The death of journalism
Donald Trump happens in America. Whatever you think of his views or politics at least there is a measure of excitement about the man. He shocks, he amazes, but at least he doesn’t leave you cold and indifferent. Hillary Clinton would have put the US to sleep. She was old furniture and thoroughly predictable. You can’t say the same about the Donald.
Britain has its Brexit moment. Scotland again clamours for independence. France is embracing new political choices. The person leading the first round of voting in France’s presidential election is a political outsider who has never run in any sort of campaign before: Emmanuel Macron. He faces the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in the second round. Whether it is the one or the other who wins, they stand for something new. The candidates of the established parties, the Socialists and the Republicans, have fared badly.
Compare this with Pakistan: we are stuck in the old grooves, our politics throwing up nothing new. Nawaz Sharif is a product of the 1980s, a relic and legacy of the Zia era, and he is still around. As if that was not enough there is always some pundit or mahatma of the airwaves solemnly intoning that Nawaz Sharif is all set to win the 2018 elections. The Panama case is not over and anything could happen between now and next year but these pundits have already delivered their verdict about the next elections.
Forget about corruption and London flats and money stashed in foreign banks, the Sharifs are now getting to be boring. They were never very exciting even at the best of times—like, say, Bhutto was exciting —but now they have been around for too long and all they can repeat are the old words and the old phrases. How many times can anyone be reminded that Nawaz Sharif built the Lahore-Islamabad motorway? It’s either that or some other item of infra-structure…beyond that a Sharif conversation comes to an end.
Margaret Thatcher rejuvenated the Conservative Party but after ten years in office the Tories had had enough of her. They revolted and threw her out. Tony Blair led Labour to three successive election victories which is a record in the history of the Labour Party but after ten years, and all the lies about the Iraq war, the party was tired of seeing his face and eased him out.
The Chinese have a one-party state but even there they’ve settled on the principle that there should be a change in the leadership every ten years or so. In Japan they keep shuffling prime ministers. An ex president of South Korea is currently in prison, facing corruption charges. But here we are stuck with the same old things.
If the pundits are right and the PML-N wins the next elections we can all go to sleep. The only mantra we’ll keep hearing will be ‘infrastructure and development’. Some more laptops will be distributed amongst students, which is the only idea about education the Sharifs seem to have. The last time they were in power they distributed ‘yellow cabs’ as an employment gimmick. Now we are hearing talk about ‘orange cabs’.
The one new idea is CPEC and while there was a certain ring to it in the beginning it is now being beaten to death…all of Pakistan’s woes will be cured by the opening of this corridor. Journalism doesn’t thrive on monotony and this is getting to be monotonous. Five more years of this and it will be time to give up journalism and take to the road as a mendicant, begging bowl in hand. (How I would love to travel thus to Bhit Shah and Sehwan Sharif.)
But why blame the Sharifs alone? Our national discourse is monotonous and revolves around the same things. There was a time when I thought that Indian newspapers had nothing in them. On my infrequent visits to Delhi I would get a trove of papers in the morning and be able to race through them in about half an hour. Now I find myself doing the same with our own newspapers. I read five of them in the morning—three English and two Urdu—and I turn the pages quickly because there is precious little in them.
Musharraf was good copy. At least there was something to write about, which was military dictatorship. To begin with there were only a few writers who wrote against the regime. But when journalists discovered that it was a pretty benign regime and not overly bothered about criticism, more and more journalists became fearless regime-bashers. The MQM was then all-powerful in Karachi and members of the pen-pushing fraternity, guided by a sound instinct of self-preservation, would say not one adverse word about it, going to the extent of not even naming the MQM in a critical context. The same journalists would feel not the slightest hesitation when it came to denouncing the Musharraf regime.
The lawyers’ movement was also good copy and besides that it made for excellent television. So many of us would attend rallies and hold forth before the cameras and it was all telecast live. That was the first time lawyers got a taste of publicity, so that when us pundits held forth on the glories of democracy and the evils of dictatorship lawyers would stand behind us and not budge from there for as long as the cameras rolled.
It was a heady time and we all thought that we were caught up in a revolutionary moment which would lead eventually to the rule of law, the triumph of justice and what not. The general was in a tight corner, on the one hand facing the Lal Masjid standoff, on the other the onslaught of the lawyers’ movement. Gradually the situation slipped out of his control. He wasn’t thrown out but he was a weakened man.
The pundits giving the all-clear signal to Nawaz Sharif in relation to the next elections may not be reading the weather correctly. After the Panama decision Nawaz Sharif remains prime minister—just as Musharraf remained president even after the lawyers’ movement—but he is a weakened man. The charges are all there and he and his sons face the far from comfortable prospect of having to answer the questions of the joint investigation team set up under the Supreme Court’s orders. Representatives of the ISI and Military Intelligence will also be part of this team.
The Sharif lawyers could not satisfy the Supreme Court. There won’t be any lawyers this time. Nawaz Sharif and his two sons will have to satisfy the investigators themselves. How will they pull off this miracle? Qataris letters, it is clear, will be of no avail. And this ordeal is set to last for the rest of this summer, with the joint team reporting to the apex court regularly. For even the most thick-skinned of individuals this would be a daunting situation, During this time dealing with the bureaucracy is one thing but inter-acting with the army chief and other generals when you are facing a corruption investigation…this can do nothing to bolster your confidence.
But then what? There was a time when people like me used to hope that things were destined to turn out for the better. Bhutto’s ascension we thought would usher in better times. We know how that period ended. Zia’s end we thought would usher in true democracy. So it was with every turn of the wheel…nothing really changed.