Friday June 14, 2024

Perception vs reality

By Javid Husain
October 08, 2020

Pakistan’s political landscape is like a fairy-tale world where what one sees is not the reality, and what is real is not visible as the reality is hidden under layers of secrecy and deception.

On the face of it, we are a constitutional democracy ruled by the representatives of the people but in reality state policies are not run the way democratic states would be run. The constitution provides for freedom of expression and association but in reality there is undeclared censorship in the country and shrinking space for political dissent.

The economy is virtually on its knees with negative growth rate and high levels of unemployment, poverty and inflation, but the government’s spin masters led by a group of incompetent economic managers imported from Washington would like the nation to believe that the economy is in a fine shape. The overall situation on the external front also is not much better either.

Apparently, the government’s spokespersons believe that what matters is public perception and not reality. Their emphasis, therefore, is more on propaganda rather than policy formulation with the objective of creating a perception favourable to the government even if the truth is a casualty in the process. Such an approach in the short run may work to the advantage of the authorities at the helm of affairs by projecting a narrative which appeals to the people. However, in the long run such an approach to handling important national issues has the potential of causing grievous harm to the country because when the reality asserts itself, as it will ultimately, the nation will be found unprepared to deal with its adverse consequences.

Such an ill-conceived approach on the part of leaders and policy makers carries dangerous implications for the security and progress of the country and the welfare of its people. It is a sure recipe for the continuation of policy mistakes leading to serious setbacks and disaster. These considerations underscore the importance of freedom of speech and association as well as a healthy debate in managing national affairs. Unfortunately, the reverse is happening in the country with the government and the hybrid system bent upon pushing their own narrative on important issues, irrespective of its demerits and shortcomings.

Consequently, the space for political dissent has shrunk as growing censorship of the media has taken hold and the process of accountability is increasingly used for political victimization. The emphasis has unfortunately shifted from the formulation of sound policies to propaganda blasts and from facing harsh realities to presenting appealing narratives to the nation. The height of this ill-conceived approach was when an official spokesman declared haughtily some time ago that only if the media were to praise the prevailing situation in the country for six months, the nation would soon scale the pinnacle of progress and prosperity.

Little wonder then that the country’s economy has taken a nosedive, high levels of poverty, unemployment and inflation have wrecked the lives of the down-trodden, justice is not within the each of the common citizen, lawlessness and corruption are on the increase, and the nation is politically destabilized encouraging centrifugal forces. Meanwhile, government spokespersons are busy painting a rosy picture of the situation in the country. Unless this flawed approach is checked through appropriate course correction measures, the country will slide towards a major national disaster.

The situation is not much different on the external front. The Modi-led and Hindutva-driven BJP government in India annexed Jammu and Kashmir in August last year. Pakistan subsequently referred the matter to the UN Security Council at least three times with a request for holding a meeting to debate the issue and urge India to abide by its obligations under its relevant resolutions. Unfortunately, on each of those occasions, the UNSC after informal consultations declined to hold a formal meeting thereby sending the signal that Pakistan and India should deal with this issue bilaterally.

Instead of facing this reality head-on and drawing the right policy conclusions from our failure, the government presented the UNSC’s informal consultations to the nation as its formal meetings for the consideration of the Kashmir dispute. As for the OIC, despite the present government’s initial efforts to woo Saudi Arabia and the UAE, our requests for an emergency session of OIC foreign ministers to discuss the Kashmir issue have not succeeded so far. To rub salt in our wounds, the UAE for the first time in the OIC history invited the Indian foreign minister as the guest of honour at the OIC Foreign Ministers Conference held last year.

The current government came into power in 2018 primarily on the basis of a simplistic but appealing narrative which held corruption responsible for the political, economic, administrative, judicial and social ills of the country. The people were told that once corruption was eliminated, the country’s problems would be resolved and it would embark on the road to progress and prosperity. The reality, however, was much more complex. Corruption undoubtedly was and remains a major issue. Every possible effort, therefore, must be made for its eradication through a transparent and unbiased accountability process.

Accountability, however, should not become a tool for political engineering and victimization as has been the case in Pakistan in the recent past. In addition to accountability, the country also needs the right mix of political, economic, security, judicial, administrative and social policies and reforms to overcome the serious problems of poverty, economic stagnation, unemployment, inflation, illiteracy, scientific and technological backwardness, lawlessness, and social and economic injustice confronting it.

It is here that the PTI government has been found wanting. It needs sincerity of purpose and deep soul searching to identify its shortcomings so as to make progress on the various national fronts. That, however, wouldn’t be possible unless it brings about a radical change both in its approach and policies in dealing with national issues and its political opponents. Propaganda blitz and demonizing the opposition leaders will simply not do.

The writer is a retired ambassador and president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.