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An Inconvenient Conjunction

Published in Jul-Aug 2021

Zohra Yusuf reviews But, Prime Minister… by Javed Jabbar.

"Yes, Prime Minister” rings a more familiar bell than the title of Javed Jabbar’s account of his association with Benazir Bhutto. It is another matter that the title of the popular BBC comedy series firmly put the incorrigible bureaucrat, Sir Humphrey, in a more authoritative position than the hapless prime minister he was meant to serve. Moreover, in subcontinental politics “Yes, prime minister,” is a response that comes more easily to cabinet members. Dynastic politics, too, in all the countries in the region have contributed to the trend of seconding the leader’s point of view rather than risking the repercussions of dissent.

So, in the context of the traditional political pecking order in Pakistan, “But, prime minister...” is undoubtedly a contrarian position to take. To his credit, Jabbar did so in the positions he held in the cabinet of the Muslim world’s first woman prime minister. Perhaps, as an ‘outsider’ it was easier to disagree. He was elected to the Senate as an ‘independent’ following the party-less polls of 1985 and did not have a constituency of his own. As the writer himself admits, he joined the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) only after it won the elections in 1988, although he first met Bhutto shortly after her return to Pakistan from exile in 1986.

When Jabbar did join the PPP, it turned out to be mutually advantageous. The PPP, as a consequence of boycotting the elections held under General Ziaul Haq’s regime, had no representation in the Senate when it won the majority seats in the National Assembly. Jabbar’s entry into the party gave the PPP a token representation. On the other hand, with his acknowledged media expertise he was the obvious choice for the information ministry. He was, however, appointed Minister of State rather than a full minister. The account of those early days is revealing. He complains of two reporting systems working in parallel – and often at cross purposes. There is the somewhat professional team, led by the writer, comprising those with experience of the media. Then there is the inner team with its grounding in party politics, closer to the prime minister and, perhaps, more trusted by her. This tussle ultimately proved to be detrimental to the gradual media freedom that Jabbar wished to introduce into a system characterised by sycophancy and negation of the opposition’s right to media coverage.

There was a brief ‘Islamabad spring’ shortly after Jabbar’s appointment as information minister. The country’s most eminent journalists, I.A. Rehman and Aziz Siddiqui (not Aziz Mirza as named in the book) were appointed as editors of the government owned Pakistan Times. Opposition points of view were aired on the state-run PTV and Radio Pakistan. In a revolutionary moment for PTV, protests in Islamabad against Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses were shown live – including police firing on protesters. However, this type of glasnost was short-lived as a weak government, struggling to survive against a host of pressures, rolled back the media freedom it had granted in its initial months.

But, Prime Minister… is not confined to the author’s interactions with Bhutto. In a narrative that is not structured chronologically, Jabbar shifts from his experiences as a minister to running the advertising agency he formed in 1969, MNJ Communications. In between he talks about his early affinity with the ideology of the PPP, even campaigning for its candidate, Kamal Azfar, during the 1977 elections (he lost) and the disillusionment he experienced when it became clear that the polls were rigged by the ruling PPP. There are also extensive accounts of his travels, accompanying the Prime Minister on many crucial visits and his impressions of the foreign rulers he met. Ironically, his last meeting with Bhutto was when they both travelled to Syria to attend the funeral of President Hafez al-Assad – with Jabbar representing General Pervez Musharraf as a member of his cabinet and Bhutto paying her respects to a leader who stood by her family.

But, Prime Minister… comes across as an honest effort by Jabbar to objectively share his opinion of Bhutto in a changing set of circumstances. Of course, the account is a deeply personal perspective and not everyone – allies or opponents – would agree with his assessment of a complex person struggling to survive in power in a deeply hostile environment. At a time when the bonhomie between the PPP and the PML-N has ended, it is necessary to remember the viciousness the Bhutto women faced from Nawaz Sharif and his party. Jabbar does well to mention some of the ‘villains’ of the 1980s and 1990s who today are part of the PPP as born-again democrats.

What disturbs the narrative is the writer’s propensity to give backgrounders and explanations to almost every situation or position he has taken. In most cases, where footnotes would have sufficed, he chooses to include details in the main account causing a break in the thought process. For example, in trying to understand Asif Zardari’s somewhat less than warm feelings for him, he delves deep into the past to the 1970s when Zardari wanted MNJ Communications to undertake the campaign for a building project and Jabbar declined. This is followed by needless details of MNJ’s business concerns at the time.

A cause close to the writer’s heart is to end the conflict of interest that arises out of dual ownership of an advertising agency and media channels. He was appalled to learn that Bhutto had approved a summary to give exclusive rights to an advertising agency owner (close to Zardari) to establish and operate the first privately owned TV Network and FM station. This was done without any concern for transparency or fairness, prompting Jabbar to approach the Supreme Court. However, his activism did not go down well with those in power. He alleges threats to his family, including an incident in which his daughter was practically kidnapped – albeit briefly. He also acknowledges Bhutto’s personal concern for the family’s safety, arranging for the posting of police at his home in Karachi.

A parting of ways was imminent. Following the sacking of her government in August 1990, Bhutto called an urgent meeting of her leading party members, advisers and former ministers at Bilawal House in Karachi to analyse the situation. When Jabbar was asked to speak and he referred to the PPP government’s corruption, this is the response he recalls (in words to the effect of): “I had not anticipated the intensity of Benazir Bhutto’s abrupt, explosive reaction. In an intense, very annoyed tone, her face frowning and her eyes focused on me, she said, ‘Corruption? Corruption! Of course not, Javed, there was no corruption. The charge is a fabrication, sheer propaganda to malign us. Corruption indeed! Give me one example, show me some evidence. Don’t just echo what our enemies claim.’”

She had clearly not gotten used to hearing, “But, Prime Minister…”

“But, Prime Minister…” A Political Memoir By Javed Jabbar Published by Paramount Books 560 pp Rs 1,295 ISBN: 978-969-210-164-6 n

Zohra Yusuf is Chief Creative Officer, Spectrum VMLY&R.

Javed Jabbar Clarifies

With reference to the third last paragraph of your review, which starts with the words: “A cause close to the writer's heart...”

The arbitrary misuse of executive power by Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in her second term of office (1993-96) by allotting exclusive rights in perpetuity for the establishment of the first privately-owned radio and TV channel without inviting bids from the public was not the instance where the beneficiary was “an advertising agency owner”. Neither in my book nor in the record of the Supreme Court was this claimed. The beneficiary of this outrageous contract was/is an individual named Javed Pasha who is certainly “close to Zardari” but, to the best of my knowledge, has never been an “advertising agency owner”.

Earlier than this episode, along with colleagues in the Advertising Practitioners' Guild, I challenged in 1992 the award of the commercial programming/advertising time contract on the STN channel to NTM which was/is owned by Taher and Seema Khan, our former colleagues at MNJ who also own Interflow. That is where we raised the issue of conflict-of-interest. The case remained pending in the Sindh High Court but never went up to the Supreme Court. Whereas, the petition by Dr Mubashir Hassan and myself directly submitted to the Supreme Court in 1996 did not use the subject of conflict of interest as a ground for objecting to the outrageous terms. Kindly note pages 436-438 in Chapter 52 of the book which refers to the conflict of interest issue.