Najam Sethi: Chirping away facts

Published June 19, 2014
A political animal to the core, extremely well-read and articulate, Sethi is always armed with examples to support his viewpoint. — Photo by AFP
A political animal to the core, extremely well-read and articulate, Sethi is always armed with examples to support his viewpoint. — Photo by AFP

Journalist, publisher, TV personality and former Marxist insurgent, Najam Sethi, takes great care in what he says and how he says it.

Consequently In 2013 he became a caretaker par excellence. Just before the May 2013 general election he became the consensus choice of the left-liberal Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the centre-right Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) to become the caretaker Chief Minister of the country's largest province, Punjab.

Though he was already a well-known personality in the annals of English journalism and publishing before his appointment, his face and voice truly went national and/or was seen and heard by a more mass audience when he was given his own TV show, 'Aapas Ki Baat', on one of Pakistan's leading private Urdu channels, GeoNews.

By early 2013 the show had firmly established him as a leading liberal voice in an (Urdu) media scene that is otherwise largely dominated by right-wing political narratives and personalities.

Interestingly, by February 2013, Sethi's show (co-hosted by a young lawyer, Muneeb Farooque), was racking up impressive ratings despite the fact that both men had consciously avoided the usual hyperbole and ear-splitting velocity of most TV talk-shows in Pakistan.

  Najam Sethi and Muneeb Farooque.
Najam Sethi and Muneeb Farooque.

The chirpy chirya

Reportedly, Geo had sectioned the show to attract the shy 'liberal' sections of the society. But the channel was pleasantly surprised to discover that conservative viewers too were regularly tuning in to watch Sethi discuss the ins and outs of Pakistani politics.

A political animal to the core, extremely well-read and articulate, Sethi comes across as a man with a ready and vivid set of examples to put forward his point of view, successfully cultivating a reputation of being a rational and neutral political observer.

But it wasn't only this that got his ball rolling; or the way he regularly infuses urban Punjabi humour into his speech to charm his way through certain thorny issues without sounding like a fist-waving opinion-maker.

It was his chirya (pet-bird) that provides the icing on whatever he decides to discuss.

The chirya is what he calls the many sources he seems to have inside and around the corridors of power.

Also read 'Sethi rejoins PCB on 'IPC Ministry order'

A number of TV anchors have claimed having the same, especially those who throughout the government of former President Asif Ali Zardari, kept quoting 'inside sources' about the demise of that regime for years, but only to see it complete its full five-year-tenure.

But what made Sethi's chirya famous (as well as notorious) was the fact that by early 2013, almost ninety percent of the predictions made by Sethi (facilitated by his chirya), came true!

Couple this with the way he complimented these predictions with a well-reasoned analysis, Geo had in its hand a man who was regularly drawing in an impressive amount of viewership from both sides of the conventional ideological divide.

Chirya flies into trouble

However, Sethi's new-found fame in the world of mainstream Urdu journalism and the populist electronic media began to also attract the unsavory attention of a host of elements, both from the right and left sides, who began to accuse him of a number of things.

For example, he had already fallen foul in the eyes and rage of religious extremists and their less violent apologists who constantly accuse him of working for the American CIA.

They also exhibit anger at what they allege is Sethi's agenda to 'misguide the masses' and infuse in them a thinking that these critics believe is against the dictates of the 'Pakistan Ideology.'

The accusations and criticism have not only come from the rightists. In 2013 certain sections of the (self-claimed) left tried to match their rightest counterparts.

In venomous attacks on Sethi in the social media and on websites, they accused him of being an 'establishmentarian stooge', an 'ISI lackey' and (most bizarre of all), a sympathizer of certain sectarian groups!

But Sethi's status as a force on mainstream electronic media remained intact, so much so that the country's two largest parties opted to choose him as Punjab's Caretaker CM to overlook the election in a province where a close three-way contest was expected (between the PML-N, the PPP and Imran Khan's centre-right, PTI).

Elections in the province were held, PML-N swept them, PPP was voted out and PTI did not win the number of seats it was hoping to.

Also read 'PPP rues making Najam Sethi caretaker CM'

As PTI cried foul and PPP was left to lick its wounds, PML-N chief and new Prime Minister, Nawaz Shrarif, now requested Sethi to become the Caretaker chief of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB). Sethi accepted.

