Saturday, December 31, 2011

Bizarre Newspaper Headline Awards

Every newspaper does year-enders, you know those things that sum up what happened in the past year that everyone already knows about and which only those who didn't bother following the news the whole year bother reading? We, on the other hand, couldn't give a rat's arse about year-enders. More importantly, we have a hard enough time keeping up with news as it happens and nobody ever pays us to dig stuff up from a whole year.

In that spirit, we present 2011's final awards in the Bizarre Newspaper Headline Contest... yeah, they're not a round-up of all the wonderful headlines that may have entertained us through the year, just the most recent ones we remember. In any case, here they are:

1. The What Else You Gonna Call It Headline Award

Winner: The News Lahore on November 14 for its main lead about a poor donkey that was strapped with explosives that were set off via remote-control in a crowded market in Khyber Agency. Had this been the Express Tribune, we would have been pretty sure this was a misguided pun. But no, with The News Lahore, you know that they mean this in earnest. At least they stayed clear of calling it an 'Ass Bomb.'

2. The Graphic But Gentle Sex Headline Award

Winner: The News Islamabad, November 14 (two awards in one day for The News) for Tariq Butt's story about Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) trying to lure electorally strong politicians into its folds...

Hoover, that PTI is. Bizarrely, that slow sucking had unintended consequences as can be seen from the next award...

3. The Wildly Inappropriate Wording of the Main Headline Award

Winner: The Daily Times, December 10, about the impending return to Pakistani of President Asif Zardari from medical treatment in Dubai... Or so we think.

And you thought his return was anticlimactic!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Notes from the 'Revolution' (Karachi Season)

I had half made up my mind to tweet about my impressions of Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf's (PTI's) Karachi rally today (yes, I did go despite the lack of Christmas pudding on hand) but seeing as how each tweet usually seems to end up needing two or three more to clarify and how, inevitably, someone's who's missed them asks you why you did not say anything about such and such, I decided it might be better just to do a brief post on the whole thing.

PTI Jalsa: late afternoon (Photo: via PTI website)

So here goes:

1. It was a big, big crowd: Exactly how big? Who really knows? Nobody we knew had done the only acceptable way of enumeration, by counting the legs and dividing by two. But the general consensus among media hacks was that it was above 100,000 people. Could easily have been 150,000 also. No, it was not 500,000 as the PTI spinners on stage were insisting by the end. No, there weren't a huge number of people outside the main ground or inside the grounds of the Quaid's Mazaar (which was set across the road from the venue).

PTI Jalsa: at nightfall (Photo: via PTI website)

Let me do a bit of back of the envelope calculations to explain why these estimates are probably quite accurate. The front of the crowd was very packed and standing room only. But beyond about 50-60m from the stage there were chairs which obviously take up more room and the crowd also was less packed. In addition, the crowd was basically only directly in front of the stage in a rectangular space - some of the area to the right of the stage was sparsely populated since containers on which the media were cloistered blocked views of the stage behind them. Apparently the venue is a total of 58,000 sq. yards (this from a reporter who actually did the research). This includes about a quarter of the total area that was sparsely populated because of the reasons stated above. This means that roughly 75% of the total area or about  44,000 sq. yards was being utilized. Let us assume (generously) that half of this space was standing room only and that one person needs only about 2 sq ft to stand, while in the remaining half people had slightly more space or 4 sq. ft. These assumptions yield about 100,000 + 50,000 = 150,000 people. Give or take a couple of ten thousand.

What everyone was agreed on, however, was that it was a very impressive show and that the rally was one of the largest Karachi has seen in recent times.

Enthusiastic PTI supporters (Photo via PTI website)

2. It was not a rent-a-crowd: I walked through the crowd from the back to the front and generally I came away with the impression that this was not a crowd that was bused in under any duress. I know that we had earlier tweeted claims from some sources that e.g. the lower staff of armed forces personnel had been ordered to attend or that the MQM was going to help out with crowds but nothing I saw today raised any proverbial eyebrows at least for me. There were a lot of single young men but there were also a substantial number of women and families. It was quite a heterogeneous crowd, all of which seemed to be really enthused to be there and to see Imran Khan. Will they actually all turn up to vote come election time, especially when the choice before them will likely be Ikhtiar Baig vs Khushbakht Shujaat vs Naeemul Haq rather than Imran Khan vs anybody else, well that's PTI's million dollar challenge.

