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Searching for answers

February 12, 2012

LOOKING for an explanation for what’s going on in Pakistan of late? You’re not alone.

Every theory seems incomplete, even the conspiracies don’t add up. Memogate is winding down but wait, maybe it’s not. The government is sailing cleanly towards Senate elections and the next budget, except suddenly there are dark clouds gathering again.

The court is trying to ensure job security for the army principals but it’s also getting under their skin by challenging them on disappearances and deaths. The political opposition inside parliament is negotiating over an eventual caretaker set-up but outside parliament rally season continues: are early elections on the cards or not?

Welcome to the new Pakistan, where power centres are diffuse, outcomes less certain and no grand conspirator to make it all come together, or fall apart, at the appropriate time. And possibly the worst place to try and get an explanation for what’s going on is everyone’s first port of call: the media.

In eras past, the media super sleuths had the measure of this place. If it looked like something was afoot, all they had to do was get the pulse of certain quarters: GHQ, the presidency and/or the prime minister’s house. That triangular nexus, sometimes aided by the main opposition party, pretty much had the answers to all that was happening in Pakistan.

But then fragmentation hit, beginning with the political class. 1997 was only a handful of years ago really but can anyone imagine a political party capturing a two-thirds majority in parliament on its own today? The PPP and the PML-N have all but abandoned even the possibility of a simple majority of their own.

Think about the NRO saga. If Zardari had a PPP majority in parliament, he would have had the ordinance converted into an Act of Parliament when the Supreme Court gave him the chance in 2009. Instead, the MQM baulked at the last minute and the dream of parliamentary cover for the NRO went up in smoke.

Where connecting the dots before involved speaking to BB and then cross-checking with Sharif, the political equation has become more complicated.

Then came the growth of the media itself, propelled by the electronic media, and with it the age of the sage died. Every other week saw the minting of a fresh analyst or pundit or media star eagerly grabbing whatever megaphone was handed to them.

Suddenly, the politicians themselves had choices. They could pick and choose who in the media they would share secrets with or confide in, where before they had to pay obeisance to the few arbiters of public opinion.

So now Asif Zardari has his favourites, Gilani his own, Sharif and the Chaudhries their own little competition and the other players still have plenty to pick from in the media. Thus has been consolidated the fragmentation of information inside the media. X knows what the Zardari camp is up to, Y knows what one of the Sharifs is thinking and Z may have access to a smaller player, but X, Y and Z don’t have inside access to all the camps. So triangulation and the process of elimination to figure out what’s going on and what’s likely to happen has become that much more difficult.

Then, to complicate things even further, new players have arrived on the scene and the motivations and strategy of the oldest player, the army, are in flux.

To figure out what’s happening in Pakistan today, you need to know what the court is thinking and why, what the army is thinking and why and what sundry political forces are thinking and why. Before, many of those calculations were fairly static.The media hasn’t caught up yet. And perhaps just as true, many aren’t willing to acknowledge a new version of an old truth, or at least tell their viewers and readers about it: self-interest and institutional interests are dominant.

There may be a confluence of interests between the court, the army and the political opposition, but the court’s agenda is also institutional: it is determined to establish itself as a player to be feared and respected. An unpopular government with a leadership that sneers at the court was an easy target for the court, much more so than a shadowy security apparatus that plays by its own rules.

The army’s fear and loathing of the government is rooted in the possibility that reckless mismanagement of the economy could jeopardise the army’s fiscal needs and that Zardari’s greed for power could see the army’s internal predominance hacked away at a pace and in a manner the army isn’t comfortable with, even if it has realised that the days of uncontested dominance may be a thing of the past.

Zardari’s political strategy is to focus on his party’s rural vote base to the total exclusion of urban Pakistan, which he has pretty much written off as a PPP support base. So the calumny and vitriol directed Zardari’s way from urban Pakistan don’t really bother him because there’s no proportional representation to worry about here.

Narrow self-interest and institutional interests dressed up as the greater good for the maximum number of people but with no one player having the ability to get their way unchallenged and uncontested — the messiness that is Pakistan today isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

But for it to become a good thing, it has to be called out for what it is. And for that to become possible, the media has to first stop pretending that it knows what’s going on.

Nobody does. The script is being written in real time.

The writer is a member of staff.