You have to stand guard over the development and maintenance of democracy, social justice and the equality of mankind in your own native soil. [Mohammed Ali Jinnah]

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Mirror, Mirror Nadeem F. Paracha ( DAWN December 7th)


It was a startling experience following the antics of the Indian electronic media in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

As one Indian news channel after the other babbled across the most thrilling and sensational expressions of paranoid, anti-Pakistan clich├ęs, I switched back to watching our own channels when a sudden realisation struck me: The Indian channels were a perfect mirror image of everything the Pakistani electronic media has been criticised for recently. And as the local channels geared up to nobly strike back at the accusations flying ever-so-liberally in the Indian media, drowned in this media-centric tit-for-tat were voices struggling to find a sane way out of the mess.

The truth is that there seems to be nothing even remotely resembling sanity in the ways and modes of both the Pakistani and Indian electronic media. Both are a product of the amoral political-economic system that thrived around the world in the last 10 years or so. It is a system glorifying a manner of consumerism that unabashedly puts everything up for sale — from chocolate bars to political and social ideologies. In the context of the TV channels, the media truly became a stage with various and distinct actors, each playing a designated role that is most saleable, but at the same time terribly hackneyed and stale.

The style of the electronic media in both the countries is almost similar: Irresponsibly loud, increasingly conspiratorial, gaudy, and highly rhetorical. And even though the differences are few, they are stark. For example, in the face of a terrorist attack, the Pakistani electronic media will at once take a staunch anti-government line, spiced up with populist anti-US taunts and assorted jabbering that is at best a chaotic crisscross between aggressive Islamist posturing and retro-socialist sloganeering, all done in well-lit TV studios and over beeping telephone lines.

In India, the electronic media in the event of a deadly terrorist act does the opposite. It gets right behind the government and the state and lavishly expounds upon and expands, like an over-the-top Bollywood script, whatever excuses and explanations the government has to provide. Pakistan gets the ceremonial beating. It is black to India’s white, as simple as that.

Now, this is not to suggest that the paranoia on both sides of the border does not have any factual ground. Both the countries have been known to play clandestine games against each other, but it is also true that most of the recent problems they have been facing regarding religious extremism and violence (both Islamic and Hindu), are largely of their own making.

Interestingly, more than its Indian counterpart, Pakistani governments and the state in the last few years have been positively willing to accept the above scenario. It will look at its own Frankenstein monsters in the north and rue its history of sponsoring jihadi outfits in the past to explain the terrorism it is facing today. The Indian government and the state, on the other hand, still don’t seem to shed that old Cold War-era habit of pointing the finger at its “neighbours.”

In both cases, however, the now widespread electronic media in India and Pakistan have ended up playing a rather disastrous role.

In Pakistan this media viciously attacks any Pakistani government that is ready to blame in-bred extremism for the violence that the country is facing. It will mock such a government as being a “US stooge,” animatedly point fingers at the Indian embassies across the Afghan-Pakistan border, and paint an awkwardly sympathetic picture of the extremists.

In India, on the other end, the electronic media joyfully jumps the gun and starts accusing Pakistan even before the Indian government does, intricately putting populist pressure on the government to do so at once, even if the government may be wanting to keep the anti-Pakistan whining somewhat pragmatic and less aggressive.

The electronic media in both India and Pakistan simply reflects the paranoia and politics of a class of people that became an important factor in the economics of consumerism flourishing in the region over the last decade. This is the urban middle-class that enjoyed relative prosperity between the end of the Cold War in 1991 and the current global economic collapse. The years between these two events saw them acquiring a sudden, important economic status as they became central ideological and socio-economic players in ways of post-Cold-War economics that glorified consumerism and attached it with concepts like ‘freedom, democracy and progress’.

This bubble-like prosperity and an overstated feeling of economic and political empowerment that this class of urbanites felt also elevated them as becoming the economic and conceptual drivers of the new-found electronic media boom in India and Pakistan. But the irony is that this bubbled prosperity did not make them more liberal, egalitarian, wise or progressive. Instead, it made them feel a lot more insecure, perhaps fearing that their new-found prosperity was in danger of being undermined and compromised by opposing ideologies which they now thought had kept the urban middle-classes in both the countries in an economic and political limbo between the lower and upper classes. This insecurity coupled with the narcissism that is an inherent plank of consumerism has turned this class into becoming myopic and reactive. In both the countries they have become colourful and loud bundles of contradictions, quite like the two countries’ electronic media.

For example, in India, one of the biggest voting banks of the right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) comprises the Indian middle-class urbanites. They are “modern,” “liberal,” “open,” and yet one of the most responsive classes to anything smacking of modern Hindu fanaticism, anti-Pakistan rhetoric and post-Cold-War Indian conservatism. They also happen to be the class to which much of the advertising on Indian TV channels is targeted, and it is also the members of this class who are the brain and ego behind the content that one comes across on these channels.

The same is the case in Pakistan. This class went through similar economic metamorphosis, and the so-called economic empowerment did not necessarily turn it into a progressive batch. On the contrary, this class’s inherent political conservatism was only further fattened, but in an unusual and contradicting manner. Because even though the Pakistani urban middle-class easily fell for all the trappings of modern consumerism and economics, the narcissism factor saw them collapse inwards and qualify their self-centeredness by either rediscovering Islam (consequently believing to become wise enough to preach it too), or suddenly become fond of a rhetorical mixture of political Islam, token anti-Americanism, humane capitalism, and democracy. These are expressed as a constant criticism of the government and state institutions but the alternatives to bad governance, stooge-like behaviour and corruption end up sounding like hot air that has more to do with the reactive antics of consumerism, and animated revolutionary drawing-room/studio posturing than anything a little less Utopian, airy and more particle.

The electronic media in both India and Pakistan is a culmination of what the urban middle-class in these countries now stand for. And since there is now also more than a hint of self-righteousness in this class, one should not be surprised to note that the electronic media is entirely incapable of facing or indulging in the kind of serious self-analysis and criticism it is badly in need of.