PTI Jalsa stage: elaborate lighting rig (Photo via PTI website)

3. A lot of money had been spent on this jalsa: A PTI source claimed 200,000 flags had been brought for the rally. Even if there were only half that amount, and even if each flag cost them only Rs. 20 (including the stick, the cloth and the printing), that's still Rs. 20 lakhs right there. PTI had also contracted with an audiovisual company that was filming the jalsa (including on at least three cranes) and providing their visual feed to all the channels to supplement the channels' own coverage. Even the chairs were heavy metal ones, not the sort it would be easy for any lurking Kasurians to carry away. Add logistics, security, stage grids, furniture, generators, fuel, cables, lights, sound systems, construction costs, labour, food and refreshments for organizers and other payments and you can tell that the costs for this rally were easily above a crore at the minimum. Which fat cats pay for these expenses and why, is a question the media still needs to ask Imran Khan.

4. The music sucked: I think a lot of those attending were expecting more live music ala the Lahore jalsa. What they got instead were a lot more speeches, some sporadic pre-recorded music and Salman Ahmad (who, as @umairjav noted, strutted around the stage as if he was the shahbala and lip-synced to Ali Azmat's vocals). Come to think of it, at the time of the Lahore rally, PTI didn't have as many speakers to accommodate at the podium. With more 'heavyweights' joining, PTI youth may have to live with the fact that the music has died with the Lahore jalsa. Even Abrar-ul-Haq preferred giving a speech rather than singing.

5. The speeches were Meh at best: Nothing spectacular, nothing concrete, nothing specific about Karachi, just a lot of feel-good vagueness, including Chairman Imran Khan's. After spending 18 years in the wilderness you would expect PTI stalwarts to be able to present something a bit more substantial in terms of policy than 'we'll bring in clean people, provide justice and make a stronger Pakistan through better policies' but it seems that's all there is to it at the moment. Maybe Khan sahib et al felt this was just not the time to go into details. However, two speeches really tested my patience. One was by new entrant Javed Hashmi who just would not stop singing his own praises as a 'rebel' for a really, really long time. The other was Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who is just plain irritating. I don't think anybody there much understood what he was talking about either since he kept talking about "asymmetric power" and "credible minimal deterrence" in so many words. He also backtracked on his Ghotki speech and tried to spin his way out of embarrassment, by claiming that when he had raised alarm bells within the establishment by calling Pakistan's nuclear weapons as unsafe, he actually did not mean it physically but only in terms of policy.

'Whoever brings Aafia back will be called a leader' (Photo via PTI website)

6. There were a lot of Aafia Siddiqui placards in the crowd: Javed Hashmi was the only speaker to refer to Aafia Siddiqui from the stage and nobody even paid lip service to the placard of another young man which called for setting fire to America ("Amreeka ke aiwaanon ko aag laga do!").  But you know that, eventually, PTI will need to resolve the contradictions among its youthful idealistic supporters and the ideologically motivated ones.

7. Other thoughts I had: a) Shah Mahmood was the only speaker who, I think, did not mention Imran Khan even once in his speech, while other speakers fell over themselves to pay him tribute. Whether that's a good thing or ominous, I leave for you to judge. b) I wasn't the only one who thought that everytime the crowd chanted a response to 'Dalaer Aadmi' [Brave Man] it sounded like they were chanting 'Nawaz Sharif, Nawaz Sharif' when they were actually chanting 'Hashmi, Hashmi.' It was just very funny. c) PTI really needs some more prominent women in its ranks. The stage sagged with male posteriors. And where was Dr Shireen Mazari? d) Listening to the slogans where Imran Khan was rhymed with everything from Pakistan, jaan [beloved] and insaan [human], I couldn't help feel sorry for Nawaz Sharif. I mean, the lack of possibility of rhyming anything with the PMLN leader's name must be a serious impediment to sloganeering. e) This 'revolution' will obviously be televised. And facebooked. And tweeted.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Game Afoot?

I had promised a comprehensive post about the unraveling of Husain Haqqani when it first happened. The different aspects of the case (technical, political, legal) that led to his resignation as Pakistan's ambassador to the United States - now commonly and irritatingly dubbed 'Memogate' - however, not only required a lot more time to deal with than I then had available, but has already been commented upon in bits and pieces by various analysts all over in newspapers, on television and on the net. Far more importantly, it now seems like a footnote in the rush of current events.

