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Pakistan: Too Much Politics

The media in Pakistan has recently been dominated by current political issues such as those concerning the dismissal and subsequent reinstatement of the chief justice, the actions of president Musharraf, and the plans of Benazir Bhutto. The intrusion of politics into the daily lives of people has also drawn researchers and academics towards writing profusely on contemporary issues in newspaper columns. This may raise the standard of the newspapers, but it pushes out reflection on substantive issues such as the role of the military in government.

Letter from South Asia

for Pakistan and its people. And, that such developments begin to shift the ground

Pakistan: Too Much Politics

from under the feet of the general-president,

The media in Pakistan has recently been dominated by current political issues such as those concerning the dismissal and subsequent reinstatement of the chief justice, the actions of president Musharraf, and the plans of Benazir Bhutto. The intrusion of politics into the daily lives of people has also drawn researchers and academics towards writing profusely on contemporary issues in newspaper columns. This may raise the standard of the newspapers, but it pushes out reflection on substantive issues such as the role of the military in government.

S AKBAR ZAIDI

T
o write about anything but the day to day excitement called politics in Pakistan is impossible. This entire year has been one extraordinary play of personalities, institutions and even lay people, vying to make their mark on the political scene of Pakistan. Every newspaper and all analysts have been writing, at first, about the chief justice “issues” and the consequences of the episode. Following his reinstatement, the focus shifted to the deal between Benazir Bhutto and president Pervez Musharraf. Along with these two major developments, other themes which have been part of the public discourse have been regarding the general’s re-election as president.

This “politics” or politicking is what Pakistan’s elite public sphere seems to be all about. Along with this, other stories that have increasingly been making the front pages of Pakistan’s newspapers, are the stories about the attacks on Pakistani soldiers in their safe bases and the ongoing war on terrorism within Pakistan’s borders. The main sources of information for such news and events are now increasingly live reports on Pakistan’s vibrant and free electronic media. Yet, while news of all types filters in as and when it happens, analysis and interpretation take place largely on issues related to individuals and their offices.

Clearly, while the suspension of the chief justice by the general-president was a major event, and with the media having found its space and making its mark on the politics of the country, perhaps even giving it a direction, this issue from March 9 to July 20 seemed to be, going by the newspapers, the only event of consequence to matter to ordinary Pakistanis. All serious discussion on talk-shows and in the media was about what would happen if this or that decision came through, and was discussed to death. The same treatment was meted out to the “deal” between the leader of Pakistan’s most popular democratic political party and the self-imposed general as president. Different combinations of what could happen to president Musharraf when Benazir Bhutto returns were discussed, all about a deal that has still not gone through.

This so-called politics has become entertainment, devoid of its proper analysis in a historical and institutional setting. Much of what passes for politics is largely about Musharraf, what he will do, what will happen to him after September 17, or October 15, or November 15. Politics in Pakistan is like a television soap opera, not knowing what move the hero is about to make. When the electronic media broke the news that Musharraf had met Benazir Bhutto in Abu Dhabi, for many weeks both sides denied that there had even been a meeting! If this is not entertainment, what is? No wonder the audiences for TV soaps have dropped, given that they can get live drama on news channels.

This is not to deny the fact that some of these political issues are real and critical to the future of Pakistan and its citizens. Clearly, the fact that the chief justice was reinstated has major significance making him weaker. But does the outcome of the deal between two of the many actors on the political stage also deserve the same space and time devoted to it?

The reason why Pakistanis are so bombarded with politics and the fact that such issues now dominate our intellectual space, must lie in the fact that the political arrangement and the political dispensation is still, after 60 years, unclear, unresolved and unsettled. Clearly, it does make a difference whether Pakistan’s president is going to be a uniformed military man, or whether the same man has discarded his. Or does it? And here lies the problem with there being too much politics.

Where Are Substantive Issues?

The two possibilities of whether Musharraf will be in his uniform or in civilian dress are debated again and again, but the more substantive issues about whether the military should be in politics and running government, are seldom discussed. Issues of an immediate nature such as current politics take preference over deeper, reflec tive, overviews and analysis of broader institutional trends and developments. With too much activity happening in the immediate moment, who has the time to think? As it is, it is difficult keeping pace with what is happening in the country.

Friends in India always say that Pakistan’s newspapers are more livelier and freer in many ways than what newspapers in India have become. From Indians one hears of the “dumbing down” of the local newspapers as a new middle class, concerned more with the market and consumerism, demands more news and pictures from Bollywood and Hollywood, with many more page 3 stories than editorial comment. While this is an unresolved debate, I hear from Indian academics who read Pakistani newspapers, that our newspapers are more vibrant and have a “higher standard” of debate. I do not agree with this opinion, but it is not difficult to see why they feel it is so.

Economic and Political Weekly September 22, 2007

I would argue that “too much politics” has also been one of the many reasons why Pakistan’s social sciences continue to be in such a dismal state. The time spent following day to day exciting political developments and the need to be part of the media debate, takes up a great deal of the time of many aspiring and established academics. The lure of the editorial page or talk-shows has displaced the need to think beyond a few soundbites. Given a small pool of social scientists, who are now also media savvy, research on substantive issues is seldom undertaken. It is not just that such writers spend more days writing their columns than doing proper research, but also that because of the extent of the intrusion of politics into our lives, they are all drawn into the daily debates as well: Will the deal take place? Will he “doff” his uniform? And so forth. While this public presence on the editorial pages by social scientists may raise the overall standards of the papers, they are doing a disservice to the state of the social sciences in Pakistan by not thinking through these daily, transitory, events.

This trend of writing on day to day politics, rather than being once-removed, more reflective and analytical and so forth, has also taken its toll on the publications industry in Pakistan. Books by journalists on Pakistan’s current political predicament, which are not infrequently just a very long version of one of their previously published magazine articles, are raised to “academic” status and become the authoritative voice of social science in Pakistan. Largely descriptive, with lots of facts and information, but lacking any sense of analytical arguments, such journalistauthors begin to speak as one of the small academic community that exists. Journalism and memoirs – the other growth industry amongst publishers – replace social science research.

Clearly, politics is not to blame for the rather dismal state of Pakistan’s social sciences, and there are many other more important and substantive reasons as well. Nevertheless, the excitement of everyday events, and the interest and involvement of the chattering classes in who-saidwhat-to-whom, distracts from an environment where one can be more distant and reflective, rather than always reacting to information flowing in constantly. While the chief justice issue took over the political space of Pakistan for at least five months this year, and it seemed to be the only event having a significance in the lives of Pakistanis, since its resolution it has been almost completely marginalised by the political events of a few weeks later. Importantly, the political movement in support of the chief justice, has now lost steam completely. While reams and reams of newspaper space were taken up by the chief justice movement for some months, one wonders, if ever a proper history of the Musharraf regime is written, will the movement for the restoration of the chief justice get more than a just handful of pages of mention?

EPW

Email: azaidi@fascom.com

Economic and Political Weekly September 22, 2007

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