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August 20, 2020

The theatre of politics


August 20, 2020

There are reasons why we are having so much difficulty in translating events in the political sphere today. In the first place it has become almost impossible to distinguish fact from fiction and there is constant conjecture that events are orchestrated rather than evolve naturally. It should happen in any normal democracy.

This is not true of Pakistan alone. In the US, where the government of Donald Trump quite often seems remarkably similar to the administration in our own country, the same kind of drama is not uncommon. We have seen a great deal of it over the past few months and this sequence of events is likely to intensify the elections and that country scheduled for November this year draws closer. Sometimes in the behaviour and in the mannerism of both leaders we see virtually mirror each other. For most of us this is terrifying.

Watching political events transform to theatre in our own country is not reassuring. There is one example after the other. The latest of course comes in the surreal events played out this week outside the offices of the National Accountability Bureau in Lahore where activists of the PML-N and the police clashed violently with stones pelted at a time when Maryam Nawaz the figure who has emerged as the most fiery leader of the party was appearing to answer a summons.

The many different versions we have had about what happened and who was to blame simply indicate the extent to which truth and the very idea of neutrality have become a casualty along the way. Different media channels broadcast images determined by their own policies and the directions of the owners rather than professional ethics by focusing on the truth.

This is of course not the only case where such manipulation has taken place. We have witnessed one scene after the other unfold over television on our social media accounts. It has become impossible to tell what is real and what is fictional. This is especially true when fiction is created to serve particular purposes.

It is undoubtedly also easier to present a created version of events when there are restrictions on the free media and what it is allowed to cover. In this context it was undoubtedly surprising that the press conference by Maryam Nawaz was broadcast by all channels without any effort to prevent this. In the first instance, curbs placed on the media make it more difficult for people to work out the truth or to understand the true sequence of happenings. It has also contributed to the plethora of channels and the vloggers who now appear on social media.

In some cases, the content they provide is extremely informative. But it is worth remembering that by its very nature social media allows for no checks and no filters through which news has to pass. This can be potentially problematic. It has given a wide choice of viewing to audiences everywhere. But in some cases, it has also created more uncertainty and more doubts. This must not be any kind of excuse used to shutdown certain media forums. Any adult can choose what to follow and when to press that button that turns a channel off. But all those following them need to remember the media is not always reliable and that this is particularly true of social media.

Social media has in fact come to act as an extremely accessible platform for drama of all kinds. We see drama of every sort acted out over many kinds of forums. Even political leaders have become involved in this game. Arguments erupt over these forums, especially the more popular ones like Twitter, abuse is hurled on others without any consideration for decency and in many cases, it appears we are not engaged in any kind of serious governance but instead prefer games involving vulgarity and the deliberate humiliation of political opponents.

There have also been others acts of political theatre played out over television channels, and of course social media. These have involved politicians from opposing parties clashing violently and sometimes coming to the point of striking each other. In other cases, accusations of all kinds have been voiced against opponents during talk shows with hosts in some cases failing to play a neutral role and joining in with one party or the other.

Even inside parliament we have seen drama, with walkouts from the opposition, arguments over the right to speak and other actions which do not play a part of a mature legislative process. Huge issues such as foreign relations have been spoken about by senior members of government apparently with very little thought both inside and outside the House. Contradicting figures and statistics on various issues such as the coronavirus pandemic have also simply added to public confusion and doubts over what message the government is trying to deliver to the public.

The fact that the government itself seems unsure about this does not help matters. Its spokespersons have sometimes contradicted each other and the curious war which has broken out between the federal and at least one provincial government does not help matters as far as the running of the country is concerned. While tourism was declared open by the federal government, the territory or Gilgit-Baltistan has demanded Covid-negative tests be presented by those entering the area before they are allowed in in order to keep their own population safe.

The drama in courts and before NAB is a different matter. This reached extreme points such as in the case of Rana Sanaullah who was arrested some months ago for the possession of a large quantity of narcotics with a video showing these drugs apparently exhibited before the prime minister and other senior officials. However, since then we have heard very little about the whole matter.

It is possible to see new NAB dramas played out on the public stage almost every day. This does nothing to build confidence in people about the accountability process which was a central pillar of the PTI government’s plans. The process in fact has gone very wrong in some areas. There is also growing concern about human rights and plenty of theatre about the violation of these. The government will need to draw the curtain down on this unending drama.

We do not need any kind of theatre in our country but instead stable, reliable governance with a mature approach adopted by all our leaders – but particularly those who sit on government benches. Sadly, we are not seeing this too often. It is essential that mature behavior returns to the scene and the endless jibes and attacks made over social media come to a halt so that we can tackle the real problems of people barely recovering from the economic crisis caused by Covid-19 and other factors which have an impact on their lives.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

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