 Eye of the storm: Husain Haqqani

Because I had promised a post on it, I will state briefly what I thought of the entire episode as well as state some things that all should be aware of:

*** The Unravelling of Husain Haqqani ***

1. The military establishment was never pleased with the appointment of Haqqani as Pakistan's ambassador to the US and had been gunning for his head right from the beginning. Whether this was because it actually believed Haqqani was not sincere to Pakistan's interests, whether it felt it needed someone more on its institutional side in the US, or whether it was simple vindictiveness that arose out of Haqqani's well-regarded 2005 book "Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military" which critiqued the military's role in fostering religious extremism, I do not know. What I do know, however, is that it tried many times covertly to vilify Haqqani through the media in order to have him pushed out, the most recent previous example being over the Raymond Davis affair.

2. It is my educated guess, based on the evidence available so far, that the military did not precipitate the memo crisis, but it certainly pounced on it with great glee once the existence of the memo had been revealed by Mansoor Ijaz's oped in the Financial Times. It is also my strong hunch that the only reason Mansoor Ijaz did what he did was initially a banal hunger for the limelight, a desire to be seen as a 'player' in international politics. He has always harboured great ambitions to be seen as such, as well as deep-rooted resentment that his alleged earlier forays into Sudan and Kashmir had not provided him the importance he felt he deserved. Before his FT piece, no one knew even of the existence of the memo or perceived any notable shift in US policy because of it. His subsequent posturing was precipitated by a sense that he was once again being belittled and mocked.

 Mansoor Ijaz: Blackberry warrior

3. It is my considered belief that Husain Haqqani was, in fact, involved in this saga, based on the 'evidence' presented so far in the public domain and my own knowledge of Haqqani's personality. You are free to disagree with this, it is after all only my opinion. Haqqani has always been an extremely intelligent and clever man (some colleagues have often dubbed him Machiavellian in his brilliance) but in this case he probably overreached and did not anticipate the power of the desire for fame that underpinned Mansoor Ijaz's personality. Haqqani also did not anticipate that his attempts to discredit Ijaz through certain blogs and newspaper articles - not under his own name of course, but I choose to leave them unnamed - only angered Ijaz further and made him more resolute in exposing all. It helped of course that Ijaz had the military to goad him on. For one of the most brilliant media tacticians, this was Haqqani's fatal miscalculation. There still remain plenty of unanswered questions about why Haqqani did what he did, especially because public opinion after the May 2 Abbottabad raid, if one cares to remember, was decidedly anti-military and certainly not conducive to the kind of coup the memo was allegedly in response to. My own feeling is Haqqani (and possibly President Asif Zardari) felt it to be an opportune time to bring the khakis to heel and he chose to go via the Mansoor Ijaz route (despite his dubious credentials) precisely because it provided the requisite plausible deniability. I can present no definitive evidence to back up these gut feelings, which brings me to the next point.

4. I don't believe that, legally speaking, Haqqani can be linked directly with the memo based on the evidence presented so far. At best, even if (and that is a big 'IF') RIM - the company that runs Blackberry services around the world - provides concrete evidence of the authenticity of the BBM messages exchanged between Haqqani and Ijaz, there would still be only circumstantial / speculative evidence that what they actually discussed was the memo itself. The most recent revelations by WikiLeaks - which indicate that "software products could not only read emails and text messages sent from spied-on phones, but could actually fake new ones or alter the text of messages sent" can be used by Haqqani to cast even more doubt on the alleged BBM exchange. There is not even that little level of evidence to link Zardari to the memo. Keep in mind I am speaking purely from a legal point of view, which is the only point of view that matters as far as the courts are concerned. The Supreme Court inquiry into 'Memogate' is bound to run into a legal dead end, like it or not.

5. I don't subscribe to the line of reasoning of those who rose to the defence of Husain Haqqani by saying that 'there is nothing wrong in the memo even if he did write it'. They misjudge how it plays in the minds of even the most pro-democracy of Pakistanis and certainly misjudge its impact on public consciousness. No one in their right mind thinks the solution to the Pakistan military's obtrusiveness in domestic politics lies with the US. Not even Haqqani has claimed that; in fact he has used that argument explicitly to denounce linking him with the memo.

