By Raza Rumi
We did it again. A hallmark of Hillary Clinton’s visit to Pakistan was her meeting with the stars of the Pakistani media – the all-knowing anchors who have taken it upon themselves to be the “representatives” of Pakistan. Forget the President elected by all the legislatures, the Prime Minister who enjoys the confidence of the National Assembly, and even the Foreign Minister, who at the end of the day was elected from a constituency with a huge majority and nominated by the ruling party.
Such constitutional niceties are of little value. What we witnessed with a motley group of top anchors was a repeat of their daily performance on the idiot box, and the discourse with America’s second most powerful politician was familiar and disappointing. A senior journalist based in Lahore remarked that even the young students at the Government College University came up with better questions than the exchanges aired on television.Of course, credit should be given where it is due. The moderator was smooth and balanced in keeping the interaction semi-decent. But there was nothing new or enlightening in the questions which were hurled at Clinton. That familiar old rant on anti-Americanism was regurgitated in a slightly more palatable manner. There was no question that Hillary Clinton was adept at handling the sharp and the banal with equal ease.
Of course the summation of the US-Pakistan relationship and six decades of a rocky relationship was illustrated by the Kerry-Lugar bill, as if this was the greatest insult to Pakistani nationhood, even more than General Niazi’s abject surrender at Ramna Park, Dhaka in 1971, or General Musharraf’s ignominious climb down from Kargil in 1999. Indeed, the Kerry-Lugar bill seems to have caused more offence than even the way Pakistan’s ruling elites have balanced their books and remain in perpetual debt, with only 2.2 million paying taxes, while the rest bask in the tax free zone known as Pakistan.
What’s all the fuss about, asked Mrs Clinton, who added to the discussion with a terse statement that don’t take the money if you are so affronted by what the US Congress has decided as parameters of assistance to Pakistan. The simple conclusion from the hullabaloo of the past few weeks, eloquently articulated by America’s brightest politician was that the US was keen to support and strengthen democracy in Pakistan, because the experience with dictators has not been fruitful for US interests nor the welfare of the Pakistani people.
There is a new convergence in the making. It is weak, preliminary and raw but it is there. The people of Pakistan should be partners with the US, for they have a common enemy – the growing tide of militancy and extremism that has now turned Pakistan into a cesspool of insecurity. The Americans share the blame as much as their partners in crime – Pakistan’s ruling elites, civil and military. But Mrs Clinton has acknowledged that in public, and her statements before legislative committees are on record. If there is a change in this power-matrix, then who loses here? The answer is not difficult to guess.
During the anchors’ meeting with Clinton, it was asked whether the US wanted a civilian chief for the ISI instead of a military nominee. This was hardly a question to be put to her, as the decision on this is not taken by America, notwithstanding the conspiracy theories that are spun ad nauseam around the issue. Why ask such a question when the larger issues of Afghanistan, the FATA strategy and bailing out the Pakistani economy are looming large over the polity?
The reason for such non-debate is linked to the fact that in Pakistan we have literally no discourse on any of these issues. We have partisan views, emotions, abuse and palace intrigues. The latter is a hangover of a thousand year old imperial culture in this region, and our neighbour India suffers from a similar syndrome. Here, all debate is subservient to what happens in palaces or electoral arrangements. India has made a concerted effort to break out of this mould mainly due to the vibrancy of its huge middle class. In Pakistan, an increase in the size of the middle class means that the appetite for right-wing Islamism has also increased. By fanning emotions against the US and reinforcing the siege mentality of the Muslim world, our electronic media in the main caters to this segment of the market. Hence the creeping Talibanisation of the polity; and the hysteria on the imagined war between Islam and the West.
But this preoccupation is limited to Punjab’s urban middle-classes. The majority of Pakistanis are not a part of this game. They are disempowered, impoverished and increasingly insecure. If they can get schools, clinics and clean drinking water from expanded financial assistance, the largest in our recent history, why this tamasha? The reason is simple – it upsets the state’s monopoly and hegemony, which is now in a comfortable alliance with the media. This is why all that excessive patriotism was dished out to Mrs Clinton. The discussion even ventured into the question of armed Americans patrolling the streets of Islamabad. Would Pakistanis be allowed to do the same in Washington? Asking the Secretary of the State such a question without enough investigation is simply not kosher. Such questions should be addressed to the diplomatic Mission, and not to a high-level visitor who is taking pains to connect with non-state sections of Pakistani society.
Another maverick anchor erred on the figures he cited. To our embarrassment, Mrs Clinton had to correct his gross exaggeration. Towards the end, the light-hearted banter concluded on a hint of them all meeting in Washington. This is the classic schizophrenia that ails Pakistan. The hordes of suicide bombers ready to annihilate the evil US are hugely outnumbered by the queues at the US embassy and consulates for a visa. What is wrong, and where? For a start, our fractured identity or lack thereof is a problem. Who are we? Muslim, South Asian, Arab? No clear answer, because we are ten different things at the same time, and while the rest of the world is comfortable with multiple identities, Punjab’s urban middle classes crave a singular Islamic identity but want it with all the world’s frills. This is why we cheer the blowing up of the World Trade Centre and at the same want to live in New York. This is why the Islamo-fascist hate-America crowd is at ease with their progeny studying in the United States.
Sadly, the media is playing up to these dichotomies and fissures within us. One thing is certain: this duplicitous approach to life and living is neither healthy nor sustainable. The media mujahideen need to review their position. If their diatribe is going to result in an isolated, bankrupt Pakistan, who will pay for the advertising that sustains their rhetoric?
First published in The Friday Times, Lahore