Mar 17, 2009

Welcome back, My Lord

Anjum Niaz
If only President Zardari had not walked into the dangerous trap set up by his aides, Sherry Rehman and Raza Rabbani would still be in the cabinet. We lost the best and brightest to intrigue, envy and machination. The stage of fools needs to be packed up; while the crocodiles and snakes in the grass breeding all over the country need to be killed. These 'strategists' have damaged the president and Pakistan. Get a new brain trust, Mr President! Break out of the bubble of self-hood and absolute power. The people's backlash in future will be extreme.All these years Asif Ali Zardari was openhanded with the media despite being portrayed negatively. As the First Gentleman he got billed as 'Mr Ten Percent.' He didn't turn ballistic nor did he threaten vendetta. Instead, he would flash a menacing smile, make a wisecrack to properly trash the person daring to accuse him of corruption and then airily move away with his rah-rah crowd in tow. I speak from first-hand experience. He didn't nurse a grudge towards a journalist nor did he get anyone beaten up black and blue as happened in the time of Nawaz Sharif. His wife, the prime minister, may have treated the Pakistani press with arrogance, but never with malice. When Zardari became the president, the press was on his side. It even looked the other way when he appointed corrupt and discredited men to positions of power. It avoided reporting instances of blatant nepotism, favouritism and cronyism. The criticism by the columnists was cravenly muted. Those who stuck out their necks were gently reminded to go easy on the man and give him a chance to succeed.Last week, as mass rebellion rose and the press reported it, the president hit the roof. The pygmies in the presidency proffered wrong advice. "Control the media" they cried. "The terrible two (print and electronic) need to be taught a lesson" they advised. Whiffs floating out of the corridors of power were not Sherry-friendly. The claque of ladies known for presidential henpecking – from Speaker Fehmida Mirza down to MNA Farahnaz Ispahani, Fauzia Wahab and Farzana Raja (the 4 Fs) wanted Sherry gone. Earlier tales against her were roundly planted in the presidential eardrum. But Zardari had a special relationship with his information minister. This relationship finally ruptured when he had Geo TV knocked off the air. Sherry walked away in a huff. "Sack the PEMRA chief," Zardari had ordered, blaming Mushtaq Malik for giving a freehand to the TV channels. Malik is an exemplary bureaucrat who is a professional to his toenails. He keeps away from politics. Sherry rose to his defence. "Dr Qayyum Soomro, Zardari's chief adviser, and a grade-17 doctor who attended on Zardari when he was in Central Jail, Karachi, along with Qamaruzaman Kaira pumped up the president that PEMRA should be put under interior adviser Rehman Malik.Again Sherry resisted.Kaira's role in upstaging Sherry is obvious. With Sherry gone, the new information minister and his cohorts have drawn up a grotesque action plan to tame the 'terrible two.' Their role model, if you please, is Sheikh Rashid! That empty vessel who enters our TV sets each night. Rashid picks apart Zardari, Nawaz Sharif and Chaudhry Shujaat in one sentence. As Musharraf's information minister and later his railway minister, Sheikh Rashid is seen by the Zardari circle as the macho man who could control the media by just flexing his muscles. Even before Sherry Rehman quit, the common view being pushed by the wonks at the presidency was that their chief should appoint a man in place of Sherry who would be more 'adept' at dealing with the media. The reasoning was that the present rulers think that the men in the media are purchasable perverts whose support is easy to buy with money and bootlegged vices in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. It's an affront to the media. Have we really plummeted to such depths of depravity? I am not claiming that all our brothers in the media are angels. There are a few geckos in the trade. They change loyalties and like to be buddies with whoever is in power. For example, some well-known columnists (men and women) were close to Nawaz Sharif when he was the prime minister. They went on foreign junkets with him. When General Musharraf took over, the same lot transferred their dedication to the dictator and Q League and went on junkets as before. Now they are trying to climb atop Zardari's gravy train.Since Sherry herself was a journalist of repute for 20 years, she tried separating the incendiary and the ugly from the good ones in the press corps when she became the information minister last year. She was polite to everyone but unlike her successor Kaira had no plan to entice the whole media into enslavement. She knew the worth of an independent journalist and respected it. For this, she deserves our highest appreciation.Sherry Rehman is still a big ticket item in Islamabad. I have it from reliable sources that she got offered the foreign affairs portfolio, ah, oh, even the defence… She can have anything, offered Prime Minister Gilani. Had she said 'yes' to his various proposals, we would have had one more resignation or even two – from Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Ahmad Mukhtar. An insider confirmed to me that even the American ambassador, Anne W Patterson, called Sherry to persuade her to continue and not resign. Earlier the presidential factotum Farhatullah Babar phoned Sherry up and chastised her for leaving the ship at a time when it was floundering. The white-haired gentleman was merely doing what his boss had asked him to say: Lady, don't go! Babar is the solo spin doctor left to defend the president. It is an unenviable job that must weigh heavy on his conscience for Babar is an honourable man. But his over-heated rhetoric and strong denials sound hollow.We in the media will miss Sherry Rehman. Her eloquent Urdu, her designer wardrobe with matching jewels, produced an eclectic mix on the mini-screen. With a hairstylist and makeup artist to do her up daily, Sherry radiated confidence and maturity of thought that was an asset to the PPP government. She naturally invited envy, scorn and intrigue among the PPP women pretending to be close to the late Benazir Bhutto. Actually the only two people always invited to stay with Benazir Bhutto in Dubai were Bashir Riaz (Bash), who was her "eyes and ears" and Sherry Rehman. Bash has always stood by Sherry. He fears that Zardari is surrounded by phonies who are out to hurt the president and the PPP. "You are the only target," Bash sent an urgent message to Zardari recently. Even Muzzafar aka Tuppi who is the president's adopted brother and handles his affairs in Dubai was working the phones to save his brother from wrong advice.Independent analysts speak of cyclical corruption by the ruling party and its coalition. "Looting is going through the roof because the government's days are numbered." Huge tranches of money are reportedly being whisked out of the country. The prime minister and the president are living in parallel universes. The former is glamourized by the glitz of the mini-screen personalities who turn up to interview him while the latter is a prisoner at the presidency and occupies himself with playing mind games that he himself invents.Senator Waqar who goes around threatening newspapers for 'defaming' him was Zardari's choice as the new information minister. "But Gilani turned it down," say insiders. In the coming days, truth will spill out slowly but surely from the corridors of power to stun the people about the games being played inside the presidential palace. President Zardari must in future judge people honestly, openly, and on the basis of their performance.Pakistan deserves no less. But first, let's celebrate the restoration of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. Welcome back, My Lord.

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