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Thriving Balochistan lost in perception battle

December 27, 2021
Thriving Balochistan lost in perception battle

Balochistan was recently in international media, particularly western media for the wrong reason: a sit-in in Gwadar City by angry residents demanding better facilities.

Understandably, Balochistan's southern region stretching towards the western Iranian Sistan Balochistan has always been an arid and underdeveloped piece of contiguous land for decades. However, CPEC and Gwadar Port have for the first time raised prospects of improving the lives of people and boosting local development.

Balochistan's larger picture is not mainly its kinetic aspect or its militancy though. Rather, it is beset with a crisis in political and narrative domains. Militancy in Balochistan has strategically been defeated and reduced to a certain number of on-and-off incidents targeting civilian infrastructure or security forces.

Accepted to continue in some shape and form, the low-level militancy is the indirect result of CPEC and Gwadar Port. It will be leveraged by regional countries particularly India and Iran to keep Balochistan on the boil for strategic reasons.

Nevertheless, the main issue is twofold: political and narrative challenges the government is facing. The leadership's failure to manage symptomatic outbursts like Gwadar sit-in, Balochistan University protest, Young Doctors demands and resolve their issues is political and administrative in nature. Lack of ownership, vision, will, and capacity are the lethal mix characterizing incompetency.

A palpable sense of disconnect between the population particularly the youth, political leaders, and the government is discernible. The elite, overwhelmingly sardars and nawabs, still want to keep the populace structurally suppressed through the clutches of the sardari system and continue to dominate politics, government, assembly, and administration in new ways.

With its dire implication on the development and welfare of people, the sardari system needs strong disruptors. This is why CPEC and Gwadar Port will be economic and societal disruptors emancipating the population through development, connectivity, improved infrastructure, and new livelihood opportunities.

The even bigger crisis is the narrative challenge of the province. Ethnic nationalist narrators and "deprivation" mongers have a booming business since they cash in on the "grievance" narrative of the province. For example, one of the main demands of Gawadar sit-in was the provision of drinking water but its leaders forgot to put in their agreement suggesting lack of water was leverage to dominate, not the agenda per se of resolving their issue. It was only used to galvanize masses against the federation.

Additional myths include blaming "others' ' for the ills of Balochistan. The whole Pakistani left and national media glamourize the "narrative" and thus in the process rehabilitate and promote ethnic nationalists to beg more votes and grab more power perpetuating the same "narrative" with a higher pitch and more resources without taking responsibility.

The first line of defense against this "narrative" is the provincial government but it faces a shortage of human resource with the right skills and experience. The blanket ban on non-electable technocrats and professionals by the provincial government even makes it less equipped to counter the narrative. This ban is effectively against the middle-class professionals who, being non-sardars and non-influential, cannot get elected.

The famous Foreign Policy Magazine portrayed the Gwadar set in as Pakistan's bust dream of making Gwadar the next Singapore. The Indian media was continuously blowing the Set in out of its proportion forcing even Prime Minister Imran Khan to support it after 3 weeks of silence. The provincial government was at loss as to how best it could counter such propaganda. Largely, It lacks vision, strategy, and team to present the true story of Balochistan — a rising Balochistan, not the one infamous for terrorist attacks, protest and deprivation. It has not even digitized itself involving the use of social media. With 4G net in every town of Balochistan, the next sit-in, say, in the small Ketch district will be all over the world on FB, Twitter, and other media, yet again.

There is no political force with narrative-building capacity in the province that can challenge the "grievance" narrative.

Countering the "grievance" narrative is imperative if we want to win perception battles. The government has to push back to neutralize the impression that it has clumsily dealt with the issues of Balochistan. Checking the dark propaganda of the fifth generation information warfare is not automatic: it needs vision, strategy, and skill to beat.

While living in a post-truth society, everything is perception and before reality sinks in, people would have formed judgments based on perception. The digitalization of narrative and dark propaganda has even made it more difficult for the government to correct wrong information, disseminate counter data, and let people understand challenges, constraints, and limitations policy practitioners are facing.

For now, all good news trickling out of Balochistan are lost in perception of "grievance" narrative, over-hyped on historical myths, half-cooked truths, and conspiracies theories. And who will take on the twin challenges, is a million dollar question.

(Jan Achakzai is a geopolitical analyst, a politician from Balochistan, and an ex-adviser to the Balochistan Government on media and strategic communication. He remained associated with BBC World Service. He is also Chairman of the Institute of New Horizons (INH) & Balochistan. He tweets @Jan_Achakzai)