Through foreign eyes
THE civilian government in Pakistan is certain to feel the fallout of memogate in coming weeks, with either its credibility or institutional validity undermined in the public eye. Less discussed is the fact that Pakistan’s publishing industry too will feel the impact of last week’s dramatics.
Those who followed the unmaking of former ambassador Husain Haqqani will now think twice before publishing insightful or critical books or research papers about the security establishment. For, as Cyril Almeida aptly pointed out in these pages, Haqqani’s book, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, generated much of the establishment ire against him and probably
contributed to last week’s sequence of events.
There’s a reason why I’m choosing to focus on this particular aspect of the memo scandal, and it starts with a column I began
writing (but never finished) about two weeks ago. Soon after the Pakistan government announced that the federal cabinet had decided in principle to grant India the status of Most Favoured Nation, several Indian and American journalists and analysts
approached me. They all had the same question: would Pakistan go through with the decision?
Despite the flip-flopping nature of the government’s MFN announcement, I was confused by these queries. Why wouldn’t the government push through to implement the decision? I retorted. After all, a mechanism had been put in place to improve India-Pakistan trade ties: the commerce secretaries of both countries were scheduled to meet; a negative list had been announced to ensure that vulnerable (or politically well-connected) industries did not face undue competition from Indian
imports; and Pakistan was already pushing India to respond to the MFN status by removing non-tariff barriers.
My argument elicited sceptical and bemused responses: how could Pakistan’s India-centric army overcome its paranoia long enough to let the two countries strengthen economic ties? At the time, this line of reasoning frustrated me because it imposed a stagnant, outdated perception of Pakistani foreign policy and civil-military relations on an evolving and dynamic situation.
This was not the only time that I have felt that the international understanding of Pakistan — its policies, population and challenges — has ossified. On the matter of Pakistan’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan, for example, the international debate is often out of touch. Outsiders frequently talk about Pakistan seeking ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan, when the present interest is in seeing a representative government in Kabul that is not explicitly hostile to Islamabad’s interests.
Similarly, foreigners dwell on entrenched patronage politics, but pay little attention to the expanding middle class that may yet disrupt the status quo, as indicated by the Imran Khan phenomenon. On Pakistan-India relations, meanwhile, the world has decided that there can be no hope, even as Islamabad and New Delhi plod through the composite dialogue.
Unable to counter the scepticism of those who believed the MFN status for India would not materialise, I began to wonder why perceptions about Pakistan are stuck in the past and firmly rooted in the realm of worst-case scenarios. That’s when I reasoned that the world is not willing to accept an evolving, progressing Pakistan because its subtle policy and societal shifts are not being documented, mapped and analysed in academic books, journal articles or policy papers.
Op-ed pages and televised talk shows are lively, but they command a primarily domestic or expatriate Pakistani audience. For others, Pakistan remains frozen in the 1980s (or another prior decade when a free judiciary, vibrant media, political devolution and youthful population were not making waves) with little in writing to suggest otherwise.
On realising this, I sat down to write a column calling for more government and private-sector funding for research fellowships, university exchange programmes and tax breaks for think tanks — any incentives to spur academic and policy research about contemporary Pakistan and challenge the stagnant narrative about our country. A more nuanced and representative portrait of Pakistan, I believed, was now in our national interest.
And then memogate happened.
As the civilian government kowtowed to the military in the context of a wholly suspicious scandal, the worst stereotypes about Pakistan and its incurably skewed civil-military dynamic were reiterated. Ironically, I realised that the next big book about Pakistan might very well be an account of recent events by the former ambassador, who would no doubt tell the story in a way that reaffirms the subjugation of Pakistan’s civilian government by a paranoid and controlling security establishment.
Even if Haqqani chooses not to write a bestseller, any one who braves the topic of Pakistan in prose will, in the light of recent events, have to rehash the well-worn narrative about the civil-military imbalance.
As my thinking on this issue changed overnight, another realisation dawned. The foreigners with whom I was frustrated for being out of touch with Pakistan’s current realities were in some ways more in touch than I was. From the outside, they can view Pakistan cynically, and thus more clearly, because they have no stake in the country or its future. For those of us whose lives are inextricably linked to the nation and its woes, the truth is much harder to digest.
By calling for better documentation of Pakistan’s evolution, I was clinging at straws, trying to believe that a trade deal here or an ISPR statement there heralded significant progress. But the new trends I want to write and read about are merely cosmetic changes to an otherwise stagnant structure. In the absence of a dramatically different national narrative, Pakistan seems fated to repeat its sorry history, no matter what its citizens (or Imran Khan) say. And the texts that are now being written about our country will certainly emphasise this point.
The writer is a freelance journalist.