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DAWN - Opinion; January 02, 2009

January 02, 2009

Politics of the media

By Ayesha Siddiqa

LATELY, people have raised questions regarding the independence and ideological tilt of Pakistan’s media. Some have even expressed surprise over the perspectives of a few seemingly liberal anchors.

However, such a view is essentially flawed because it is based on an equally faulty judgment of the media’s overall ideological leanings.

The view of the media as being liberal or conservative, right or left, is based on the position which many in the print and electronic media took towards some recent domestic political issues. Examples of the latter included the debate on the lawyers’ movement and Gen Musharraf’s rule and many of his controversial decisions.

An overall view would make the divide appear thus: first, those supporting the lawyers’ movement and opposed to Musharraf are liberal in contrast to those who back him. Second, sections of the media (this includes commentators) supporting the US against the Taliban claim to be liberal in contrast to those who take an opposite view. The problem with this kind of mapping is that writers, anchors and channels liberal in the first category, appear to be conservative in the second. In fact, post Mumbai most of the media seems to have swung to the centre-right, a shift that confuses everyone who wants clear categories of those holding varying viewpoints.

The question then is how does one begin to view Pakistan’s media and intelligentsia? Issue-based categorisation, as mentioned earlier, is flawed. As a matter of fact, by and large the media in Pakistan is either centrist or right of centre in orientation. Perhaps there is only one anchor who represents the centre-left position.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise because a major expansion in the media took place under the Musharraf regime mainly due to the Pakistani establishment’s realisation that it needed a friendly media for future international encounters. The Kargil crisis, as a friend pointed out, made it clear to Rawalpindi that battles could be won or lost depending on the state’s ability to manoeuvre domestic and international opinion via the media. This is how post-Mumbai developments were approached by building an opinion that the Pakistani state was under tremendous threat. Resultantly, most opinion-makers stopped asking questions about the internal threat.The media’s expansion during the Musharraf dispensation also did not mean that the media would support the former general. The main beneficiary of this expansion has been the establishment which is one of the kingmakers and more powerful than any particular ruler. This also means that a ruler, civilian or military, can be discarded once he or she becomes a nuisance. So, sections of the media could turn against him giving the flawed appearance of being liberal.

Assessing the media’s role and contribution is necessary to bridging the intellectual gap as perceived by the powerful state which has been extremely irked at the thought of the Indian intelligentsia being far more loyal to the state than its counterpart in Pakistan. It is apparent from the treatment of the recent crisis between India and Pakistan that the new media, which represents a major part of the intelligentsia as well, has been much more in line with the establishment on national security issues like its counterpart in India. The manner in which the media played a role in building the war hype and in de-linking the real issue of militancy inside the country from Indo-Pakistan tensions is an example of its peculiar ideological bent.

This is not to suggest that the media should have supported Indian jingoism. However, a more liberal media would have critically investigated the larger issue of militancy within the country. Unfortunately, only a handful of writers and one paper was willing to carry out such an assessment.

Another example pertains to providing tacit support to authoritarian, ideological and cultural traditions. For instance, a few months ago, an anchor of a particular television channel show condoned the killing of Ahmadis. More recently, the same channel showed as part of its breaking news a man in Balochistan walking on fire to prove his innocence in a murder trial before a local jirga.

This is not about selling news and attracting viewers but about deepening the right-wing agenda. After all, the right wing is far more comfortable with authoritarian principles and structures. The political left talks about change and dissent which is increasingly missing from our media. The political battle fought against Musharraf or other generals does not necessarily mean a left-wing liberal orientation. In fact, the battle against Musharraf reflected divisions within the establishment over a man who had to go because he had become too costly for the state.

The new media represented by the electronic version is a potent tool. Interestingly, most anchors who play a major role in moulding opinions are either from urban Punjab or urban Sindh. Owing to reasons that cannot be jotted down in this space, they are observed as being far more closely aligned with the centre-right than many journalists of yore. This goes to show that the right wing-oriented Pakistani state is much more powerful and stronger than it used to be.

