The future of news after Musharraf

Posted: August 22, 2008 in Political

The future of news after Musharraf

NEWS is almost always a local affair. I can’t remember a story that gripped the entire world at once whether it was man’s landing on the moon or the attack on New York’s World Trade Centre.
There was always something else happening of greater local interest elsewhere, occasionally even a cricket match.

Gen Musharraf’s farewell speech coincided with Michael Phelps discussing plans to convert his sensational eight gold medals in Beijing into something more meaningful, perhaps by acquiring an Olympic-sized pool in Baltimore.

There was a range of reactions in India to the speech, which was broadcast live by private TV channels and that boosted their TRP ratings. The sleuths had their own axe to grind. The security thinkers saw Gen Musharraf’s departure from another prism. The overarching feeling, however, was reflected in the easiest of comments people make. His exit was good for democracy, but uncertainties remained. Unlike the tight TV close-ups beamed from Pakistan of people rejoicing, few in India saw these as reflecting reality.

We eat and distribute sweets for any silly reason and get into trouble, not least because South Asians more than most others are predisposed to diabetes. In any case, even sitting in faraway Delhi, it was difficult to believe that the entire Pakistani nation had been transformed into a halwai shop, as a Pakistani TV channel would have us believe, at Musharraf’s exit. One widely shared impression in India rightly or wrongly was that the rejoicing mostly described the mood in Lahore or in the Bhutto stronghold in Sindh.

Did it reflect a national sentiment? Does such a thing exist? Forget that Makhdoom Amin Fahim and the Chaudhries of Punjab are not too pleased with the turn of events. But what about the suicide bomber who was rehearsing to blow up the hospital in Dera Ismail Khan when Gen Musharraf was addressing the nation? Did he too share the joy; did he have time to?

People in his patch are getting bombarded. They are being rendered refugees in their own homeland. Surely they have other priorities beyond Musharraf. Like news, the strongest of emotions such as joy and exultation are a local affair.

Take Kashmir’s resistance leaders. Some of them had worked very closely with Gen Musharraf. What is celebrated as the assertion of popular will in Pakistan today — though Tariq Ali described it as moth-eaten democracy — is a source of deep worry for Kashmiris. I doubt if they would share the mood in Pakistan. On Monday, as Musharraf spoke, their leaders marched at the head of tens of thousands of supporters to the UN office in Srinagar yet again demanding azadi. What does Gen Musharraf’s exit mean for the Kashmiris? Do they now break into a dance at the return of hope for the downtrodden?

Gen Musharraf came on the Indian radar when he staged the Kargil standoff. Later, he riled India’s leaders when he overthrew Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The reaction was strange though because India had happily engaged with usurpers like Gen Zia in Pakistan and Gen Ershad in Bangladesh. But now India insisted it would not speak to a dictator. The Kathmandu Saarc summit was thus delayed by nearly a year. Then one day the general changed into a sherwani and became president. Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee as easily as he had been miffed became the first to greet him and soon invited him to Agra.

Once there, Musharraf charmed the most entrenched editors who otherwise owed their allegiance to the Indian point of view. Ironically, his interaction in India with India’s handpicked editors became a reason for his talks with the Indian prime minister to fail.

He later manoeuvered Pakistan through a minefield of military brinkmanship amid chilling thoughts that usually come with nuclear arms. In the final analysis, from this rollercoaster relationship Gen Musharraf came out a winner. There was no other reason why India’s chief security official would fret about a vacuum in Pakistan after him.

So what else was happening on Monday as Gen Musharraf bid an emotional adieu after nearly nine years in power, one more than what the world’s most powerful president is allowed? In a way the world is a sum total of local news striking a bond somewhere. Just as Musharraf was announcing his resignation, in the neighbourhood of Nepal, where Pakistan had tried but failed to subvert democracy by offering military help to an authoritarian monarch, a Maoist leader was being sworn in as the country’s first elected prime minister under a new republican constitution.

In the news during the presidential address, far away from Islamabad, was Condoleezza Rice. She made some uneventful comments in Brussels about Gen Musharraf’s arriving exit. But that was that. She was too preoccupied with ways to tackle Russia to care any more about Pakistan.

Speaking to reporters on her way to an emergency Nato meeting, she warned Moscow that the United States and its allies would stand by Georgia and ensure its recovery from the weeklong Russian invasion. How is Pakistan’s democratic establishment equipped to tackle the fallout of this development in South Asia? Or will it only come to the problem once the chief justice’s issue is settled?

As Gen Musharraf spoke, guess who was airborne and happily so? US national Kenneth Haywood, from whose Internet Protocol (IP) address a threatening email was sent prior to the Ahmedabad serial blasts, was mysteriously allowed to fly away from Mumbai. From the look of it this is going to be a major theme on both sides of the war on terror as India sees it. A major security incident has occurred in India, perhaps far bigger than Gen Musharraf’s exit implies.

Just a day earlier, to the west of Pakistan, Iran had tested a sophisticated satellite launch vehicle. A few days earlier Israel had signed a deal with the US on radars that can spot the launch of Iranian missiles in advance. The Iranians launched the Safir-i Omeed rocket on Sunday.

What is the assessment in Pakistan of this test in the looming confrontation between Iran and Israel? What would Gen Musharraf have done that this government would avoid on this vital question of regional strategy? How do the American bases that he allowed in the country figure in the overall strategy for the Persian Gulf?
The one country that openly expressed relief at Gen Musharraf’s departure was Afghanistan. Whether it was part of a secret script that Pakistan’s army chief Gen Kayani would meet Nato officials in Kabul after the president demitted office, we may never know. But the irony could not be greater.

The day Gen Musharraf was bidding goodbye, the Afghan government was celebrating the anniversary of its independence from Britain that too in an undisclosed location. But more devastating action was being played out elsewhere. About 100 militants on Monday ambushed a patrol of French and Afghan troops in normally calm Sarobi, 50 kilometres east of Kabul. The ambush killed 10 French soldiers. By the look of it, the news after Musharraf is not going to be too different.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

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