So where does this all leave us? Some people will be angered by this analysis. No doubt Mr Haqqani and his die-hard supporters will question my assumptions even though I have attempted to clearly label them as my opinion where appropriate. On the other hand, his detractors will consider this a cop-out: if I really do believe he was involved, they will argue, how can I be satisfied with no repercussions? Simply because my 'gut feelings' are no substitute for solid proof. All I am trying to lay out is how I think matters played out and will play out from a legal point of view. But it's not that there have been no repercussions already. Husain Haqqani's career as a Pakistani envoy is finished at least pending some sort of major revolution in Pakistan (and I don't mean of the Imran Khan variety). He has resigned and that will be that from a legal point of view in my opinion. But far more is going on behind the surface that requires a closer look.

*** Beyond the Memo ***

The reason I say that the memo saga is fast becoming a footnote in the rush of current events is because of political developments of which it now seems one small part. The latest of these is the speculation over Zardari's sudden departure for the UAE ostensibly for "medical reasons" and the media frenzy about whether it signals his imminent resignation.

No logical scenario entails any such resignation by Zardari (neither legally nor politically) but the media (with some notable exceptions) is not often one troubled by looking at things logically. However, what the hysteria around it and around the memo story indicates is not just wish fulfillment on the part of media anchors. It indicates that there is a concerted effort in place to tip things into at least a perception of crisis.

I have been sitting on an explosive lead for about two weeks, primarily because it is entirely based on hearsay, partly because it defies logical credulity and partly because I was trying to get some more confirmations which have proved difficult to obtain for obvious reasons. However, while  I don't generally believe in sharing speculative rumours (there are far too many in this country) I think there are interesting enough aspects to it, especially in light of recent events, that perhaps some of our more well-connected readers can shed some further light on or perhaps even definitively refute. So here goes:

Two independent sources, both extremely well connected, have been talking big in private gatherings recently. One of them is a prominent businessman with links to military intelligence operatives. The other is a close family member of a recently retired high-ranking military man. Both say the same thing: that the entire political 'set-up' will be 'wrapped up' in January. While the sources for their 'information' are patently military, they both cited cases being heard in the Supreme Court, which are at critical stages, as the catalyst. The three most important cases referred to are the one against the National Reconciliation Ordinance (which has finally been decided against the government), against the Rental Power Agreements (in which government is accused of corruption) and finally the one calling for an inquiry into the secret memo and the government's role in it. The decision on these three cases in particular will supposedly tip the situation from one of impending crisis into a real one.

So far nothing spectacular other than an apparently definitive timeline. Many analysts with no inside knowledge could make similar predictions. However, what these sources say next is notable. They both claim that what would follow the 'wrapping up' of the current political dispensation are not elections but an interim arrangement along the Bangladesh model, and the name they mention is reference to who might head up such an arrangement? Former 'clean' minister and businessman Jehangir Tareen.

MNA Jehangir Tareen: Mr Clean Sweep?

When I first heard this, I did a double take. Wait, I asked, didn't Tareen already announce he would join Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI)? No, I was told, he quietly took back his decision when he was 'asked to reconsider.' Indeed, Tareen has not yet joined PTI though PTI sources claim 'negotiations' are continuing.

Now, Tareen's name could well be red herring. When I first heard this, as I said about two and a half weeks ago, it immediately made me question whether the military establishment's obvious sympathies for Imran Khan were wavering. But there are already reports that the delay in Tareen joining up with Imran Khan has more to do with internal dissent within his group, some of whom want a more prominent role vis a vis PTI. If Tareen does join PTI as expected by the time of PTI's rally in Karachi on December 25, we can put at least this particular claim to bed and allay all doubts about where the brass' sympathies lie. Hint: Not with Nawaz Sharif (and he knows it).

But there are other major issues with these claims as well (even without Tareen in the mix) which stretch my credulity. Primarily that it would take a lot of shameless somersaults for the Supreme Court to validate yet another diversion from the constitution. And despite the fact that stranger things have happened in this country, such a scenario seems very unlikely to me at this point. There is no doubt in my mind, however, that a very serious game is nevertheless afoot.

So there you have it. If nothing of the sort happens, and the PPP government actually addles through the next couple of months, I promise never to indulge in such rumour-mongering ever again. But if something significant does occur by the end of January, I would have hated to have been in a position of saying 'Guess what I'd heard in November!'.