Two reasons are behind the strength of the right-wing state: first, the definition of liberalism is wrongly construed within a limited framework, and pacifism and political liberalism or alternative politics are no longer considered part of liberal politics. Second is the gradual weakening of the left in Pakistan.

The breakdown of the Soviet Union caused the weakening of left politics all over the world, especially in Pakistan where it proved to be the death knell for the already weak left. A lot of people who felt the left’s absence either converted to the right by supporting the US and became self-proclaimed liberals, or came closer to the right-wing establishment in the country. It was forgotten that left politics is about a liberal political ideology and supporting a people-friendly agenda.

Although some might argue that supporting Taliban politics is part of representing what people favour, the fact is that we refuse to look at the liberal-left politics which prevails in Latin America at the moment. It is possible to fight America’s political incursion without necessarily pushing state and society towards a far more virulent brand of right-wing politics.

Most sadly, the left wing today has transformed itself into an NGO-style operation with limited capacity to influence public thinking. A right-wing state supported by a media with a similar orientation will only lead to strengthening the political right and weakening the liberal left, if any bit of the latter remains in the country.

The writer is an independent strategic and political analyst.

In the aftermath of Kashmir polls

By Kuldip Nayar

STATE elections in Jammu and Kashmir may not have provided many answers but it has made one thing clear: the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference has been exaggerating its strength.

It was wrong in assessing the mood of the Valley because the voters rejected the Hurriyat’s call to boycott the polls. Nearly 61 per cent of the voters queued up before the polling booths in the severe winter to elect their representatives. As many as 354 candidates contested to return 87 members to the assembly. It was democracy versus the boycott call.

The problem with the Hurriyat is that it is frozen in time — when the Valley was agog with the demand for azadi. People have moved on because they have realised over the years, after losing thousands at the hands of the security forces, that the ground realities are far different from what the Hurriyat has been peddling.

This does not mean that the Valley’s alienation from India is over. It only means that the Kashmiris are questioning the Hurriyat’s way of seeking a settlement with New Delhi. They are sick and tired of violence and extremism and want peace and normalcy which they believe will give them back the tourists and free them from terrorists. Even those with guns did not disturb the polls lest they invoked the voters’ anger.

Without doubt, the Kashmiris want to have an identity of their own. The pattern of voting indicates that. Both the National Conference (NC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) have won practically all the seats in the Valley — the first getting 28 and the second 21 — underlining the aspirations of the Kashmiris to be different from the rest of India. The NC asked for autonomy plus and the PDP proposed self-rule and dual currency. Yet neither have talked of a status outside the Indian Union. It is, however, significant that the PDP increased its tally from 16 to 21 by taking a hawkish line. It looks as if it will continue to do that.

New Delhi would be deluding itself if it believes in the aftermath of the elections that it can arrive at a settlement without the separatists. They represent a dream which tickles the imagination even if it remains unfulfilled. However, there is a new opportunity for the governments at Srinagar and New Delhi to start afresh; to begin a dialogue with the separatists in order to hammer out a settlement which is acceptable to India, Kashmir and Pakistan.

The disconcerting fallout of the elections is reflected in the sharp division between the Kashmir and Jammu regions. The NC has won four seats in the Jammu region, and that too from Poonch where the Muslims have a majority. The party has also lost three per cent of the votes. The PDP has increased its support by 3.8 per cent but mostly from Poonch and Rajouri. Communal polarisation is also visible because the BJP which had only one seat has now returned 11. Its voting percentage has also increased in the Jammu region — from 12.4 to 21.8.

The Amarnath temple controversy over the piece of land allotted temporarily to the shrine management board came in handy for the BJP which was able to mix religion with politics and reap the harvest of agitated Hindu voters. The party also benefited from the negligence of the Jammu region as pointed out by various commissions. In comparison, the Valley’s main parties found less support from Hindus.

