The harsher reality
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.