27 December 2021: The People’s Party is organising the anniversary of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination at Garhi Khuda Bakhsh in Sindh. In the past fourteen years, the event has become an established occasion of the show of force by her party and her next of kin. Media on this day instinctively knows not to draw attention away from it. But this time at least one news channel cuts away from the coverage of a rather important breaking news. Maryam Nawaz has just tweeted what Benazir Bhutto meant to her. When on top of the hour the news bulletin begins it leads not with the reports from Garhi Khuda Bakhsh but with Maryam Nawaz’s tweet. This by the way is the news network that finds a mention in Ms Nawaz’s Jayi Thayi media management audio leak beside one of the most controversial media houses in the country. No one asks you to judge the community of journalists, pundits and media owners by any principled standards. Judge them by the standards of simple common sense, at least.
January 5, 2022: The Director-General Inter-Services Public Relations holds the first media briefing of the year. It looks like a self-fulfilling prophecy that on this day of Kashmiri significance the journalists present would ask him to comment on the rumours about the alleged second coming (or is it tenth) of Nawaz Sharif through a secret deal. The DG rebuts the rumours and asks the media to demand evidence from the rumour mongers. Then in a heroic segue, a journalist asks him about the possibility of the army chief’s extension. Sigh.
In case you are wondering, these rumours are important because these days they alone pass the gold standard of ace punditry and journalism in the country. I am sure that the defence beat reporters present there were encouraged by their media houses to ask these questions. Because then the answers are used in the prime time talk shows to shore up ratings. But spare a moment to think about the genesis of these rumours and what kind of lethargic and intellectually bankrupt effort went into them. Ready?
In a country that has seen four military coups, the matters pertaining to transfers and postings are given more importance than they might deserve. Recently the country’s punditry worked itself into a tizzy when a notification regarding the appointment of the new Director-General Inter-Services Intelligence failed to materialise quickly in line with a press release issued by the ISPR. The subsequent statements by various federal ministers would indicate the presence of a communication gap, misgivings or even tensions. But only in our punditry’s Bollywood addled brain, this would automatically lead to one of three scenarios: a military coup, an in-house change through palace intrigue or a secret deal with one of the major opposition parties. You can rule out the first two because the first would require some extraordinary defiance of the myriad regional exigencies and the second some supernatural level of shift in the number game in the parliament. So what’s left? A deal with a major opposition player? Ok, but which one? Hey, how about the folks I met the other day who were nice and cozy and enjoy exceptional rapport with the media house that employs me. Right? So, a secret deal it is. Don’t worry. The story will grow in the telling. Every group has various political sympathisers within its ranks. They will help embellish the story. And even if it doesn’t pan out, I will say something funny and move on.
Sure. Except that this kind of media speculation can make a pig’s breakfast of governance in the country like it has for the past fourteen years of the resumption of the political order in the country. Remember that fine 2010 evening in Islamabad when speculative media reports claiming that the then People’s Party government was about to withdraw the notification reinstating the judges deposed by General Musharraf led to an exceptional late night full court session of the Supreme Court which could easily bring an end to the democratic process. This time too, these speculations took attention away from Kashmir and Afghanistan, the two very serious unfolding humanitarian crises and to a dud invented by the punditry whose imagination oscillates around access and privilege. When this happens some very smart, professional and respected senior journalists eventually fall prey to this charade too because tribalism forces them to.
Want proof of the tribalistic pudding? Double back and go through this piece again. At no point in this discussion did this scribe suggest that no tension existed along the civil-military divide. Nor that it could never lead to disruption. Or that everything was now hunky-dory. If you thought it was suggested it is because your mind is conditioned by tribalism to project the most simplistic interpretation onto every analysis. If this writer is not agreeing with the notion he must be against it. No. I cannot do that either because of two facts. One, frictions are built into our system owning to our unique historical experience. Two, there is not enough data to build a case one way or the other. This is not an AP Creative Writing class and I would rather deal with facts than misguide you just to prove that I am in the know.
But I can share a few pointers with you based strictly on my personal experiences and deductive reasoning. One, if a disruption comes it will start in Punjab. If you thought the PML-N was in any state to work out a deal it would have already brought down the Punjab government. Its internal divides render it incapable of doing that. That doesn’t mean that disruption cannot still materialise. Just do not count on the PML-N to play any part.
Two, with the change in the Balochistan government the next logical step for the former CM was to be elevated to the federal cabinet. Likewise, in the current international scenario, the Governor in Lahore could play a far more important role at the Centre. But because the country’s punditry has no brain cells left to pay heed to these two gentlemen no one is paying attention to the potential advantages.
Three, if a disruption were to take place at the Centre it wouldn’t result in a political dispensation but a technocratic one. Not good for any political party.
Four, about extensions and appointment of the next army chief. First, if an extension is under consideration at all, it will be a short one. The Pakistan Army (Amendment) Act of 2020 imposes an age limit. The maximum age is 64. Gen Bajwa turns 62 by the end of his current term. So a one- to two-year extension is the extent of it if you do not want to reinvent the wheel. And what happens if that extension is neither sought nor given? Here is another extrapolation. Don’t convince yourself that you know who the next chief might be. If you think you know the name, please note that that fact alone makes it an unlikely choice. Nothing local or political here. This post is not meant for domestic consumption.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 8th, 2022.