The Hurriyat too has no base in the Jammu region because it has preferred to give its movement an Islamic edge. The new government at Srinagar will have to give the Jammu region a sense of participation which it lacks. Otherwise, the sentiments for Jammu to be part of a neighbouring state in India may intensify.

The Congress, part of the ruling coalition after the last election, has suffered the most. It has lost 10.7 per cent of the electorate, 5.3 per cent in Jammu and 5.4 per cent in the Valley, although in terms of seats, its loss is only three. Its tally has been reduced from 20 to 17. The main reason for this is that it has been held responsible for the Amarnath land debacle, although it was the PDP minister who had approved the allotment when Ghulam Nabi Azad from the Congress was chief minister.

The NC and the Congress which have joined hands to form a coalition government represent the middle-of-the-road approach. Their problem will be to figure out how to deal with hardliners PDP and BJP. The PDP will try to distance Kashmir from the rest of India while the BJP would be for closer integration.

Election results show that the PDP, which has increased its vote percentage by 6.1, was helped by the Jamaat-i-Islami, headed by pro-Pakistan Syed Ali Shah Geelani. The NC and the Congress coalition have an absolute majority, 45 in the House. Yet, the history of relations between the two is not a happy one. The first government in the state was that of Sheikh Abdullah, the NC chief and grandfather of Omar Abdullah.

Jawaharlal Nehru was the prime minister of the Congress party. They were friends and comrades-in-arms in the struggle of independence against the British. This was an ideal combination. Yet they fell out and Sheikh Abdullah remained under detention for almost 12 years.

Once Nehru wrote to the Maharaja of Kashmir saying, “the only person who can deliver the goods in Kashmir is Abdullah.” But they went so far apart that Nehru wrote to him: “I greatly regret that you should have taken up a position which indicates that you do not value any friendly advice that we might give and, indeed, consider it as improper interference….”

Omar Abdullah, son of Farooq Abdullah, has an advantage because he knows the Gandhi family well. But personal relations may matter little if and when Srinagar pushes to implement the autonomy resolution which Farooq vainly tried to do when he was in power a few years ago. The central government’s authority, according to the Instrument of Accession Act, extends to three subjects: defence, foreign affairs and communications.

If New Delhi agrees to confine itself to three subjects, most of the separatists may go along. They have asked for azadi, but have yet to define it. Is New Delhi ready to roll back from the extra space it has occupied since the Instrument of Accession Act? Can Pakistan do likewise in Azad Kashmir, giving it all the subjects except defence, foreign affairs and communications? Elections in Jammu and Kashmir have provided yet another chance to sort out these questions.

The writer is a leading journalist based in Delhi.

In the year 2 AZ

By Cyril Almeida

YEAR 1 was a helluva ride. Asif Zardari pulled off a political trifecta few could imagine: he won over a sceptical nation as a grieving widower with “Pakistan khappay”; he became political kingmaker; and he ascended to the perch from which Musharraf ruled and was so loath to give up.

What will year 2 bring? It may be tempting to assume that it will be extraordinarily unpredictable. But Zardari is no longer the puppet master hidden from view; now he’s front and centre and everyone is gunning for him.

So some guesses are in order. Start with conventional wisdom. Off the record or on the record, between the lines or straight shooting, political foes and friends alike agree that the Zardari system won’t last.

The problem is the policies, compounded by the style of government. The fate of his predecessor as president epitomises the problem Zardari has created for himself.

Whatever the democracy brigade may claim, Musharraf wasn’t chucked out because the people suddenly yearned for democracy; he was chucked out because he made a series of bad choices that lost him friends at home and abroad, and did so with such chutzpah that the people were left aghast. In 1999, Musharraf was the saviour with the right ideas; by 2008, his ideas were spent and their execution alienated the public. March 9, May 12, the bungled siege of Lal Masjid in July, Nov 3, the crowing before the February elections — the errors came thick and fast. And what the people giveth, the people can taketh away.

