo chamber. A veritable Goebbelsesque heaven, where the appetite for news far outstrips the capacity or inclination to monitor its veracity.

But propaganda will only get you so far. Hold your nose for a minute and assume you are a Musharraf-backer. The president is your guarantor of stability in the last resort, a link with the establishment, home and away. Remember that you are not too concerned about democracy; what matters is national security, political stability and economic growth. And the fact that so much mud is being thrown at Musharraf isn’t too bothersome; after all, better him than you, the person behind the façade.

Now peek over the fence and see what the civilians are up to. The newly supremacised parliament is idle, only different to the last one in where its orders come from Zardari House or Raiwind as opposed to Army House. CJ Iftikhar is waddling from one district bar to another, fulminating against CJ Dogar & co. and all but calling for them to be sent to the gallows. Nawaz’s Musharraf allergy is getting worse by the day, with few fresh governance ideas emerging from the Punjab Assembly. And the economy? Best not to think of that. The zeitgeist was captured at the back of a smuggler’s truck: bootlegged foreign liquor concealed along with wheat flour. Forget who bequeathed this crisis to the nation. Remember, you’re a Musharraf-backer. Do you advise the president to leave now or to wait it out until the civilian clowns put their house in order? The answer is obvious. Chicken or egg debates — Musharraf’s exit or smooth transition — are for philosophers, not guardians of a state in crisis.

This is the reality of our transition. However, could the difference between the theory and praxis of transition be one of rationality? Analysts have consulted their game theory texts, academics have pored over their democratic transition tomes, and right now everyone argues that this time the two leading parties will work together because they must.

But could this be news to Nawaz I-will-never-take-dictation Sharif? The consensus suggests that Nawaz must back down and Asif must play nice. Then again, the coalition took a month to be formed; the Murree Declaration had a month to be fulfilled; May 12 has come and gone; and constitutional reform will take an unknown amount of time. And still the constitutional amendment or parliamentary resolution debate is not resolved. The optimists suggest that the repeated rounds of negotiations are an indication of a commitment to making things work. The pessimists wonder whether success can be salvaged from a string of defeats.

It comes down to power. Everyone agrees that all politicians want it. But there’s a secondary question, the answer to which may not always be clear: will politicians always choose the certainty of power today over the possibility of power tomorrow? It’s not hard to imagine Asif and Nawaz connecting the dots wrongly: dictators, army chiefs and presidents come and go, they may conclude, but only civilian politicians live to fight another day. Letting the chips fall where they will is only a small step away then.


Source: Daily Dawn, 4/6/2008

 Posted by at 12:50 pm

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