Pakistan News

The new normal?

The new normal?

HERE’S a news item you may have easily missed from a recent issue of this newspaper: Iftikhar Cheema of PML-N defeated PTI’s Mohammad Ahmed Chattha by less than 3,000 votes in the by-election for the NA-101 seat.

So big deal, I can hear you say. But actually, it is a very big deal: the fact that there have been few strident accusations of rigging, no calls for a sit-in, no demands for the members of the Election Commission to resign is, in the context of Pakistan’s recent electoral track record, quite remarkable.

And the fact that our TV anchors have virtually ignored this election is a huge change from their normally hysterical coverage. It’s almost as though some adult had turned the volume down.

In fact, compared to my extended trips to Pakistan these last few years, this one has been bland to the point of being boring. There have been few terrorist attacks, no dharnas outside parliament, and no paralysing strikes called by the MQM in Karachi.

So is this the new normal? Have we reached a point when we take the antics of politicians in our stride? Even Musharraf’s exit caused barely a stir, excepting in parliament when the opposition, led by the PPP, tried its hypocritical best to use the event to bash the government with. The whole undistinguished debate had all the signs of noora kushti, or shadow boxing.

But nobody else was particularly excited or concerned. The reality is that Musharraf is now so irrelevant that his absence is unlikely to be noticed. Although several chat shows tried to generate some heat and noise over the dictator’s departure, much of the audience just flipped the channel.

And what channel did they flip to? The T20 cricket World Cup, of course. But after Pakistan’s predictable exit from the competition, even the sports channels have lost their appeal. After all, how much longer can we curse Afridi & Co for their pathetic performance?

A friend who edits a daily newspaper remarked over lunch that it was getting difficult to choose topics for editorials, given today’s lack of political crises. I suggested he look abroad for subjects as for a change, Pakistan wasn’t in the news. And where Pakistan is concerned, no news is very good news indeed.

It would seem that Imran Khan, the fire-breathing leader of the PTI, has come to accept the bitter fact that he will not become prime minister before 2018. Hence his low-key reaction to his party’s loss in NA-101. The MQM, under massive pressure from the establishment, has been unable to call its usual protests against the ongoing attempt to split its ranks apparently being orchestrated by the intelligence agencies, and fronted by Mustafa Kamal. Again, TV anchors did not go berserk, and the public responded with a big yawn. Been there, done that.

And when Mumtaz Qadri, the convicted murderer of Salmaan Taseer, was finally hanged, the sky did not fall on our heads. There were some demonstrations, many sermons in mosques promising hellfire and brimstones, and hideous posters with the killer’s head surrounded by rose petals, but life did not come to a stop.

So have we reached some kind of equilibrium where political events are no longer hyped up into major crises by the media, and the puppet-masters who orchestrate these feeding frenzies? Perhaps the generals have come to the conclusion that constantly destabilising the government of the day is counterproductive. As Musharraf’s exit showed, GHQ can achieve its dominance over the civilian government without prodding its paid hacks and anchors into action.

And if this is indeed the new normal, how will our TV channels fare in the low-decibel media scenario? Having fed their audience on a steady diet of raw meat, can they convert them to vegetarianism? Or will many viewers look elsewhere for their evening entertainment?

Perhaps I am being over-optimistic here, and this phase will soon come to an end, making way for the return of the loudmouths. After all, the T20 World Cup will soon draw to a close, and given the large number of chat show slots across the TV spectrum, there will have to be interesting subjects to discuss.

I suppose it’s hoping for the moon to expect our TV owners to use some of their airtime to focus on issues like education, population, health and the environment. Informed discussions on topics of pressing social concern would inform the public, as well as exert some pressure on the government to act. Wasting time on political shenanigans serves little purpose other than destabilising elected governments.

Currently, the most worrying news is coming out of the United States with the rise of Trump, and the paucity of choices before the American voter in the November elections. Then there are the IS bombings in Brussels and Istanbul. So there’s still a lot of news to cover. But for a change, it’s not about Pakistan.

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Published in Dawn, March 26th, 2016

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