So it is with Zardari. Start with the style. A military dictator can hide from the people because he isn’t one of them — he’s bigger and better than them, which is why the people believe he can cleanse the polluted body politic. A political leader — and that too the inheritor of the populist legacy of ZAB and BB — simply cannot afford to be away from the people. Where aloofness raises the stature of the dictator, it eats away at the credibility of the political leader. Zardari and his supporters may vent about impatience and unfairness but they miss the point; they need a more visible leader. The no-show before a charged up base at Garhi Khuda Buksh was the latest damaging incident. The accidental president is in danger of becoming the invisible president, and in politics few miss what they can’t see.

Turn next to leadership. Having inherited the deeply unpopular economic and militancy-related choices of Musharraf, Zardari arguably had little room to manoeuvre. Defeating the militants is a long and messy and murky job. And fixing the economy in months was impossible given the double whammy of Musharraf’s profligacy and rocketing international commodity prices — and this before the financial meltdown.

But if the economy and militancy were sure to get worse before they got better, a shrewder politician would have understood the need to handle other areas better. Look at the Sharif brothers. In Punjab they are steering a government beset by many of the problems confronting the one in Islamabad. There’s a large cabinet, a dysfunctional coalition, little money, load-shedding, gas shortages, fuel shortages, dire inflation, unhappy farmers, dismayed businessmen, angry human rights activists, an antagonistic governor, unsettled bureaucrats — and yet the brothers come out on top in any poll.

The trick — and not in the wool-over-the-people’s-eyes way — is to focus on the possible. When the problems are big, pay attention to the small. Win over groups with gimmes. Fata is burning? Try and address the insurgency in Balochistan. Economy is tanking? At least appoint competent stewards and let them work on long-term institutional betterment. CJ Iftikhar won’t go away? Help the ordinary citizen get justice in the lower courts. Coalition is unwieldy and troublesome? Let parliament debate and argue until they drop — the people are used to bazaar politics and won’t mind. But scan Zardari’s governance record and there’s little evidence of such an understanding.

Worse, he has slammed the door in opportunity’s face when it has come knocking. Consider Mumbai. The one positive was that nobody, not even the Indians, believed the civilian government was involved. In the charged, overwrought atmosphere that was a once-in-a-lifetime moment. But instead of rising to the occasion and being a responsible, calm, credible interlocutor, the ISI-chief and hoax-call fiascos painted a picture of a bungling government seemingly determined to expose its every weakness.

So conventional wisdom has already written off Zardari, convinced he has neither substance nor style. The problem is that few bother to work through what it would take to remove him — and the consequences of doing so.

With all the chatter surrounding him, it is easy to forget that Zardari is actually in as secure a position as any politician can hope to be. He is a constitutionally powerful president who is entitled to stay in office until September 2013. There are no obvious ways to dislodge him.

Impeachment? Just last year we saw how effectively Musharraf was cornered by first using the provincial assemblies to express no confidence in him and then threatening to go all the way in parliament. But the numbers don’t add up for the opposition this time, neither in the provincial assemblies nor the parliament. And after the Senate elections in March, a two-thirds majority in parliament for anyone opposing the PPP co-chair will become an even more distant possibility.

The Kakar solution? Getting the army chief to counsel the president to step down has been done before, but until Kayani retires in another two years it would mean winning the ear of an army chief who has tried to move away from political intrigue.

A coup? That’s an X factor that can never be ruled out in Pakistan. Could Kayani be a general who eschews half measures and prefers the full monty? But that would leave Nawaz out in the cold, a dangerous foe who is nationally popular and hasn’t been sullied by a stint in government for a decade. The Bangladesh model, which is actually the Musharraf model between 1999 and 2002, could be used to win Nawaz over, but would be willing to take the word of a general having been betrayed so badly before?

