Portraying a soft image - Pakistan Today

Portraying a soft image

  • A long way to go

On the foreign policy front, things are ostensibly looking up. Pakistan internationally is not as isolated as it was perhaps a year ago.

The country is not a strictly no-go destination for foreigners as it previously was. Islamabad is not considered a hardship post where diplomats were not allowed or simply discouraged to bring in their families.

Only a few days back the UN secretary general Antonio Gutterres came on a four-day visit. He said nice things about Pakistan including lauding its role in hosting Afghan refugees for a protracted period. He even urged peaceful settlement of the Kashmir issue, offering mediation provided India also agreed.

Axiomatically this provides a window of opportunity for Pakistan to change negative perceptions about its own democratic credentials. Unfortunately, a relentless campaign against a free media and political opposition is being spearheaded by the prime minister himself.

Partly owing to Pakistan’s role in bringing the Afghan Taliban to the table, a US-Taliban peace deal will be signed after a week of ‘partial ceasefire’. An end to the 18-year old Afghan imbroglio hopefully will bring some respite for the people on both sides of the afghan border.

Pakistan can boast better relations with the US on Prime Minister Imran Khan’s watch. PM Khan can take solace from the fact that he has developed some kind of a rapport with president Trump in his various meetings with him.

Even cricket teams have slowly but surely started coming back to play in Pakistan after a long hiatus. The PSL (Pakistan Super League) is being held in the country rather than in Dubai that had become the de facto home ground for foreign cricket fixtures that could not be played in Pakistan owing to serious security concerns.

Our security agencies and successive civilian governments of the past decade or so deserve full credit for bringing down terrorist incidents to a bare minimum. This is no mean feat. Only a few countries have been able to successfully combat terrorism solely through their own efforts.

Another hurdle that Islamabad is yet to cross is to avoid being blacklisted by the FATF (Financial Action Task Force). The international anti money laundering organization wants full compliance of its 27-point benchmarks in order to let Pakistan off the hook. Despite having the will, why Islamabad has been unable to fully comply, remains a conundrum.

Despite the optimistic musings on the foreign policy front, relations with Narendra Modi’s India remain at an all-time low. Revoking the special status of the Indian occupied Kashmir by scrapping Article 370 of the Indian constitution in August last year, the Valley has been under a constant lockdown. The Kashmiri people are up in revolt and Islamabad has given them full moral and diplomatic support. Khan has also left no stone unturned to project the Kashmir cause on the international fora.

Nonetheless, Modi and his Hindutva hardliners are bent upon pursuing their xenophobic anti-Muslim agenda. The unkindest cut for the 201 million Indian Muslims was the CAA (Citizen Amendment Act) that became a law last December. Apart from Muslims, many liberal Indians are up in revolt against this Muslim specific law virtually making them second class citizens.

In the process, India that successfully used to sell its secular democratic credentials in the West is drawing sharp criticism for quashing civil liberties, stifling dissent and muzzling the media. The ruling BJP (Bhartiya Janata party) thugs routinely beat up those protesting against this discriminatory law.

Institutions like Jawaharlal University and Jamia e Millia in Delhi have become a cauldron of protest and dissent. The BJP’s strong-arm tactics backfired in the Indian capital where it lost badly to the incumbent AAP (Aam Aadmi Party).

Its ultra-liberal leader Arvind Kejriwal is an antithesis of Modi. In the process of perusing his hate agenda, Modi and his minions have badly tarnished India’s ‘soft image’ that had been so carefully nurtured over the years.

Axiomatically this provides a window of opportunity for Pakistan to change negative perceptions about its own democratic credentials. Unfortunately, a relentless campaign against a free media and political opposition is being spearheaded by the prime minister himself.

Instead of burnishing its democratic credentials, a diametrically opposite perception is being unwittingly created. Despite being a parliamentary democracy, an increasingly authoritarian bent of mind is becoming more and more pervasive.

A widely held negative impression about a perennial economic downturn coupled with general malfeasance is conveniently blamed on the errant media. While admonishing the media, the prime minister openly advises his supporters not to read newspapers nor watch television news shows.

Instead of engaging the media, a bevy of about 70 odd spokespersons are frequently tutored by none other than the prime minister himself on how to project his government’s real or perceived achievements. If Khan spends half of this time instead in directly engaging the media, he will achieve better results.

The ‘my way or the highway’ attitude has permeated the prime minister’s mindset to such an extent that need for engaging the opposition perhaps simply does not occur to him. The other day when the prime minister of Azad Jammu and Kashmir Raja Farooq Haider Khan had the temerity to publicly suggest to him to engage the opposition for the Kashmir cause, he was badly rebuffed.

Khan simply refuses to directly talk to the opposition including the parliamentarians on the facile plea that they are a corrupt lot. As a direct result the parliament is hardly functional.

It has not been able to perform its primary job description to legislate. Instead of meaningful debate, any serious discussion deteriorates into a verbal slugfest between the treasury benches and the opposition.

Perhaps Khan feels with the milt-establishment firmly behind him, he has nothing to fear from neither the opposition nor his coalition partners threatening to abandon him.

The NAB (the National Accountability Bureau) has become the cat paw of the government to victimize the opposition in the name of so-called accountability. Publicly a need is expressed both by the government as well as the opposition to tweak the NAB law to make it more even-handed and transparent.

But practically it seems that the government takes a vicarious pleasure to see opposition leaders behind bars in NAB custody. Had it been not for the independent judiciary, most opposition figures would still have been rotting in the slammer.

In this context the gains in the domain of foreign policy will prove to be ephemeral unless based upon a robust domestic base. Unfortunately, the effort is to turn everything topsy-turvy in the name of ‘tabdeeli’ (change).

In the process instead of any real change Pakistan is witnessing a chimerical system. Despite being a democracy on paper we are considered a hybrid authoritarian state where its leadership is unable or simply unwilling to govern effectively.

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