Tuesday, August 19, 2008

"We should not let these corrupt politicians win."

An hour ago I got this SMS from some random number:

"Its time to backup our President Musharraf! We should not let these corrupt politicians win. So send sms to Dawn news poll for rating impeachment measures. Write "DOP NO" and send on 6622 to support the man who dared to stand up against worst situations, when others were sitting in the lap of luxury!"

A case in point of the bias against politicians in the upper classes. I am not saying that politicians are not corrupt. Far from it. The evidence against Mr. Ten Percent, the late Shehzadi, the not-so-Sharif brothers and the Chaudharys of Gujrat is undeniable. What really annoys me is people's blind spot when it comes to corruption in the army.

It is common knowledge that a huge chunk of the many billion dollars in military aid given to the army during the 1980s and again in the 2000s did not go towards strengthening the army but instead went to fill up our oh-so-brave army generals' McScrooge-like vaults in the big bad firangi lands. Yet, defying all facts and logic, the army has somehow managed to remain a symbol of honesty and patriotism, and is expected to rescue Pakistan from corruption. Hah!

Corruption is pervasive in every institution of the country: bureaucracy, judiciary, law enforcement, politics, armed forces. You name a public institution and you will find corruption there. But people only rant and rave about corrupt politicians.

I am not saying that people should stop criticizing them. Go right ahead. But do please realize that the army, the institution that is to deliver our country from the greedy politicians, is just as blighted by corruption.

What makes matters worse is that the public does not have access to the records of military spending. Even our legislators, it seems, do not have access to it. So if the politicians are looting the country in plain sight of the people, one can only imagine the plunder going on in total absence of public oversight.

Then we come to Musharraf's personal reputation as Great (and Upright) Avenger aka.  Scourge of Corrupt Politicians. One must wonder where he was while the opportunistic hordes in the King's Party stuffed their pockets and bought thousands of acres of land for mere pennies. And let us not forget the unscrupulous politicians who were ushered in under Musharraf's grand devolution of democracy dreams.

While Musharraf selectively prosecuted his political rivals in the beginning of his reign through the NAB, our Great (and Upright) Avenger demurely looked the other way when his own coterie abused their positions of power. Then in the latter years, when the going got tough for our principled Scourge of Corruption, he backtracked with amazing speed and acquitted those very corrupt politicians whom he was prosecuting earlier through the NRO.

Let us also not forget the ex-President's non-negotiable and undebatable budget for the President House this year. Rs. 353.84 million! A 12% increase over the previous year. And that too when the Prime Minister prudently cut his own expenses by 30% in view of massive governmental overspending.

So people who, handkerchief in hand, are wondering how their knight in shining army fatigues abandoned them in the clutches of corrupt politicians, have heart. We have been in the hands of corrupt leaders, autocratic and democratic, for 61 glorious years. Things really can't get much worse as far as looting goes.

David Milliband, UK's foreign secretary, said something I really liked on the occasion of Musharraf's resignation. He said that strong institutions, not strong individuals, are what Pakistan needs. He is right. For the long-term solution of most of Pakistan's governance problems strong institutions are exactly what are required, and the chances of institutional development are definitely brighter under a democratic government, which is compelled to listen to the public, rather than an autocratic one. So have a little faith, people, and stop sending me hysterical SMSes!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Of Pakistan's New Media and Old Firebrands

It is a brand new world here in Pakistan. Under the new democratic government, the media seems freer than it ever was before. The play Chicago was up at the Pakistan Arts Council for eleven nights and was sold-out all eleven times. I went to watch it on Saturday and came out thrilled that such a risqué piece of theater was actually allowed here. Bold dances, sexy clothes, and unabashed references to sex! The audience, laughing and clapping through the entire play, absolutely loved it. And I, with more than a little wonder, thought that this would never have been possible five years back.

I also went to see the latest Pakistani movie Ramchand Pakistani over the weekend and was once again pleasantly surprised at how unconstipated its attitude towards sex and sexuality was.

The same is the case with the new TV channels and radio stations that have been flourishing over the past couple of years. Najam Shiraz’s new song Khwabon Ke Rishtey is a case in point. His music video deals with the problems teenage girls face from unwanted pregnancies and cheating boyfriends to sexual harassment and parental neglect. I won’t go so far as to say that his video deals with these things in a meaningful way but just that these taboo topics can be touched upon is something remarkable to me.

But really, underneath the face of an apparently free press, there is actually rampant self-censorship. While governmental interference is no longer something of huge concern to the media, the specter of an irrational mullah mob chanting Allah-u-Akbar and waving pitchforks and torches does send shivers down its spine.

I tell you this with such authority because I have been working at Dawn TV for the past month and have witnessed the self-censorship firsthand. There is an old man at Dawn TV, who looks like a relic from PTV of the fifties, called Censor Uncle. He watches all the shows before they air and checks to see whether the content will ruffle any fundo feathers or not. One talk show was forbidden from discussing abortion and another from mentioning that alcohol was legal before Bhutto went fundo in the 70s.

It is deplorable that the media feels compelled to censor itself when talking about simple historical facts or important social issues. So perhaps these new franker conversations about gender, sex and sexuality have to be put in the context of crazy Taliban burning down girls schools in Swat and vigilante groups of burqa clad women kidnapping Chinese masseuses. The mullah mob is able to bully the new freer media into self-censorhsip because of the government’s ambivalent attitude towards religion-motivated vigilantism. The media would naturally protect itself rather than offend the crazies and find itself facing their wrath without any government protection.

Some may ask why it is so important to protect the media’s right to talk about sex anyways, especially since it makes most older Pakistanis extremely uncomfortable. Well first off, on the matter of principle, because freedom of speech means letting people talk about things that you do not like or agree with. Secondly because this traditional taboo on sex and sexuality prevents us as a society from having an honest debate and spreading awareness about women’s rights, sexual abuse, STDs, AIDS, unwanted pregnancies, abortions, family planning, rape, LGBT rights, sexual harassment and so many other issues. The new media can help us overcome our national prudishness but the government has to help it too by protecting it from the vigilante violence of the mullah brigade.