There is another possibility, which also highlights the circularity of the problems of politicians. The PPP chairmanship is a poisoned chalice and Zardari is right to be taking his security so seriously — which is why he ducked the crowds in Garhi Khuda Buksh and stays away from public gatherings. Damned if he doesn’t; eliminated if he does — it’s an ugly choice that encapsulates the very worst of Pakistan’s bare-knuckles politics.

Whatever happens, the year 2 AZ is set up to be like many before in Pakistan’s history: a slow-motion train wreck with all of us on board, some cheering, others worrying, but with everyone losing.

Battlefield Gaza

By Gwynne Dyer

YOSEF Sheinin, the chief rabbi of Ashdod, was understandably distraught at the funeral of Irit Shetreet, one of four Israelis killed by Palestinian rockets since Israel launched its bombing campaign against the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip on Sunday. However, he was wrong to say that her death was “the latest manifestation of 3,000 years of anti-Jewish hatred.” The hatred is real, but its sources are a good deal closer both in time and in space.

Western media coverage of current affairs rarely goes into the origins of those affairs: even what happened last year or ten years ago is treated as ancient history. So the fury and despair of the million and a half residents of the Gaza Strip can easily seem incomprehensible — the “bottomless hatred of wild beasts,” as Sheinin put it. Why do these Palestinians fire murderous rockets at innocent civilians in Sderot, Ashkelon, Ashdod, even Beersheva?

Because that’s where they come from. Only about a fifth of the Gaza Strip’s population is descended from people who lived in that barren stretch of land before 1948. The rest are people, or the children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren of people, who were driven out of what is now Israel during the 1948 war, or simply fled in fear and were not allowed to go home again afterwards. Their former homes were mostly in the south of former Palestine, in places like Sderot, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Beersheva.

This does not give them the right to launch rockets at the people who now live in those towns, of course, any more than Israel has the right to use its massive air power to pound the crowded Gaza Strip. But it does provide some context for what is happening now — and indeed, happens every year or so. This struggle is still about what it has always been about: the land. And the fact that Israel is killing a hundred Palestinians for every dead Israeli does not mean that the Israelis are winning.

Israel cannot actually lose this fight, since Hamas, the Islamist organisation that now controls the Gaza Strip, is distinctly short of F-16s, tanks and UAVs carrying Hellfire missiles. Israel will not lose a lot of soldiers — more than a couple of dozen — even if it invades the Gaza Strip on the ground for a while, because Hamas is not like Hezbollah, the Shia militia in south Lebanon that fought the Israelis to a standstill in the 2006 war.

Ehud Olmert, Israel’s interim prime minister, and Tzipi Livni, his successor as head of the Kadima party, and Binyamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud party and her principal rival for the prime ministership in next month’s Israeli election, all know that. They are all old enough to have watched Israel try to bash the Palestinians into submission half a dozen times before, and they know it does not work. But that is strategy, and this is politics.

For Israel’s political leaders, this is mainly about looking tough in front of an electorate that just wants someone to “do something” about the Palestinians and their rockets. Nothing much can be done, short of a peace settlement generous enough to reconcile them to the loss of their land, but Israeli politicians have to look like they are trying. Hundreds of people are dying in the Gaza Strip to provide that show.

There is a more profound issue behind all this, which is Israel’s right to exist versus the right of the Palestinians to their homeland, but we shouldn’t get carried away with the unique moral dimension of all that. It’s just one more conquerors-versus-previous-inhabitants conflict, like the European settlers versus the Indians in the Americas in the eighteenth century — or, for that matter, the Israelites versus the Canaanites three thousand years ago.

Those earlier conflicts were all settled by force, but the world has changed and force doesn’t work so well any more. Israel has the power to hammer the Palestinians endlessly, but they don’t give up and go away. They cannot, and neither can the Israelis. Neither side can eliminate the other, as has been amply and repeatedly demonstrated.