As an old friend of Declan Walsh, I’m proud of his superb reporting of the Axact story. By all measures, it is a hell of a story. Like Jane Perlez, another New York Times reporter that true patriots didn’t like very much, Declan has probably earned himself a Pulitzer Prize for the story that has exposed the fake degrees mill that Axact allegedly is. That he managed to file that kind of story from his abode in London, where he is forced to live because we don’t like him? It is a testament to the information age, journalistic ingenuity and hard work – not to mention some superb on-the-ground reporting by Saba Imtiaz.
Unlike many in the media and across our society, I’ve not been profoundly moved by the Axact scandal. I haven’t felt it was a massive stain on our national honour, and I have not been particularly keen to heap scorn on either Bol, or on those that have treated the scandal like it was Christmas. Why? Because it is hard to stain something already painted with dark tones over and over again. Because it is hard to choose between rocks and hard places, between rats and cockroaches.
A few years ago, I remember being really angry with friend and guru, Fasi Zaka, when he used the word cockroaches to describe a wide swathe of our population in the aftermath of the Sialkot lynchings. Every few months, I feel less and less certain about my own confidence in our society. I don’t have the stomach to use such harsh words about large numbers of people, in general, because of my strong faith in mathematics. How can we generalise about 200 million people?
But then I examine my own reaction to the Axact scandal, and I realise that perhaps I am making some generalisations about our society without quite making them. The only reason one would not be deeply and profoundly disturbed by the story is if the story does not provoke surprise, or shock. And in all honesty, no one who understands the Pakistani media landscape has been surprised or shocked.
The scandalous sums of money Axact has been spending on the creation of a mythology about itself alone produce a smell not easily ignored. But what made the Axact/Bol enterprise so predictable and so very Pakistani was its deceitful and manipulative employment of religiosity and nationalism, well before Declan ever put pen to paper.
Axact’s owners have been pitching the Bol story as the perfectly constructed Pakistani dream. Yet those that actually live the Pakistani dream don’t seek the spotlight, they avoid it – like the plague. Success in this country is not rewarded. It is punished. Ask any taxpaying entrepreneur how much patriotism they feel as they are squeezed on all sides by a state structure more concerned with accountability to the IMF than to the few taxpayers that live and die here – it isn’t pretty.
Many Pakistani companies have done amazing things in the information technology age – most would prefer that they not be celebrated as Pakistani. Why? Because western clients watch BBC and CNN and read, you guessed it, the New York Times. Ever since the heart-wrenching story of how Invisalign’s back office was moved out of Pakistan, tech-entrepreneurs have sought to build the industry without any of the dramatics that comes so easily to charlatans.
In short, Pakistani IT success stories are at their best when they are low-key. Axact was always a relative unknown as a tech company, other than the fact that it offered big paycheques. No one with even a remote knowledge of the IT sector in Pakistan thought of Axact as anything more than, at best, a dodgy and mysterious operation.
Of course, being run by scumbags is not Axact’s monopoly. Plenty of businessmen stretch the truth all across the world. What has been perhaps even less surprising than the criminal infrastructure that allegedly supports Axact and Bol is the reaction of the wider media landscape in Pakistan.
Christmas would be an understatement. With all the hard work having been done by Declan and the New York Times, our news media went into a frenzy not seen since Imran Khan’s dholki (otherwise known as the dharna – which was a news bonanza because it was free prime time programming with no end in sight).
One channel depicted a cartoon in which senior Bol journalists were rats jumping off a ship. Another, fearing similar scandals no doubt, tried hard to offer the Axact ownership some favourable coverage, only to be let down by the second-rate paan-shop theatrics of the famed president, CEO, or whatever title the clown goes by.
If Axact was guilty of channelling the lying and cheating that goes on in society at large, Bol’s competitors have been guilty of the hypocrisy and faux morality that underpins that lying and cheating. Suddenly, those that would have cut off their left pinkies to get the job offers Bol was making got to stand in judgement of those that accepted those offers. Suddenly, paying your taxes was cool. Ahem, and uh, wow.
One must spare a thought for our military establishment, which seems to somehow consistently get tagged with the some of the worst possible cheerleaders imaginable. Whether true or false, Axact/Bol is widely believed to have the backing of the military establishment. Whether true or false, this leaves a terrible impression.
On the whole however, anyone that expected any better, in terms of how the Axact story has been covered, lives in an alternate universe. But that really is the punch line, isn’t it? We all live in an alternate universe.
In this alternate universe, if you preface a lie with a religious slogan, perhaps the lie is not as bad. If you launch your channel, with ill-gotten money, and with ill-conceived aims, on the first of Ramazan, it is a halal channel. If you put a flagpin on your suit, you are a patriot, whose lies and excesses are excusable. If you claim that the wealth you generated by lying, cheating, and general scumbaggery is a nationalist endeavour, the wealth is less toxic.
Bol is neither alone in this alternate universe, nor the first to explore its depths. Every single national institution, including our news media, has put a star and crescent, and religious inscriptions on otherwise ugly things, to make them look better.
Many think that nails in the Axact/Bol have been hammered. But this would be true in a society incapable of resurrecting evil through the virtue of religious nationalism. Much of what resides here really is resilient – in more ways than one. Cockroaches are resilient too. If you think you’ve heard the last of the alleged scam artists that have cheated people the world over of millions, you have too much faith. And that’s what they are counting on. You having too much faith.