The harsher re­al­ity

The Pak Banker - - Front Page - Huma Yusuf

ON Wed­nes­day and Thurs­day last week, the phrase ‘Happy Di­wali’ was trend­ing on Twit­ter in Pak­istan (a topic trends when a lot of peo­ple post mes­sages about it) as the coun­try’s Twit­terati shared greet­ings with Hindu com­pa­tri­ots and friends in In­dia. None other than Rehman Ma­lik led this on­line charge, tweet­ing, “Happy Di­wali to all my Hindu broth­ers and sis­ters. I wish u all the best. I hope all my friends in In­dia are en­joy­ing this joy­ful day.” Mean­while, in the Pres­i­dent House, Asif Zar­dari hosted a spe­cial Di­wali din­ner for vis­it­ing Bi­har Chief Min­is­ter Ni­tish Ku­mar, us­ing the op­por­tu­nity to call for “good neigh­bourly re­la­tions” with In­dia.

In the midst of so many greet­ings and good wishes, it seemed the Fes­ti­val of Lights had sud­denly oblit­er­ated the dark­ness that has long de­fined Pak­istan-In­dia bi­lat­eral re­la­tions. But the on­line ca­ma­raderie might point to a trou­bling trend: Pak­istanIn­dia re­la­tions may be be­com­ing the pre­serve of Pak­istani lib­er­als, cur­tail­ing pop­u­lar sup­port for re­gional in­te­gra­tion.

It is not sur­pris­ing that ‘Happy Di­wali’ trended in Pak­istan (though slightly ironic, since at the same time the phrase ‘Happy Chil­dren’s Day’ was trend­ing in In­dia). The types of Pak­ista­nis on Twit­ter — English-speak­ing, ed­u­cated, af­flu­ent — are the same ones who are hor­ri­fied by Pak­istan’s so­cial col­lapse. This is the con­stituency that con­demns sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence, anti-mi­nor­ity pogroms, and off-the-cuff blas­phemy ac­cu­sa­tions. In Pak­istan, tol­er­ance is be­com­ing rarer by the minute, and is thus a sought-af­ter com­mod­ity.

In this con­text, what could be more re­as­sur­ing for Pak­istani lib­er­als than to reach across the vir­tual di­vide, six decades of an­tag­o­nism, and ap­par­ent ide­o­log­i­cal and spir­i­tual di­ver­gences to cel­e­brate a Hindu reli­gious fes­ti­val? Co­cooned in their Twit­ter bub­ble, Pak­istani lib­er­als tweeted their plu­ral­ism loud and proud in the hope of com­pen­sat­ing for bru­tal re­al­i­ties, of which there is no short­age: forced con­ver­sions, the slow em­i­gra­tion of Hin­dus flee­ing per­se­cu­tion, tar­geted as­sas­si­na­tions of Shias, blas­phemy charges against Chris­tians, and at­tacks against both a church and a tem­ple on the ‘Day of Love for the Prophet’ in Septem­ber.

But be­yond Twit­ter and the Pres­i­dent House, In­dia re­mains the trou­ble­some ri­val that seeks to colonise our land, dam our rivers and de­stroy our agri­cul­tural belt, col­lapse our econ­omy by flood­ing lo­cal mar­kets with cheap goods, team up with the US in Afghanistan to en­cir­cle us, and, even­tu­ally, nuke us.

This clash of opin­ion about In­dia says more about the class di­vide in Pak­istan than geopol­i­tics. Lib­eral Twit­terati look across the bor­der and see democ­racy, glob­al­i­sa­tion, plu­ral­ism, an ex­pand­ing mid­dle class, a feisty civil so­ci­ety, Bol­ly­wood­ised soft power — the fu­ture. This is a world of pos­si­bil­ity that elite Pak­ista­nis would like to be a part of, mak­ing In­dia not only a neigh­bour, but an as­pi­ra­tion. Reach­ing across the bor­der via visas and vir­tual Di­wali greet­ings is lib­eral Pak­istan’s way of pig­gy­back­ing on In­dia’s suc­cesses.

