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Dead wrong

June 22, 2014


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

IN the middle of the dirty deed and the ugliness — monstrousness? — of what was perpetrated, the mind raced to two conclusions. And both made the heart sink.

Why now? Because it was the best darn moment. An operation had been announced, the prime minister had reluctantly owned it, the gap between civ-mil had narrowed, the army was distracted — now was the moment to strike.

Because now was the moment they could get away with it.

All this talk over the PML-N losing the plot and derailing a national consensus against militancy hours after it emerged and disastrously moving the national conversation back to why the N-League is unfit to rule misses the point: this was the week to do it because the boys were busy and the likely repercussions few.

The problem is the dead bodies. And the live bullets fired into a crowd of civilians. And the breathless, live, on-the-spot reporting.

But why do it at all?

Qadri is a nuisance, but he’s hardly a threat. And he’s only a threat to the extent the boys back him. But even if the boys are backing him, we’ve been here before and his march on Islamabad has failed before.

So why obsess over a threat that has been neutralised before?

Take your pick. Qadri is the weakest link in the boys’ chain. Precisely because he’s vulnerable and can’t hit back, he makes for a good target.

You’re the PML-N. You’re Nawaz. You’re sick of all the blows you’ve absorbed in recent weeks without even getting in a punch or two of your own. You want to make the point that you’ve felt the pain and that you’re still willing to fight. So you whack Qadri — or Qadri’s supporters anyway.

Or you’re the PML-N. At its core, the unreformed, unreconstructed PML-N is about the cold and calculated use of violence against opponents to protect its turf.

Qadri & co were running around mocking you. Making the tiger look like a pussycat. Pride was being dented, but, more importantly, reputation was being hurt too.

Imran did it last year and now every Tom, Rashid and Qadri thinks they can get in on the act. But not in Lahore. Not in Punjab. A lesson had to be taught.

Now, the signal has been sent. Hunting the tiger ain’t going to be no fishing expedition. There will be a price to pay. The pretenders to the throne will have to show what they’ve got.

And so it would have come to pass. If only the PML-N had figured out one additional thing: the changed media landscape. Specifically, the electronic and social media.

That Gullu Butt has gone viral and become a cultural meme isn’t the problem. In fact, he’s spawned a thousand jokes and all of them work to the PML-N’s advantage because they draw attention away from the dead bodies.

But the problem is the dead bodies. And the live bullets fired into a crowd of civilians. And the breathless, live, on-the-spot reporting.

If nothing else, you would have thought the PML-N would have waited for Geo to be back on air before laying siege to Qadri’s Lahore HQ. Maybe Geo’s coverage wouldn’t have been sympathetic, but neither would it have been cheerleading for the demise of the government the way the still-on-air big boys were this week.

OK, the Pemra suspension meant that the window of opportunity would have been too small between Geo getting back on air and TUQ arriving in Pakistan. Still doesn’t change the point: what the hell did the PML-N think was going to happen if they sent in the police to disperse a crowd in front of live, very hostile TV cameras?

Aha, there you go. The PML-N will pounce on that as proof that it was all unplanned and definitely not green-lighted at the very top. Except, not really. All that does is prove that they still don’t get the new media world they’re living in.

Which itself is a strange thing, given the almighty scare they were given by the PTI and its TV and social media push during the last election. A scare that led to the PML-N going out and looking for an ally in the world of TV and co-opting the biggest and baddest media beast in the land, Geo.

But forget Geo and TV for a minute. What can be kept off air can’t be kept offline. Social media’s reach may be limited for now — 3G and an internet boom, anyone? — but it has an outsize effect because so many in the media use it.

So the rage and anger over the Lahore killings would have burned through quickly enough and radiated onto TV. There was really nowhere to hide.

Which again leaves you with the question, what the hell were they thinking?

Everything — everything — that has been done to this government to make it vulnerable, to reduce its space to manoeuvre, to open it up to assault has been done through the media.

And here was the PML-N, giving the media, TV and social, everything it could have ever dreamed of and more.

The PML-N will survive Lahore and TUQ won’t bring down the government. But several truths have again been put up in big bold letters.

The PML-N is stuck in a pre-1999 mode. The PML-N will react under pressure. The PML-N will eventually choose the wrong option.

As for the anti-democrats, they will try again. And if anyone wanted to write it, they could write Gen R’s speech in five minutes flat. Today.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, June 22nd, 2014