A hard image

Published June 6, 2017
The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist.
The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist.

ALMOST three decades of existence as a frontline state in fighting one set of real or imaginary threats to the US-led Western world after another, has left Pakistan with a negative reputation — a hard country.

Today, the body fabric shows many stains from its past without any imminent hope of a long overdue turning of the corner to become a peaceful and economically vibrant country. In sharp contrast to the days when prose and poetry thrived even during the days of military rule while women felt more emancipated, Pakistan now faces multiple challenges surrounding its politics, economy and above all society.

Meanwhile, the erosion of the Pakistani state has effectively sounded the death knell of the once well-deserved image of an all-encompassing, tolerant, liberal and a fundamentally soft country. Consequently, Pakistan’s ability to reach out to a range of diverse backgrounds both within and outside the country has clearly fallen in tatters.

In a recent case, events leading up to and after the May 23rd failed bid by the well reputed Dr Sania Nishtar — a credible candidate for the position of the Director General of the Geneva-based World Health Organisa­tion, offer a timely lesson. In the run-up to the election during WHO’s annual gathering, Dr Nishtar’s rivals from Ethiopia and the UK reportedly assembled active backing from their governments while Pakistani authorities appeared to have woken up late in the day.

Dr Nishtar’s rivals found support with the former backed by fellow African countries while the latter relying on his government and some of their partners. It is not surprising that Dr Nishtar’s well-earned credentials aside, her candidature was wiped out in the first round of voting. In the run-up to this event, Pakistan’s ruling structure presented little evidence of either building up their candidates’ profile internally or actively reaching out to real or perceived foreign partners for support.

No attempt is being made to send positive vibes.

Though the government has frequently been criticised for its failure to appoint a foreign minister, especially at a time when most of Pakistan’s borders appear insecure, the broader issue of pushing a ‘soft’ image to take over the hard one is more complicated and of a longer-term nature than just the role of the Foreign Office in relation to Dr Nishtar’s case. While lethargy by the foreign ministry may have been one issue, the challenge relates to the broader functioning of the ruling structure where a recognition to tackle the prevailing image appears to be simply absent.

The consequences of becoming a hard country however are much too serious to be ignored. A continuing failure to deal with this issue preferably by taking urgent steps will only deepen the malaise surrounding Pakistan. Though Pakistan has repeatedly denied charges of having been thrown effectively in global isolation, that indeed is clearly the writing on the wall.

And while a range of foreign partners may commend Islamabad’s progress in fighting insurgents, there are far too few compliments for progress in healthcare or education or social policies. The gap between these two areas together presents a powerful reminder of the sharp contrasts surrounding Pakistan’s present and future outlook.

While Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government leaves no opportunity to brag about the prosperity which will usher in with the completion of the planned China-Pakistan Economic Corridor there is indeed a two-fold catch. On the one hand, CPEC will take years to complete and the full scale of opportunities from this historical initiative may take even longer to become reality. In the meantime, the task of reorienting Pakistan’s direction is too urgent to be ignored.

On the other hand, though CPEC may well be a profoundly important initiative, it is nevertheless more physical than conceptual in giving Pakistan a new and qualitatively impro­ved direction.

An assessment of Pakistan’s future will remain incomplete without an ove­rhaul of the state’s ability to come acr­oss with a far more caring touch. For instance, a long overdue beginning could well be made with tackling challenges such as revamping parts of the government-provided educational syllabus, sections of it repeatedly noted to contain material that promotes radical views rather than progressive ones. This is just one of the many gaps surrounding Pakistan’s society and the ill-advised direction taken in the past three decades.

More broadly, a deeper commitment to the future of Pakistan’s society will depend on initiatives such as vastly improving the ability of the state to tackle the multiple gaps in healthcare or education or providing employment through the creation of opportunities beyond the ones already placed on the table.

Though the list of desirable initiatives may be vast, the end objective ought to just one — to create a badly needed ‘soft’ image to be swapped with the hard one that has cost Pakistan dearly and clearly outlived its utility. Achieving this goal will mark the most important victory, more meaningful than the successful battle against militant groups.

The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist.

farhanbokhari@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, June 6th, 2017

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