In the rest of the coun­try — where flat-screen TVs, mul­ti­plex tick­ets, so­cial me­dia, con­fer­ences, and glossy fash­ion mag­a­zines show­ing In­dia in all its ur­ban, shin­ing glory are in short sup­ply — ex­pla­na­tions for peo­ple’s mount­ing mis­ery are rare.

Most Pak­ista­nis want to know why their lives are be­ing crushed by in­fla­tion, cor­rup­tion, power out­ages, in­equal­ity, and vi­o­lence of ev­ery hue. Too bad, the only peo­ple read­ily of­fer­ing an­swers are rad­i­calised cler­ics in hate-seething pul­pits and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of ex­trem­ist or­gan­i­sa­tions. These voices churn con­spir­a­cies in which the US and In­dia are the only source of all Pak­istan’s prob­lems. There­fore, be­cause of is­sues re­lated to Pak­istani class and cul­ture, the call for im­proved In­dia-Pak­istan re­la­tions is in dan­ger of be­ing writ­ten off by the bulk of Pak­ista­nis as an elite, dis­con­nected, self­ish fan­tasy that can bring no good to their plight-stricken lives.

Last week, while en­gag­ing with Mr Ku­mar, Pres­i­dent Zar­dari spoke of a “gen­eral con­sen­sus” among Pak­istan’s main­stream po­lit­i­cal par­ties to strive for bet­ter bi­lat­eral and trade re­la­tions with In­dia.

This con­sen­sus was ev­i­dent in the fact that both Im­ran Khan and Nawaz Sharif dined (if not wined) Ku­mar, host­ing lav­ish re­cep­tions at Bani­gala and Rai­wind, re­spec­tively. But with­out more con­text and a clear com­mu­ni­ca­tions strat­egy to earn the pub­lic’s all-im­por­tant con­sen­sus, In­dia-Pak­istan re­la­tions will be­come toxic in the eyes of Pak­ista­nis who have been let down by a ve­nal po­lit­i­cal elite and have more troubles than Twit­ter ac­cess.

In other words, now is the time for the Pak­istan gov­ern­ment and main­stream par­ties to ‘sell’ the idea of im­proved In­di­aPak­istan ties to the peo­ple with­out pan­der­ing to them.

Rather than fo­cus on Di­wali greet­ings and cricket diplo­macy, gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials should ini­ti­ate a pub­lic dis­course grounded in is­sues such as power short­ages and their al­le­vi­a­tion through shared elec­tri­cal grids; joint man­age­ment of re­source scarcity (es­pe­cially with re­gards to wa­ter); shared strate­gies for mit­i­gat­ing cli­mate change, in­clud­ing glacial melt; re­gional eco­nomic in­te­gra­tion and re­lated growth op­por­tu­ni­ties; and other mat­ters that di­rectly con­nect with av­er­age Pak­ista­nis’ daily chal­lenges.

Such dis­course is, im­por­tantly, the first step needed for Pak­istan to move be­yond its cur­rent ‘strate­gic as­set’-fo­cused se­cu­rity poli­cies, which in­creas­ingly do more in­ter­nal harm than ex­ter­nal good. More­over, new nar­ra­tives about In­dia-Pak­istan re­la­tions must be con­sol­i­dated be­fore 2014 when US troop with­drawal from Afghanistan will en­able a greater In­dian pres­ence on our western bor­der and thus a new wave of Pak­istani para­noia. Rather than opt­ing for the easy course of tweet­ing their tol­er­ance and pro­gres­sive at­ti­tudes, Pak­istan’s po­lit­i­cal and busi­ness elite must now do the dif­fi­cult work of pol­i­cy­mak­ing and im­ple­men­ta­tion vis-à-vis ties with In­dia.

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