Goodbye to some of this

Published December 21, 2007

AN all too temporary goodbye I hope because anything on permanent lines, as I told my masters in Dawn, would break my heart. For most of my adult life I have been associated with this newspaper, starting when the full glory of General Ziaul Haq’s benign rule was upon this unfortunate land.

Now it is the twilight of another patriarchate and because I have chosen to take part in this charade of a general election, meant not to secure popular sovereignty but give a further extension to a discredited authoritarian set-up, I have been told, hesitantly and reluctantly I must confess, that the higher principles of journalistic integrity dictate that I flee the haven that has been my refuge these past 24 years.

So journalism and popular politics do not mix although they are bread and butter to each other. I am not a politician who has come to journalism but a journalist who has occasionally dabbled in politics — not drawing-room politics, for which I have not much talent, but constituency politics. Simply because I have a constituency to run from, those coming before me having carved out a space for themselves in local politics.

One or two journalists in recent times have made their mark in diplomacy, none more so than our distinguished high commissioner in London. A few have clambered up politics’ backstairs, through the Senate (the most convenient backdoor of all) or by attaining party rank, friend Mushahid coming to mind in this respect. None, in my reckoning, has contested a general election in the last 50 years.

Which is not to say that contesting a general election deserves some kind of endurance prize. Mountain-climbing and skydiving are tougher and no doubt more fun. But that is not the point. I find it baffling that journalism should be considered at odds with popular politics. As I say, there is not much danger of too many journalists taking this road, everyone not having a constituency to run from. Holding a party office, on the other hand, is something else because political parties being the family fiefdoms that they mostly are, holding a party office really means being a factotum of someone or the other.

But it is hard to quarrel with drawing-room wisdom which all too often gives the impression of being the most powerful intellectual force in this country.

The great Habib Jalib stood for a provincial seat in the 1970 elections and although the electors of Lahore showed that they had more respect for his poetry than his politics, giving him short shrift in that affair, his entering that election did not make him a lesser poet. Gore Vidal once stood for Congress and, as might have been expected, did not make it. That did not stop him from churning out a stream of books and essays.

Eric Heffer, a Labour leader in the 1970s, had a regular column in the London Times as Roy Hattersley, another Labour frontman, had one in The Guardian. Tom Driberg in the 1950s was a popular columnist and a Labour MP (and also a flamboyant gay, to the no small alarm of naval ratings on leave in London). Churchill, when not in office, earned his living by writing books and newspaper articles. Mussolini (not that his example would appeal to many minds) was first a journalist and then a politician. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was both at the same time. But I doubt my masters at Dawn will be much taken by these examples.

Journalism and politics are ultimately about the same thing: public affairs and the managing of society, how best to achieve the golden mean. True, a conflict of interest arises if journalism becomes a tool of propaganda, there being nothing worse than putting journalism at the service of a particular political party, singing the praises of this leader or that. But journalism can be turned into a tool of propaganda even without wearing a party label or holding a party office or running for political office from the platform of a political party. There is no single road which leads to hell.

To politics I am drawn not out of any lure of high political office, which I don’t particularly cherish, but because of local necessity. A one-sided political field, with all the president’s men on one side and no credible challenge on the other side, drew me into the election race in 2002: to even out the political scales. Much the same logic obtains today in my district, the political scene again tilted towards one side, the president’s men holding all the cards in their hands, a similar situation to be found in many districts of the Punjab, and I daresay Sindh.

It would have been something to relish to sit out the contest from the sidelines and from there offer finely-worded critiques of what was passing in the country, something I have done often enough during the past 20 years or so. But under the circumstances it would have been, to my mind, a timorous choice, if a convenient one for all that.

Of how one attains eminence in journalism, Evelyn Waugh had this to say: “A great deal depends on how you spend the first days in the office. There are a certain number of people who can be idle for long stretches of time without appearing bored. To these fortunate souls comes in its season every form of worldly prosperity.”

Be that as it may, if you make it as a journalist, you are your own master, sucking up to no one except perhaps your editor if you are on the regular staff of a newspaper. But if you are a freelance, as I have been for much of my journalistic career, you are master of your own time, a luxury not bestowed on every mortal.

Politics by contrast, especially party politics in Pakistan, is a distressing affair. Since all our parties lack a democratic structure and leadership in most cases is handed down from father to son, or father to daughter, being close to the leadership, and being able to pander to its whims, becomes a political necessity. This may not be to everyone’s taste but there are intrepid souls who become masters of this art and rise to political glory less on intrinsic merit (although consummate flattery too is merit) than on the ability to hold on to someone’s coat-tails.

You need a tough skin to contest elections, a tougher skin to survive and maintain your own in the hurly-burly of party politics. The best courtiers are usually the biggest survivors. You see this in the PPP as well as the PML-N. As an MPA in 1997 I saw a Lahore mafia in action in the assembly, hooting the loudest for then Punjab commissar Shahbaz Sharif but whose members, not to my great surprise, were the first to strike out on their own when the Sharif order fell in October 1999.

We should make some allowances for circumstances. When times are harsh even good men and women see virtue in compromise. In occupied France during the Second World War not everyone was in the resistance. Many good people collaborated with the Germans or temporised with necessity. So too in Pakistan where temporising with necessity has become the greatest survival tool of all.

But I stray from the road. Contesting these elections, I am informed, spells the end of my long association with this newspaper. If it is to continue it will have to be in some other form. A harsh price to pay and, as I said, my heart is torn.

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