Jun 15, 2009

Freedom to speak

President Asif Zardari doesn’t address the people too often; and when he does the end hardly ever justifies the suspenseful build-up. This is what happened on Friday night at the end of an unfortunate day which had seen suicide attacks in Lahore and Nowshera. By late afternoon on Friday, we learnt on the authority of a presidential aide that Mr Zardari was to address the nation. By the evening, it was clear that the PPP was bent on adding another episode to its famous television-blues series. As uncertain beginnings go, Mr Zardari’s first televised address as president last year was disrupted by an unwanted ‘insertion’ midway.
The incident led to a serious inquiry at the host channel, PTV. Initially, the ‘tentative’ time given for this latest address on Friday was 'around 10 pm'. But then the president mysteriously went missing from the airwaves. The address finally made it to people’s homes at one in the morning on Saturday — and most of the ‘news’ it delivered had already been divulged piecemeal by television channels apparently friendly with Mr Zardari’s speech-writer. The people already knew that President Zardari was going to announce the setting up of a cantonment in Swat, which he did, in due time.
Setting up a cantonment in Swat was an important announcement but did it merit a post-midnight presidential address lasting no more than a few minutes? Couldn’t a simple press statement have sufficed? From the people’s perspective, Mr Zardari has had little worthwhile to say in his rare televised presidential addresses, which makes it even more incumbent on him to first build his reputation through a series of substantive statements before he actually speaks to the nation. He can learn a bit from how his fellow party man Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani chose to act before announcing the restoration of the chief justice in March this year. Mr Gilani assiduously built the image of a democrat and a parliamentarian before he, quite literally, signalled a new dawn by making the announcement in the early hours of March 16.
These are trying times and/but Mr Zardari must invent ways of being in the midst of the people. In the aftermath of Bloody Friday, he once again postponed a visit to Lahore that he was to undertake on Saturday. It would be good for everyone’s morale if he could find a way of not only reaching Lahore but also Swat and other areas where the army is fighting the rebels.

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