Almost two decades ago, in an article in The Economist about General Zia’s regime, a cab driver was quoted — I thought he had provided the best summary I had ever heard about the difference between a civilian and a military government in Pakistan. Loosely, what he said was that “in a military government you feel safer, the country does as badly as a civilian government but nobody finds out about it.”
Today, with the incredible odds against Pakistan, I can see why denial is such a coveted state of mind. It explains, in part, our disenchantment with democracy, not as pleasing to our mental states as the fantasies of becoming a martial race and military power, or an imagined worldwide centre of Islam.
In addition to all of this is the fact that the main gripe against civilian governments is corruption. No doubt, civilian governments have been egregiously fiscally dishonest. But, what is overlooked is that in a comparative state, civilian corruption is better than military corruption. Why?
Well, in the command structure of the military, if the top brass decides to be corrupt, they don’t have to share with many other greedy mouths. In the civilian scenario, whatever money is pilfered needs to be circulated to keep many more people happy, leaving less in the hands of the few and probably increasing the chances the money will be spent in Pakistan. It also ensures that all regions are kept happy because the number of the corrupt across the country who are well-oiled are spread out. Not an ideal situation, but if pressed to choose, one would take civilian corruption over military corruption any day.
However, I imagine it’s a better feeling to be under a more damaging military than a more beneficial civilian democracy. And this is only because the military prevents the flow of information so that citizens don’t know the real picture.
This is where I finally come to the PPP. When the new cabinet was announced, I was only really interested in hearing one portfolio’s new incumbent, that of the new information minister. The PPP has been singularly incompetent at media management with this turn in government. Before, when Benazir Bhutto was alive, she managed incredibly well. While the PPP has been guilty of poor governance, it has, in this term of government, created significant crises for itself simply because it does not know what to say, or who should say it for them.
Qamar Zaman Kaira was a fairly competent person in this position, but he never did an exceptional job because he didn’t have the authority to control all the others who spoke out of turn. With ministers contradicting one another, and themselves, in the span of a few days on any issue, no wonder the public’s confidence ebbs away.
It’s easy to tell the PPP is still lost on this issue, maybe they too believe it’s not about managing their communications to the media and the public, but hidden conspirators at work against whom nothing can be done — which is ridiculous. But more ridiculous is that they have now appointed Dr Firdus Ashiq Awan as the new minister for information and broadcasting. She is a medical doctor, her previous portfolio suited her better. And let’s not forget: In the past, she has been responsible for causing embarrassment to the government by her appearances in the media.
A good minister for information and broadcasting is desperately required for a number of reasons. More politics is being played out now in the media than in the assembly. Something needs to be done to assure the public that the PPP has a game plan. Lastly, because of the poor governance at play, a reasonably competent minister can actually help in not only creating policy but also in communicating it to the people.
Media management, of course, is not the answer. It’s no substitute for curtailing corruption, for improving outcomes against the Taliban or even improving the economy. But it’s something that can be done quicker than the aforementioned for speedy improvement.
At the very least, it could mean Rehman Malik wouldn’t give a ridiculous opinion minutes after a bomb blast.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 15th, 2011.