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The headline makers

March 22, 2019

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The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

GOOD slogans are like good headlines. If the story is potent and informed by the right amount of sentiment, the headline will also come across as powerful, and will be imbibed with some creativity if the stuff really inspires the copy editor.

Crispness, it is sometimes called in the newsroom, which is the next logical state after empathy. An uninspiring cause can defeat the most professionally trained minds working to come up with the right, ‘blaring’ banner capable of attracting the attention of the people.

Recently, some workers in a firm were protesting layoffs and other purges in employment that could obviously have disastrous, ‘game-changing’ effects on their lives. These included people known for their humour and wordplay and together they were looking for the right kind of slogans that could strike a chord with the audience and help overcome the lack of numbers in their gatherings and their monthly pay cheques.

It appeared to be a tough exercise: a feeling of having run out of ideas when it came to putting a headline on your story. Let’s hope for the sake of an apt headline that their pain could at any time in future give them the catchy placard. They have the potential as they might have been on to something good on occasion, for example when they stumbled upon the rhyming scheme between ‘jhatt patt’ and ‘job cut’. But then it appeared that there was something — maybe a lack of belief? — which forced them to discontinue this journey to self-discovery after a few such half-hearted attempts.

How and why did the good solid slogans fade away from our lives, and come to be replaced by matter-of-fact stuff?

The feeling often is that a similar lackadaisical, casual-to-a-fault approach marks Pakistanis’ daily brush with causes. The good slogans are, by and large, missing. Was the past really more conducive to slogan-making? Has the target audience really turned away in recent times?

Personally, this fascination with the slogan dates back to the early years. The first general election in the country, war against India, the universally condemned oppression of the Zia days — these are all but a few events that must have helped a whole generation develop a taste for what was catchy and offensive enough to create an impression.

A moment particularly stuck in memory was provided by the ‘non-party’ yet keenly fought local government polls that had one of the more well-known men in our mohalla as a contestant. I was taken aback when my elder brother, by all appearances a perfectly oppressed Zia ‘affectee’ youth, offered his services to invent what turned out to be some of the most popular banner lines for the gentleman’s campaign.

It bothered the author little that ‘his’ leader in this case happened to be a Jamaat-i-Islami affiliate in contrast to his own semi-socialist views. It was a partnership dictated by common interests where a young man’s sentiment against the regime was channelled by an aspiring politician into exploring the ground for success in whatever little gains that could be made.

The 1980s was a decade where we hardly ever felt slogan-deprived. Gen Zia, the most slogan-inspiring personality to have blessed this world, kept us supplied with the catchiest refrains one could ever wish on an adversary. There were frequent opportunities for clearing one’s throat and letting loose a cry, the pre-Glasnost period making sure that the loud words also reflected some kind of ideology. There would occasionally be an unblemished and unmarried Benazir Bhutto landing in Lahore or the folks gathering at some place in the city to defiantly celebrate the still controversial Faiz or watch an Ajoka play.

To their credit, the other side had enough ammunition of its own to make it quite an engaging match. But then, how and why did the good solid slogans fade away from our lives, replaced by the matter-of-fact stuff that may only excite those looking to promote vague, weak ideas as mature prose?

Those who ran out of slogans were not so difficult to identify. For the academics the assertion may require a backup study deeper than is possible in these columns, but a layman having travelled a similar path as this writer may agree that the departure of a good solid, hard-hitting slogan from national politics was directly proportionate to the demotion of the PPP and Jamaat-i-Islami.

With time, they fell from their position as the biggest, agenda-setting entities — to a point where the PPP leaders began visiting the JI headquarters in Mansoora to inquire if there were really no common goals that could bring the two old foes, known for their verbal bombardment on each other, on a common platform.

Or maybe we are talking of an altogether different age here. Maybe, the younger people, for example, the kind who sneak into a Pashteen rally, have enough reason and understanding of the present to be moved by and live by today’s slogans in a fashion that the generations before them did. Maybe, it’s about the distance that has been covered and which separates the then dreamer from today’s realities. It could well be the fatigue of having to reinvent the same old headline each evening — that is until you ran into a set that had a rejuvenating effect on you.

The recent Aurat March generated all kinds of extreme reactions — the worst being a retaliatory demonstration by a group of placard-holding men. As purely slogan-writing goes, the Aurat March brought back the times when people did think about what slogan they were going to be associated with, not just on the basis of ideology, but also when it came to taking care of the creativity part of it.

These were slogans emanating out of stories that were so real and thus identifiable, told with wit that has become so rare in a country where holding rallies for forward causes is a task that has been left to non-governmental organisations. This march did reassure us that the tradition where passion combined with the slogan is still alive.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, March 22nd, 2019