Beyond drawing rooms

Published July 6, 2021
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

SOMETIMES, it is hard to write weekly on politics. Truth be told, it’s hard nearly every week. Unless there are developments happening at breakneck speed à la the Bollywood film Race it is hard to sound even remotely fresh. After all, how many times can one write about the impending departure of whichever government is in power or the future prospects of the opposition leaders?

Part of this, perhaps, stems from the domination of talk shows which tend to push the same talking points — because the same three or four points of views representing three or more political parties are discussed. Recently, a tajziakaar (analyst) replaced one of three politicos, but the conversation rarely changes for the five years of a government, any government.

But there is more to it also.

If I may venture to stick my neck out, it is because our political discourse is dominated by a discussion of personalities — and the gossip around them. So Imran Khan is the new entrant who doesn’t understand the complexities of governance or of politics. His sporting background determines his inability to understand history or current events and this is where, we too, draw the line. If more has to be said, there are references to the influence of his family members (always in the realm of spiritualism and superstition) or the veto power of those who brought him to power. All analyses and ‘news’ flow from such understanding of his past life and his relatively ‘recent’ conversion to all things religious and spiritual.

There is cause for concern when gossip and analysis become interchangeable.

Such unidimensional analyses exist for all the politicians.

Take Nawaz Sharif. For his detractors, he is this difficult, cantankerous politician who has never been able to get along with any army chief — from Mirza Aslam Beg to Asif Nawaz to Gen Musharraf and now the current army chief. As if the civil-military fault line in Pakistan can be reduced to a belligerent politician à la Dr House! Partly this is due to political events and partly his emergence and rise which initially was as a technocrat and not a popular leader. Sharif (unlike Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto and Khan) came into power first and became a leader later. The initial image of him as a simpleton thrust into power by his father — some still tell stories of meeting his father and recount tales of the influence he wielded over his son and politics and military generals — who has little personal charm and people skills, feeds into this myth of the grouch who-can’t-get-along.

In his recent years in power, ie the third time, there was another recurring theme of the head of the biggest party being heavily influenced by his daughter and hence making the mistake of picking multiple fights. It wasn’t his fault, the three-time prime minister’s, but the young woman’s.

Asif Ali Zardari is seen as the wily, unethical one, always aware of the quickest and ‘bestest’ deal to be made, in our politics. Loyal to his friends but not the enemy anyone wants — as if there is an enemy anyone wants. And till the 2018 election, many insisted (or was it hope being projected as analysis?) Bilawal was often at odds with his father because he was obviously more like his mother. This notion was resurrected at the peak of the PDM’s politics, when it was hoped that the entire opposition would resign collectively to undermine the PTI government.

One can go on and on in this vein.

This is not to say that gossip about personalities is completely irrelevant. It is not. And the personalities of politicians do impact policies and decision-making. Especially in a capital city, the journalist cadre always prides itself on knowing the news which isn’t fit to print but is worth discussing. However, this has become more pronounced in our case because a certain section of journalists has become part and parcel of the small elite which includes the political class. And hence drawing room gossip now passes for information. Earlier, there were some barriers perhaps which forced some hacks to seek more material elsewhere.

But when gossip and analysis become interchangeable there is cause for concern, for our understanding tends to be as limiting as the gossip we exchange.

For instance, the decline of the PPP in Punjab is placed squarely at the feet of Zardari. As he is a wheeler and dealer, he cannot or does not want to do popular politics. But this sidesteps the issue of the steady decline of the PPP’s popularity in the province since 1988 and the reasons for this. Similarly, few have explained how Nawaz Sharif has come to dominate the political imagination of the voter in Punjab. There have to be socioeconomic changes as well as policies (not just personalities and the machinations of the establishment) but the former just isn’t ‘sexy’ enough for analyses outside the academic realm.

This is one major reason we have prioritised statement journalism — for an obsession to personalities will lead to this — reporting and then picking apart the various statements giving by various politicians, some of them rather irrelevant. More importantly, this hampers our ability to envision how events may unfold. Hence, Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification meant he had been pushed out of politics or his hard-hitting statements at PDM rallies were interpreted as the beginning of revolutionary times, for no one could be bothered to consider the politicians he led and or the voters who looked up to him. Or take the conclusion that unpopular or poor decision-making by the PTI spelt its demise by the next election without explaining who would then fill the vacuum and why. A decade earlier, similar talk led to predictions of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan overrunning Islamabad. Each of them is based on top-down analyses, with no reference to the people who also feed into changes of this magnitude.

Less reliance on gossip would have made some of the issues easier to unpack, and will do so in the future, if we can see the difference between the two. Gossip should remain just that — a bit of fun and considerable malice.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, July 6th, 2021

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