The strange new “nothing new” meme

First, a quote by Khaled Ahmed explains the “nothing new” mindset:

The coverage on Friday was more notable for what it left out than for what it said, said Khaled Ahmed, an author and columnist for the Friday Times, a weekly newspaper. There were few references to the most scathing part of the report about the military’s role.

“The report is quite damning, but the way it’s presented on TV is inconclusive,” Mr. Ahmed said. “We don’t know who did it. That’s the kind of impression that will be created here.” He added: “Very clearly there’s a reluctance to point to the army. This is what everybody has ignored.”

The reason, he said, is part psychology and part national identity. Pakistan’s army has long represented the central and most crucial part of this country’s idea of itself, a symbol of protection against Pakistan’s mortal foe, India. That narrative is taught in textbooks and reinforced in society, and going against it is like attacking yourself. “The army has a geopolitical mind that is unchanging, and that’s what people love,” Mr. Ahmed said.

Given the contents of the report, the only reason one could possibly say it contains nothing new is if one hasn’t read it and is relying on the Pakistani media coverage of it. Apart from this article by Tariq Butt, very few Pakistani journalists have discussed in detail the various allegations made against the police and the military. Certainly, as Khaled Ahmed mentions, none of the talk show hosts have delved into the details within the report. This is not surprising as these details belong to an area that these talk show hosts assiduously avoid anyway. Asma Chaudhry’s show and Kamran Shahid’s show both featured Gen. Hamid Gul (one of the men Benazir had accused of plotting to kill her after the Karachi attack). However Gen. Hamid Gul was on the show as an “analyst”. No one questioned his actual role in Benazir Bhutto’s death or thought fit to bring up the allegations that BB herself had made against him. Instead he was asked if he thought the report would be effective in finding the actual killers and his response was that the report was an eyewash and part of a global effort to clear Zardari’s name.

That raises the question – why are people who have read the report loudly claiming that it contains “nothing new” when it actually does? Gen. Hamid Gul, Imran Khan, Nawaz Sharif, this News editorial are all examples. The interesting thing is that while Nawaz Sharif has followed the “nothing new” line, Senator Pervaiz Rashid of PML-N has said that the report necessitates the need to try Musharraf for BB’s murder.

What exactly is going on here? Either the report is a damning indictment of the Musharraf regime, the first “official” confirmation (with plenty of added details) of a long held public suspicion – i.e. the position held by Pervaiz Rashid’s statement. Or the report contains “nothing new” – i.e. the position held by Nawaz Sharif’s statement. It simply can’t be both. However it is interesting that PML-N is playing politics and adopting two positions simultaneously. Senator Pervaiz Rashid’s position is simply building on the pressure on the present government created by the likes of Chaudhry Nisar and Nawaz Sharif himself to bring Musharraf for trial. On the other hand, by sticking to the “nothing new” line, Nawaz Sharif is also able to criticize the government for ordering a wasteful UN probe. In both cases, the present government is the object of criticism and PML-N wins by taking two contradictory positions.

It must be noted that what’s being (rather casually) asked of this government is nothing that any civilian government in Pakistan’s history has ever done – the trial of a former army chief and military dictator. For a little bit of perspective, we should consider the ongoing case of Missing persons. Just in recent days, the lead petitioner of this case has publicly backed down from challenging the armed forces institutions. In March, Justice Javed Iqbal, the head of the 3-member bench formed to handle this case, declared that the “agencies” would not be investigated in the issue of the missing persons. So let’s be very clear – what’s being asked of the present government with regards to pursuing the BB murder case to the very highest levels of the military is extremely difficult. Does the PML-N know that it’s extremely difficult? Yes. Which is why someone like Chaudhry Nisar can shout himself blue in the face in the National Assembly about bringing Musharraf to trial. Chaudhry Nisar’s two defining traits are 1) His opposition to the present government and 2) his love for all things establishment. Therefore we can determine 2 things from Chaudhry Nisar’s rhetoric. 1) That he is using the try Musharraf card to prove that this government – if it doesn’t try Musharraf – is part of the same vast CIA nexus to destroy Pakistan and 2) That he doesn’t realistically think that a Musharraf trial will ever take place (because if it does, there is no way that Musharraf could be tried without exposing his other military friends and he knows that the army will never risk allowing it).

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