1) I don't like Asif Ali Zardari. I think he is a venal, ill-educated and ruthless man who should never have risen to the position of power he is currently in. It is the tragedy of Pakistan that it must contend with the stupidity, arrogance and insensitivity of "leaders" like him.
2) I think the government's crude attempt to muzzle Geo by forcing cable operators to take the channel off air, by burning copies of Jang and threatening newspaper hawkers who carry it is just plain wrong and needs to be resisted by all who believe in a free media.
I have explained where I am coming from for the simple reason that what I am about to say next may fly in the face of conventional wisdom, or at least the overwhelming consensus that seems to have been manufactured in the country. And make no mistake, it is a manufactured consensus.
I may not like Asif Zardari as a person but it does not take away from the fact that he is the elected president of the country. And people can say all sorts of things about the shambolic nature of a democracy that resulted in him being elected president, but those were the rules everyone agreed to play by and those are the rules we have to accept. And the reason I bring it up is that much of the manufactured consensus against him in the media is implicitly or blatantly a refusal to accept those rules.
Zardari with Cameron (Photo: Kirsty Wigglesworth / Reuters)
Let's take the case of his trip to France and England which has been the source of much of the venom spewed against him. Should he have undertaken the trip at this time, with UK PM David Cameron's pointed barbs in India against Pakistan preceding his trip and the floods wreaking such devastation across Pakistan? No. The former demanded a sense of dignity from any self-respecting leader and the latter simply a sensitivity to public perceptions.
But even though we know that it was really the former issue - and Asif Zardari's ignoring of the entreaties of even his own Foreign Minister - that really pissed the establishment (read military) off, what we have been constantly hearing is that Zardari should have been taking care of the floods situation at home.
Nowshera, July 30 (Photo: A Majeed / AFP-Getty)
Really? What exactly would Zardari have done in Pakistan? This is a man who does not even venture outside his presidential palace, unless it's to his bunkered home in Nawabshah, and who has never even once visited the frontline of the battle against the Taliban in two years, and we expect him to be directing flood relief efforts? And more importantly, didn't he just hand over all executive power under the 18th Amendment, making him just a figure-head president? Isn't PM Yousuf Raza Gilani at least correct in his rhetoric that he is the chief executive of the country and it is he who is responsible for directing relief efforts? Him and the provincial chief ministers who seem to have got away pretty unscathed so far. Yes, Zardari failed miserably on the optics and in basic decency, but does anyone seriously believe that the floods' devastation and the ineffectual state response would have been ameliorated by Zardari being in Pakistan? I don't think so. But that is the constant refrain we now hear as if it is the gospel truth, particularly on Geo.
Taunsa near Multan, August 1 (Photo: Khalid Tanveer /AP)
So Zardari was an insensitive ass. But is that such breaking news that the media focus shifts entirely to undermining him? Were he not the president, would the suffering of the affectees of the biggest floods in Pakistan's history be any less? Would the administration become super-efficient? Isn't the issue of the inherent lack of capacity of the Pakistani state to deal with such crises a bigger issue than Zardari and his jaunts? Criticise him by all means but is a man chucking a couple of shoes in his direction really a bigger story than the tens of millions displaced from their homes? Or have we become so blinded by our rage and the cult of personality that we are willing to jettison all sense of proportion?
The question then becomes, to what end is this consensus being created? You only have to watch Aaj Kamran Khan Ke Saath to get a clear sense of the game that is cynically being played.
Here's a clip of last night's programme. Watch from 5.10.
Here's the other myth that is being perpetuated: that the flood relief efforts that the army is undertaking are somehow divorced from the government's response, almost, it would seem, in opposition of government directives. Is the army separate from government? Isn't the military hardware being used in the airlifts and food drops, as well as the soldiers, paid by the government and people of Pakistan? And to take nothing away from the brave work of the jawans who endure hardship and danger to rescue people and provide them food, but why are we being made to feel that the army is doing the people of Pakistan a favour? As if this were not really their job but are doing this only out of the goodness of their hearts?
Does the building up of the army's reputation come always as the cost of undermining civilian reputations? The tragedy for Pakistan is of course that its stupid civilian leaders play exactly according to the script. And only seem to prove their cluelessness with interventions like this:
What will such a demolition, in public perception, of everything other than the armed forces mean for Pakistan? Is that what is intended? Are we destined to go back to Square Zero every time?
But coming back to the issue of Geo's forced blackout: as much as I oppose it, I for one am not buying into the claims of hurt innocence that Geo is now loudly proclaiming. Yes, the government has responded in typical hamhanded fashion and has probably added fuel to burn itself. But was Geo simply reporting news as an unbiased and neutral observer? Does it have no hidden or obvious agenda? I think we all know the answer to that, at least in our hearts.
You could also do worse than read this assessment in The Independent by Chatham House fellow Farzana Shaikh. It is probably not something you will see quoted with relish on Aaj Kamran Khan Ke Saath.