Just when you think nerves frayed by Lyari, drones, loadshedding, have been dulled into a tired stupor, the prime minister decides to give an interview to a foreign correspondent.
Couldn’t have been more poorly conducted. The interviewer revealed her colonial mind-set and the interviewee revealed his arrogance and complete lack of thought.
During his interview with CNN, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, when asked about the latest Gallup poll which suggests that one-fifth of Pakistanis want to leave the country, said: “Why don’t they just leave then. Who is stopping them?” He was smiling when he said that – as if he had made a great wisecrack.
The CNN interviewer who asked the prime minister of a 180 million strong country to look her in the eye while answering her, and the prime minister who arrogantly said that those who want to leave the country should go and that he was not stopping them – were unforgivingly rude and dismissive of a huge country made up of beleaguered populace grappling with disaster after disaster for a depressingly long time now.
Here is how we stand today. We are fighting a war/insurgency that is spread across the country but is occupying a significant portion of our armed forces in at least three provinces of the country. The global economic slowdown has hit everyone, including us. But economic growth had sputtered even before the global slowdown and our economy currently faces massive challenges: poverty, unemployment, malnutrition, stagnant industry, limping agriculture, and stagflation.
Our governance systems are poor and still recovering from years of dictatorships and the military still holds tremendous power over all major issues. We were the first international battleground for the fight against communism and now against religious extremism – would be comic if it weren’t so darkly tragic.
The last few years, which are also highlighted in the Gallup poll, have been especially challenging: we had the worst floods of our history, we face unprecedented power cuts, thousands of people have lost lives in bomb explosions, drone strikes, battles with the army, sectarian and nationalist fights, thousands are maimed and many thousands have lost their livelihoods.
Does it come as a surprise that 20 percent Pakistanis want to leave Pakistan? One wonders why it is not more than 20 percent. It is a testament to the resilience of the 180 million people that not only do 80 percent still want to live here, all of them continue to struggle everyday to have a life that anyone would want: a chance at a decent life for themselves and their loved ones.
Yes, Osama was found in Pakistan and for all we know Ayman al-Zawahiri might be hiding here too. The international players continue to play their power games on our territory and our elite continues to delay meaningful governance related changes that we need. Yet the spirit of the people remains intact.
This is clear from the everyday struggles of ordinary citizens for living, for moving on, and for surviving. This is as true of Karachi where despite dozens of killings on some days people continue to go to work, or KPK, or Balochistan, or Punjab, or Gilgit-Baltistan.
Is there a nation right now that faces similar challenges? How many people in those nations would want to leave? How many left when famine hit Ireland? How many left Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion? How many have moved across borders in African nations when facing famine and civil war?
I think Pakistanis will not come out too poorly in any such comparison. The United States of America is peopled by those who came to a new land to find better prospects. How can the west and our political leadership trivialise the existence and needs and rights of 180 million people? The US, of all countries, should be more understanding.
Having said that, the prime minister’s response was thoughtless, callous, arrogant and foolish. He should have mentioned the challenges the ordinary Pakistanis face every day; and made a case for all that the PPP government is trying to do to address the very serious concerns of the citizens. But he chose to be childish.
It also does not excuse the attitude of the interviewer as well. She was rude and was acting as if the nation of Pakistan and the prime minister owed her, personally, and to the West, generally, an explanation for what was going on in Pakistan. It is easy and comfortable to take that line with Pakistan right now. Wonder if she would take the same line, say, when interviewing the Chinese premier on human rights?
The perception gap, between how we see ourselves and how the world, or at least a part of the world, sees us has become too large and distorted. We are considered to be the bad boys of the world: irresponsible, playing all kinds of unsavoury games with all sorts of unsavoury characters while keeping nuclear weapons. There is some truth to it. But our reputation is exaggerated. We are small fry in the pool of the wicked.
Exasperatingly, Pakistanis feel that everything that we face today is due to the world: CIA, Indians, Saudis, Iranians, and so on. A lot of the blame for the current mess has to be laid at the door of the army and then some at the feet of politicians and a few shovel-loads have to be reserved for the people too.
We, as a people, should have had more control through the ballot box and through our collective power. We have been too tacit. This is changing, but the historical mess will be with us for many years to come.
What we need, and this goes for our political leaders as well, is to take a step back from things. Gather our self-respect. The best way for doing that is by developing cross party, cross group (ethnic, religions, sectarian, linguistic) consensus on issues that we face as a nation.
And to use that consensus, however minimalist it might be, as a basis for moving forward and addressing issues that we face. This is the only way we will get power to face the demons we ourselves have created and the demons that others keep throwing our way.
Mr Prime Minister, stop being dismissive of people, they do not need your permission to stay or leave. But your party does need their votes to be in power.
The writer is a former editor of The News Lahore.