It has been hard not to notice the embarrassment that has been Mr. Asif Ali Zardari’s ill-fated, and decidedly ill-advised, trip to the United Kingdom. That embarrassment has risen as fast and as high as the waters of the floods ravaging Pakistan while the President is not there. But our electronic media’s reaction – really, obsession – with this trip has itself been embarrassing, as indeed, has been the reactions of too many of us.
But even more than an embarrassment, Mr. Zardari’s trip and our obsessive reactions to it has proved to be an all-too-costly distraction from the far more real disaster at home. A disaster than neither the President nor the media could have averted, but the response to which required political leadership from the President and civic enterprise from the media, and a sense of national purpose from all of us. Unfortunately, all have been been conspicuous by their absence this last week.
And now there is the fiasco about the shoe hurling. It is still not clear what really happened. But the fuss created around it is huge. As is the embarrassment: not just for Mr. Zardari, but for Pakistan itself. If ever there was need for proof that we are all purveyors of tamashbeen politics, this is it. Within hours of the news a clearly fake ‘picture’ was being touted by a supposed ‘journalist’ on a media email list. Indeed, the supposed photo of Mr. Zardari being hit by a shoe was so clearly and nauseatingly a fake that one had to wonder about the deprivation of the mind which would even offer it in this age of the magic of Photoshop.
Democracy is meant to be a messy thing. Nowhere is it messier than in Pakistan. But maybe those of us who worry about national embarrassment should, maybe, worry a little more.
Mr. Zardari’s trip was clearly a bad idea. It was a bad idea made worse by his insistence to go ahead with it even after it became clear to everyone that it was a bad idea. Mr. Zardari is not in the habit of choosing good advisers, but if ever he needed one, now was the time. His desire, as he explained in Birmingham, to have Benazir Bhutto’s fans say ‘dua’ for her may well have been real, and it is also probably true that his physical presence in Pakistan would have made no difference to the flood or how it was handled. But neither argument holds because his absence clearly did make a difference, whether his presence would have or not.
There could possibly not be a worse time to highlight this crisis of leadership. I have often wondered if Mr. Zardari realized just how the personal disaffection with him is amongst too many Pakistanis. If he does, he has never acted to change that perception. He should, for Pakistan’s sake. Being seen to be out of touch with his own country is embarrassing for him, but it is also embarrassing for his country. Indeed, it can also be dangerous for the future prospects of democracy in the country.
But at some point one also starts getting tired of the relentless badgering by some in the mainstream media. Government actions, such as the reported closure of GEO and ARY in certain areas, are to be condemned and condemned unequivocally. But those in the mainstream media need to realize that even as they create public opinion, the media is itself being judged by public opinion. The line between news and entertainment has long been erased as has been the line between fact and opinion. Now we find ourselves trespassing into the realm of slander.
As one of the institutional that many Pakistanis – including this Pakistani – has been proud of in recent years, this slide is disturbing to watch. Vigilance and transparency for those in power – as for example on the fake degrees issue – is the media’s duty. But ultimately the media will be judged – within Pakistan and abroad – for its sense of balance and fairplay. A sense of media integrity is a precious commodity for any society. A society as precarious as Pakistan’s can ill-afford the embarrassment of that integrity being questioned.
As for shoe-hurling as a means of political commentary, there are still too many things that we do not know about the incident (including the government insisting that it never even happened). But this we know: Pakistan’s name is being further ridiculed because of it, as if it was not ridiculed enough already. We should all be embarrassed and ashamed for having created a polity where someone would be compelled to throw a shoe at the President of the country while on foreign soil and where some (maybe even many) at home would celebrate this act! Those who might wish to give Pakistan a bad name could possibly not have designed a better demonstration (on foreign soil too) of just how dysfunctional a polity we have become.
I have long lamented the lack of civility in our political discourse. But the act of hurling a shoe at someone is not just badtameezi, it is an act of political violence. Protest is a political right. And when one has strong convictions, it can even become a political duty. But violence in the name of protest, no matter how ‘minor’, must never be justified. Maybe hurling a shoe is ‘minor’ violence, but it is only steps (no pun intended) removed from acts of more ‘major’ violence (maybe think of recent events in Karachi as a template). It only demonstrates on international soil what too many have long suspected: there is something terribly wrong with this polity.
You can choose whoever you wish to blame for this one. For me, there is no ambiguity whatsoever on this one. Mr. Zardari deserves blame for having created a politics where at least one person would contemplate such an act and many more would find it defensible. The individual who supposedly committed this act is an instrument of national embarrassment. He is certainly not the ‘hero’ that some are making him out to be. He is anything but. And those who find this act either funny or deserving, should maybe think again. If there is any laughter you hear in the background, it is at the expense of your country. And if it is deserving, then let us extend the logic to its obvious conclusion: we have all created the polity we lament and, therefore, we must all ‘deserve’ the same!