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February 2, 2015

National agenda matters


February 2, 2015


It is exciting to reconnect with The News. This is a paper whose Islamabad edition I have had the honour of leading. The first copy of The News carried some of my fingerprints too. My task was to proofread its launch editorial, ‘Journey of a thousand dreams’. But like all reconnections, understanding the context of this one is important.
The good old hard-nosed, cold, reasonably detached but brutally straightforward framework of analysis that once formed the bedrock of almost all journalistic writings today seems to be fighting to survive the onslaught of ‘hit-you-hate-you-love-you-hug-you’ formulations. My aim is to expand that shrinking tradition in this weekly slot and in the process contribute something to the serious ideas market.
Naturally, the central question concerns Pakistan. Why are we the way we are? What challenges lie ahead for a nuclear-armed, enthusiastic democracy that ranks 146 out of 187 nations on the Human Development Index behind Nepal and Equatorial Guinea and just above Kenya and Swaziland?
The popular belief is that by handing over power to the ‘right guy’ everything will be righted. Like most popular beliefs this too is plain bogus. The right guy with the wrong vision – or zero vision – could be just as disastrous as the wrong guy with or without vision. History tells us this, and no one is bigger than history’s lasting lessons.
But since we are desperate, we continue to clutch at straws, or, more precisely, straw-men, who inflate their chests, declare revolution every time they open their mouths and then dive back to their comfort zones. They fill the gap between promises and reality with hollow talk and bravado over-simplifying complex equations, misleading national sentiment through self-serving analysis.
The real problem is that we don’t have the right kind of focus, and more accurately, no clarity on what the objects of this focus ought to be. This problem has another name: absence of national

Any serious debate about where Pakistan can go from here must pay sustained attention to some basic factors without which the crafting of a cohesive national agenda won’t be possible.
The foremost of these basic factors is our borders. Since independence we have been selling to ourselves and to the world the virtues of our location. We have held forth eloquently on Pakistan being a gateway to three regions, as many continents, multiple trade routes and energy corridors. From those days of the cold war of the past, to these days of American troops’ drawdown from Afghanistan, we have tried to use geography to what we believe have been our ‘strategic’ advantages. This has further cemented the already hardened view that the world cannot overlook us.
In 2015, the reality of this geographic centrality is that it has become our biggest liability. The location that was supposed to be our blank cheque, our national asset, our defence and foreign policy keystone, is our existential national danger. From Modi’s schemes – yes Narendra Modi specifically and India’s Deep State generally, have long-term schemes that do not envisage a peaceful and prosperous Pakistan – to turbulent Afghanistan, from Chinese worries of expanding extremism to conflict around Taftan, our borders face persistent turmoil. How to stabilise our territorial perimeter has to be our top-most priority in whose pursuit we should be relentless and totally unbending.
Just as trenchant has to be our resolve to pacify and secure our city centres. This is the second key factor. Every inch of the land needs to be governed but some need to be governed and secured with exceptional tenacity and sincerity. Urban centres are hubs where the critical mass of the economy and society is located. The vital agrarian potential of the country itself hinges on functioning and functional cities. From policymaking to value addition in tradable, exportable goods, cities are the backbone of Pakistan.
For decades we have allowed this backbone to be broken so much so that it has led to national paralysis. Politics, violent mobs, gangs, mafias, terrorists have all taken our cities – these engines of national growth – hostage. The remaining independence and commercial activity in these hubs has been eaten up by ill-planning and chronic shortage of fuel and electricity.
We will have to activate city centres, not by digging them up for silly, expensive projects, but by freeing them from hostage-takers. There isn’t a country in the world whose city centres (including its capital) get shut down so frequently and easily as here. We are unique in having this distinction among the comity of nations. There is no difference between cities getting captured and state capture.
The third element of national agenda is to sort out the bedevilled civil-military relations. Regardless of the causes – and I will dwell on these in subsequent columns – of this state of affairs, Pakistan’s internal situation on this count is bad. Walk into any political or social gathering and sizzling discussions about another military takeover welcome you. These discussions might be idle talk but there is no denying the fact that the army leadership is practically running its own defence and foreign policy as a half-awake government maintains a clumsy appearance of being in-charge.
This is a sad but familiar story. It has been in currency all our national life. The story sometimes ends in out-right military takeovers; it sometimes closes with deep distrust between the political and military elite; and sometimes culminates in tense coexistence marked by low-intensity, bilateral conflict and a constant effort to trip the other. But never ever does it end in a way that has served the long-term interests of the country.
At this critical juncture in our history, we cannot afford a continuous slide in civil-military relations and a widening gap in perceptions about who is right and who is wrong. This has to end. The civilians and the military cannot do without each other. The country’s slide into chaos cannot be slowed down by one of them alone. Recognition of this reality is critical for creating some sort of a workable national agenda. The country’s military and political leadership can either fight each other or fight for the future of Pakistan.
The fourth key factor in forging a futuristic agenda is the media. For all its immense potential to fast-track change and impact collective national behaviour, the media is hopelessly caught in the immediate, the Now. More problematic is its politicisation. There is no shame in pushing agendas of parties and individuals. There is no moral bar against fighting personal battles.
The media industry’s business and the freedom of speech it brings to thousands of journalists rests on the state the country is in. If the country goes in a tailspin the hallowed giants of the industry would be ruined. Free speech? Forget about it then.
The media and its movers and shakers have to realise that they are not and cannot be bigger than the state. They are powerful only when they remain aloof from power games. They can and should shape the national agenda through information dissemination, not by playing the kingmaker. For their part governments, politicians and state institutions must realise that the media cannot be turned into an improvised explosives device (IED) to blow up opponents.
The ‘with-us-or-against-us’ paradigm that the state has evolved for dealing with media is also self-defeating. The friend and foe distinction is a concept for actual conflicts. It is a poor strategy to engage with the national force that the media has become.
Secure borders, liberated, functional, vibrant cities, a civil-military equation that rests on an even keel, and a strong but responsible media are the keys to enabling Pakistan to defy the heavy odds that are staring it in the face.
The writer is a senior anchorperson at Geo TV
Email: [email protected]




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