Tuesday, 5 June 2007

The Disappearing Act Of A Character Called Sukhi Lala

By Jawed Naqvi

04 June, 2007
The Dawn

Unlike India, where it is difficult to tell these days when a Congress-led coalition has paved the way for a BJP led alliance and vice versa, political groups in Pakistan seem to have a lacerating relationship. The army, the mullahs, the PPP and Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League are complemented in their hostile aloofness towards each other by a marked regional fervour of the Baloch, the Pashtuns, the Punjabis, and the Sindhis, with the MQM bringing up a vengeful tail. Also, unlike India, where the media has allowed itself to follow a consensus on most key issues, both foreign and domestic, the absence of a common perspective on most key issues in Pakistan makes it difficult, perhaps even impossible, for the media to pursue a consensus simply because it is just not there at the political level.

Journalists are creatures of their politics and it is a bit of a myth that they pursue 'objectivity', if such a creature truly exists, beyond a reasonable flexibility around their given ideals. To the Indian eye, therefore, the relatively unbending Pakistani media is more akin to the regional media in India, say like Tamil Nadu, where the political contradictions are actually played out more nakedly, and viciously. In Uttar Pradesh, Sahara TV, aligned with Mulayam Singh Yadav, is unlikely to present his successor, Ms Mayawati in fair light. Such antagonisms are a fact in practically every state.

But at the federal level all this changes quite magically. The Left Front's support for the Congress, despite their bitter feud in West Bengal, is a case in point.

Violent contradictions at the state level and a consensual political platform at the federal level define Indian politics and, in a sense, the media too. When a newspaper has switched sides, from supporting the BJP to brazenly idolising the Congress, or in rare cases when a newspaper or a TV channel has shifted from a left-liberal corner to the hard-line centre, or from the right to the centre and back again to its original posture, is difficult to tell. I asked a sagacious uncle how senior journalists who would swear by Atal Behari Vajpayee when he was prime minister had switched their loyalty to Manmohan Singh. A notable example, though not the only one, is Manmohan Singh's media adviser who once had described Vajpayee as a latter day Nehru.

The uncle's reply was in Urdu and it deserves to be recorded accurately. "Ye log badalte nahi hain beta, ye log hotey hi aise hain." (These people do not change, son. They just happen to be made this way.) This is not to say that politicians in Pakistan do not switch sides or that journalists do not change political corners. In fact, even sitting in far away Delhi one can make out that the present ruling party in Pakistan has generously poached people from different ideological corners. In this malleability there is hardly any difference between an Indian ruling coalition, be it led by the Congress or the BJP, and the current coalition of poached leaders that is ruling Pakistan. In fact, it seems easier for people to become a notable figure in a rival party before making a transition to the current one.

Take Shankar Singh Vaghela for example, who heads the Congress party's strategy in Gujarat. He is a former leader of the RSS/BJP stock. He switched sides to spite the current state chief minister Narendra Modi. Well-known ideologue of the intellectual right Sudheendra Kulkarni came to the BJP from a communist corner. Devi Prasad Tripathi was in the RSS stable before he became a senior member of the Communist Party of India-Marxist. He even went to jail as a comrade during Indira Gandhi's emergency rule. It is another matter that Tripathi later joined the same Congress that once threw him into prison. He is currently a leader of the breakaway National Congress Party. Likewise with the BJP. It has senior leaders, like Najma Heptullah, who once adorned the Congress.

So how has India, at least to the naked eye, evolved a seemingly consensual (some would say incestuous) politics as opposed to Pakistan, or Bangladesh or Sri Lanka — the list can be easily extended to virtually all the South Asian countries because political rivalries there are like a fight unto death?

The answer perhaps lies in India's case in the consensus of Sukhi Lala. Let me explain this idiom. In the early days of the Indian cinema, in the 1940s, 50s and to an extent up to the 1960s, the arch villain in a movie was the avaricious moneylender who wreaked havoc on innocent village folks with his greed. In the classic Do Bigha Zameen and the magnum opus Mother India, the forced alienation of the peasant from his land by the moneylender was widely appreciated theme that reflected a political and economic reality of the newly independent nation. Similar themes were also the burden of the literature of that period, Prem Chand being the best recognised of the campaigners who highlighted rural distress and exploitation.

In Mother India, the nasty moneylender was called Sukhi Lala, who stole the land from an illiterate peasant family by fudging records of a loan he had once advanced to the peasant family's head. Over a period of time the villain mutated from moneylender into a gambler who played 'satta', popular pejorative for the stock market. With time this moneylender-satta-player duo gave way to the gun-toting smuggler and the rise of the underworld don. More recently Indian cinema has created the ubiquitous 'terrorist' as the chief villain who sports a beard and speaks like a Pathan or a Kashmiri. At some point, with the rise of the non-resident Indians' profile in the affairs of the home country, the remaining vestiges of Sukhi Lala disappeared. In fact in a popular genre of current cinema the villain himself has vanished. In fact, in the Guru, released some months ago, which is supposed to be a story based on the life of a powerful Indian tycoon, you would notice that the villain Sukhi Lala has mutated into a hero.

It is this Sukhi Lala who supports Narendra Modi in Gujarat as the model chief minister, then strikes a deal for various industrial projects with the communists in West Bengal. He controls the politics of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana that surround Delhi. He has his liaison officers masquerading as party apparatchiks in the Congress, BJP and most regional parties. Therefore, even though Sukhi Lala of Mother India is still going about his business, plundering economically vulnerable village folk, in his new avatar he is no longer regarded as a villain but the harbinger of a world order of which India would be an integral part.

As I read the news report about the proposed censorship by the Cable Operators Association of Pakistan (CAP) of politically unsavoury news telecasts, it reminded me of the delicate balancing act that Sukhi Lala everywhere has to perform before he is in any position to swamp the society.

"We have decided that we'll not become part of any campaign which goes against the armed forces, judiciary and integrity of Pakistan and will virtually boycott the channels, which indulge in such acts," said CAP chairman Khalid Shaikh at the Karachi Press Club. Now we all know that it would require daunting political calisthenics for anyone at this point in time to defend the judiciary in Pakistan without offending the army and vice versa. But once this consensus is achieved, as Mr Shaikh is striving hard to put together, Pakistan may go India's way.

The once evocative slogan of Roti, Kapda Aur Makan would be muffled by its own former patrons. And Sukhi Lala, the quick change artist that he is, is waiting for precisely this moment.

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