Sethi confesses that he is a simple fan of cricket and not so well-versed in the technicalities of the game. But Sharif was right to expect Sethi to cut through the awkward and messy politics of the PCB to once again make it a profitable and well-oiled machine that it once was, especially before foreign teams stopped visiting Pakistan after the 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan squad by extremists.

New assignments, new critics

Of course, Sethi's new Caretaker appointment generated a new set of critics. First of all cricket experts and some former players accused Sharif of putting a cricketing novice at the head of the board. Sethi's supporters put down such criticism to sheer jealously on part of the former players, many of whom were hoping to become the next PCB chief.

Secondly, Sethi was now also accused of being Sharif's man. As the rightists on various TV channels and the social media continued to wag their fingers at Sethi's Machiavellian ways and his 'pro-West' agenda, his new set of critics pointed at his show's soft line on the PML-N.

It seemed the last accusation was not as bizarre as the ones Sethi usually faces, and he did begin to exhibit a rather soft approach towards an embattled PML-N government.

Also read 'The mad, mad mad world of the PCB'

But in December 2013, he turned around to dedicate a whole show that severely lambasted and took apart Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar's comments on the hanging of Jamat-i-Islami member, Abdul Qadir Molla, in Bangladesh.

Molla who was accused by the Bangladeshi government of murdering and raping Bengali nationalists in 1971 was hanged in December 2013. His hanging naturally drew condemnation from Jamat members in Pakistan, but Nisar (a PML-N man), crossed his mandate and passionately castigated the Bangladeshi government, using a hyper-nationalist tone that Sethi accused of being the same one that was used forty years ago by those who ended up alienating and angering the Bengalis when they were part of Pakistan.

Interestingly, Sethi's castigation of Nisar's irresponsible hyperbole again had the rumor mills rolling when some Nisar fans claimed that Sharif was using Sethi to build a case for him to oust his troublesome Interior Minister.

Sethi entered 2014 as perhaps the most influential mainstream media man in the country. But he does have an Achilles heel: Karachi. Somehow and in spite of having an uncanny ability to quickly grasp political complexities, Sethi has often fumbled in his analyses of the awkward politics of Pakistan's largest (and perhaps most violent) city.

Though his information (conveyed through his chirya) on the who is doing what in political Karachi is almost always spot-on, he stumbles in comprehending the cultural dynamics of the city's politics. Here his analyses are tainted by the old perceptions about the politics and culture of Karachi that still confound the thought process of most non-Karachiites, especially those residing in the Punjab. They have yet to update these perceptions and thus end up understanding the city with the help of perceptions that were first developed in the 1990s.

But this hasn't dented Sethi's uniqueness as such. Though Geo News remains off the air after it erred badly during the attack on one of its other famous talk-show host, Hamid Mir, Sethi's show is still being followed keenly in cyberspace by those who want to cut through the Jerry Springer antics adopted by most anchors, and instead, want their political TV shows to be based on concrete information that is then intelligently and impersonally dissected by a well-informed person with the help of history and a no-nonsense course in the complexities of Pakistani politics.

Sethi Trivia:

  • Born in 1948. Graduated from Government College Lahore in 1968.

  • Travelled to the UK to do his masters in economics from Cambridge University and then PhD in 1972.

  • Discovered Marxism. Travelled back to Pakistan with a group of young Pakistani Marxists to join the Balochistan nationalists in their fight against the state.

  • Was arrested and tortured in 1975. Released in 1978. Quit politics and established Vanguard Books, a progressive book publishing company.

  • Arrested in 1984 by the Ziaul Haq dictatorship for allegedly publishing 'anti-state books.'

  • In 1989 launched an independent English weekly, The Friday a Times.

  • The magazine was extremely critical of the first Nawaz Sharif regime (1990-93). It then became critical of the second Benazir Bhutto government (1993-96).

  • Joined caretaker set-up after the fall of the second Benazir government.

  • Was arrested by the second Nawaz Sharif government in 1999 on trumped-up charges of treason.

  • Suffered serious health problems during imprisonment.

  • In 2002 launched an English daily, Daily Times. Later he joined DunyaTV to host his first TV show before finally moving to Geo.


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