Jan 6, 2010

Persecution or delusion?

Fasi Zaka

Things are heating up. Everyday veiled statements emanate from the Zardari-PPP camp about thinly hidden forces that are alleged to be conspiring against them. Who they are depends on the day of the week: sometimes the finger is pointed at the media, the west or the army.

The crux of the conspiracy is the allegation that the president has his hand in the cookie jar rather than his heart on the job. The other aspect that the PPP uses to lend credence to the bias against it is the conspicuous overlooking of the achievements of the government, like the NFC award, dealing with the Taliban with more seriousness than any other government, working the international community to get concessions and aid.

Part of it rings true, the rest smells of desperation. The president has systematically and shortsightedly squandered a lot of the goodwill that accompanied his surprise ascendancy to office. It was presumed that the trials and tribulations of incarceration had changed him. In the aftermath of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, it is true he showed amazing wisps of statesman-like ability to calm things down and then pacify the opposition.

Very quickly though, paranoia set in. The delay on the restoration of the judges with whimsical reasons to avoid rescinding his immunity, compromising the presidency by holding the dual office of a party leader to avoid someone else taking control of the party quickly led to the perception that presidential interests came before that of the country.

One realm of foreign policy reasoning has quickly found its way into the PPP's defence locally. From day one, the government has pleaded vulnerability to the international community to get aid in the face of the Taliban threat. Well now, it's the same, except that domestic criticism is being brushed aside using the historical threat of the establishment against the PPP.

But things today aren't as they once were. For one, at the end of Musharraf's regime the PPP suddenly became the horse backed by the established in an effort to plant them to restore the viability of the dictator's regime.

Zia's regime had definitely created a whole class of journalists who were in-bred to despise the party, something that hurt the Benazir government in her first term. The animosity of the establishment always stemmed from the PPP's social change manifesto that threatened established interests under Z A Bhutto.

At least in Ms Bhutto's second term, that agenda was no longer on the table, though it was, and still is, paid lip service. But we cannot say that the current crop of journalists are pushing the same historical bias.

There is no doubt about the ISI's continued involvement in pushing its agenda through the press. But the real question is that outside them, are more independent journalists pushing the line that this government and the president is not doing well? Other than the governor of Punjab's media interests, it seems like a consensus is brewing.

But where the PPP's spin is damaging, is that even those who are legitimately critical are not arguing that the edifice of the democratic system should come down. The teflon-like ability of the PPP not to see that is actually making things worse because the debate is shifting from critique to an ideological debate on the merits of democracy, partly sponsored by anti-democratic forces and then partly given impetus by the PPP itself when it does not will itself even to recognise the smallest of errors.

Of course, one of the issues for this government is structural, with the president and prime minister jockeying for power. When the government looks like it is at sea, it's because everyone is not on the same page.

There is an enormous amount of pressure building up, and it needs to be let out to prevent from the vessel of democracy from cracking. More and more it looks like it would be solved by a graceful exit of the president with face saving by still retaining the chairpersonship of the PPP.

But to prevent that, the president should look to the example of actor Mickey Rourke, once a major star who spent years in the wilderness of fame when he started to fizzle out. Rather unfortunately, Rourke is also known for roles he passed on than the ones he played, a tragic opera of short-sightedness. He could have played roles in Beverly Hills Cop, Highlander, Pulp Fiction, Rain Man, Silence of the Lambs, Top Gun and The Untouchables. Instead he chose roles in forgettable films.

That's what the president needs to decide now: what role will he play in the film whose script is not final yet?

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