Pakistan has serious problems, and is seen as a problem by many in the world. Its affairs should not resemble a television situational comedy.
If they did not affect the life of 200 million Pakistanis, and the stability of a region that is home to more than a billion and a half people, current developments in Pakistan would evoke laughter like a television sitcom. As Charlie Chaplin supposedly remarked, “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.”
This tragic situational comedy is rich in its cast of characters. Each major character claims that he is helping make things better for others, but most of his actions only invite ridicule from those who are watching the show from a distance.
There is the chief justice, who struts around checking the status of general hygiene in mental hospitals while presiding over one of the largest backlog of undecided cases. Few people take him seriously, but he insists on his significance and frequently asserts it.
Then, there is the spokesman for the world’s sixth largest army, who sees nothing wrong in announcing at a press conference that his institution monitors its citizens’ comments on social media to track down ‘enemies of the state’. Why should a nuclear-armed country even worry about what a few people say on social media unless they are tied to terrorist groups?
Even in case of social media use by terrorists, most governments conduct quiet surveillance. They do not announce that they are on to the traitors, and will make sure they pay for their treason. If anything, the ‘we monitor everyone and punish those we suspect of being against us’ declaration only proves that Pakistan is not a functioning democracy, and operates under the shadow of the men in uniform.
The unusual characters in the televised Pakistani drama also include a host of retired military officers and politicians, who act as if they are the military’s inner voice. They pronounce judgment on various Pakistanis’ patriotism, threaten neighbouring countries with war, try to scare Pakistanis with threats of looming disasters, and announce what is or is not acceptable to the country’s all-powerful military in the political realm.
That the military’s official spokesman allows so many unofficial spokesmen to also speak on behalf of his institution creates many comical situations. Pakistan is scheduled to have general elections on 25 July, and the military is officially committed to a free and fair election. But some of the unofficial spokesmen for the military are citing reasons why the elections should be postponed ‘in the national interest’.
By not disowning such statements and those who put them out, ‘the institution’ breeds political confusion. One should not forget that General Zia-ul-Haq, who has the distinction of leading the institution for the longest period of time while also ruling Pakistan with an iron fist, once declared, “A little confusion is a good thing for our country”.
Meet the ‘kaptaan’
One of the most laughter-inducing characters in the Pakistan sitcom is the cricketer-turned-politician, who has been waiting to become a prime minister for two decades, and is confident that ‘the institution’ is about to anoint him to run the country very soon. He flip-flops at the drop of a hat, almost never has his act together, but is vociferously defended by a lot of people on grounds of his supposed honesty.
He is always in a state of outrage over something or the other. These days, he is upset that one of his former wives has written a book that he suspects will say unpleasant things about him. Instead of staying calm and waiting for the book to be published first, he and his team are trying to control damage preemptively by painting the forthcoming book as a conspiracy against Pakistan and its wanna-be saviour.
Like people moving in the background of many sitcoms, I found myself as an unwitting prop in Pakistan’s latest farce. In London to attend a conference hosted by the Foundation for Sports Integrity, I was not even thinking about Pakistan when I ran into the cricketer-turned-politician’s former wife and her son at a department store. We had a civil, social conversation like any two Pakistanis running into each other should.
The former wife is a former member of the journalist fraternity, and I am appalled by the nastiness of attacks on her by her ex-husband’s supporters. But I am not in the business of ghost writing, nor am I a literary agent or a publisher’s representative and, therefore, had no advice to offer the budding author about her book.
But that did not prevent the comedians around the ‘kaptaan’ from dragging me into their panic scene. Photos of that chance encounter were circulated on Pakistan’s mainstream media with comments about how a conspiracy was being hatched between the former wife and a known Pakistani ‘traitor’.
End the silly season
My unvarnished views on how Pakistan needs a fundamental change have made me a symbol of perennial threat to the country. A man who wants to discuss why Pakistan has the highest infant mortality rate in the world, 23 million out-of-school children, and low international rankings in virtually everything, except the size of its military and nuclear arsenal, is definitely dangerous.
Discussion of substantive issues detracts from Pakistan’s national narrative about external and internal threats and victim hood. It also takes away from the all-consuming sitcom. For my part, I have tried to assure the cricketer-turned-politician that I have never taken him seriously enough to get involved in the publication of his former wife’s memoirs.
The unwanted attention from Pakistani TV viewers has done little to disrupt my life. But for the sake of the 200 million people of Pakistan, I want the silly season of conspiracy theories and comical television debates to end. Pakistan has serious problems, and is seen as a problem by many in the world. Its affairs should not resemble a television situational comedy.
Husain Haqqani, director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C., was Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States from 2008-11. His latest book is ‘Reimagining Pakistan’.