All it takes is 140 characters

May 05,2017

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Back in the good old days, when Supreme Court justices couldn’t quote long-dead French writers because Wikipedia hadn’t been invented yet, we would know there were civilian-military ‘disagreements’ when PTV was taken off the air or the 111th Brigade strolled down Islamabad’s avenues.

To find out what was happening required searching for a radio signal to get updates through the BBC World Service. Now, all it takes is logging on to social media or turning on one of dozens of news channels, all of whom are analysing what they read on social media. The next coup is going to be tweeted and it is going to be boring as hell.

The Dawn leaks saga is one of those controversies where you can never be quite sure what the controversy is. No one even remembers any longer what the original story by Cyril Almeida said because the real news has been made by the responses to it and the responses to those responses. As a refresher, the story said that the civilian government told the military leadership that it needed to act against militants or the country would be isolated internationally.

It was a nice scoop that gave details about internal state deliberations. But the warning by the civilian leadership was hardly telling the military anything it didn’t already know. All the army chief needed to do was pick up any copy of the New York Times and he would have seen a blaring headline telling Pakistan to “do more”.

The contradictory objections to the story were that it was anti-state or false. The anti-state rationale went something like this: publishing this story told our enemies that there were differences between state institutions. Once again, that will hardly be news to anyone who just happens to turn on the TV or glance at a newspaper. On the other hand, if it was false then it could just have been denied and we needn’t have thought about it again. No one believes anything in the newspapers anyway. But denials in Pakistan take a curious form –in this case placing the reporter on the Exit Control List.

The Dawn leaks built up a momentum of its own. The government had to show it was on the side of the angels by ordering an inquiry. The PTI had to go after the government because that is the only thing it knows how to do. The army had to show that its authority was undiminished. The media had to pretend that there was anything controversial to begin with so that people would keep tuning in.

The end result of months of noise? The premise of the original story –that the civilians and military are not on the same page –was proven to be true. And all it took was a tweet.

Social media is notorious for bringing out our solipsistic nature but the ISPR took the exhibitionism a bit too far. The only reason for doing what it did was to embarrass the government and in that it succeeded. But the government is used to losing such institutional battles. The real shame should be felt by opposition parties who see electoral advantage in appearing to be more patriotic-than-thou.

The PPP –already a synonym for hypocrisy –went the furthest. Here is a party whose image is built on resistance to military meddling and a fealty to the constitution. Yet it was the first to chime in and agree that the prime minister’s notification should be rejected. Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Khursheed Shah said Nawaz Sharif had become a threat to national integrity, echoing the most hyperbolic calumny against the original Dawn report.

The motivation of the party is easy to understand. Its electoral presence has diminished and next year’s general elections do not offer much hope of a comeback in the crucial province of Punjab. It has used the Panama leaks to argue for Nawaz’s ouster and is now hoping the Dawn leaks inquiry will further diminish the government while burnishing its own patriotism credentials. The PTI is using the same strategy. But with that lot you always feel as if they believe their own rhetoric. With the PPP, the only feeling is one of betrayal.

It is hard to predict what, if any, political fallout there will be from the Dawn leaks controversy. Those who actually believe that the PML-N leadership purposely sold the country out to a newspaper were not inclined to vote for the party anyway. And anyone who believes Nawaz Sharif, of all people, is a rabidly anti-military ideologue is hardly going to be marking a ballot for the PPP. Decades of propaganda against the party have created an image of the PPP as rabidly anti-military. To try and change that impression is the reason why the PPP spent its five years in power trying not to rock the boat and is now jumping on the bandwagon against the PML-N.

The only change that might come about is greater deference to the establishment. This government, like the PPP government before it, has now seen how something trivial can be turned into the scandal of the decade. And it doesn’t even require too much coordination. There are many in the media who are willing to be water-carriers. Questioning someone’s patriotic bona fides is a sport for them.

But the PML-N government could also play this to its advantage. The last couple of weeks have not been good to it. The Supreme Court judgment in the Panama leaks case was brutal to the prime minister. He might have been celebrating a narrow escape but two out of five judges declared him unfit to hold the office while the other three were unsure but saw cause for further investigation. Nawaz’s meeting with an Indian steel tycoon close to the Modi government, while it may have been perfectly innocent, only gave further fuel to his opponents.

After the ISPR tweet, Nawaz can play the martyr. He, or rather his minions, can put out the message that Nawaz is besieged by the army on one side and the opposition parties on the other. All the while, the short attention span of the media at least ensured that the ISPR, rather than the Supreme Court investigation, led the news bulletins for a couple of nights.

Any benefit, though, will only last for the short-term and it will not compensate for the lasting damage done to the concept of civilian supremacy. We always knew that the very idea was a dream rather than a reality but everyone at least paid lip service to it. Long after everyone forgets what the Dawn story was – in fact, the memory of it is already fading – the PML-N and every government after it will remember the limits of their power. It’s a power so fragile that all it takes is 140 characters to put them straight.

The writer is a journalist based in Karachi.



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