Photo ops

July 12, 2017

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IT is quite clear that Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, chief of the army staff, is a great fan of football and of Ronaldinho, as well as of many other retired football players from around the world. Their photographs with him have been printed in every newspaper — often on the front page — otherwise why would he have met these so-called international stars and hosted a reception in their honour?

Gen Bajwa, is also, clearly, a cricket aficionado, for why else would he have met Pakistan’s winning cricket team whose photograph with the COAS was also plastered across newspapers in Pakistan, again boldly on the front page in many. In his meeting with the footballers, he stated that Pakistan was a peace- and sports-loving nation, and who better than the COAS to bridge both ends of the peace and sports divide.

There are many detractors who would argue that such photo ops are building a negative image of Pakistan now that it is a democracy. Yet, one ought to accept the huge contribution the military makes to Pakistan’s sports. The famous Misbah salute at Lords last year was public recognition of how much the army helped Pakistan win that Lords test. Neither Misbah nor Yasir Shah would have played as well as they did had the military not helped them with their training and their game.

Just a few days before he retired, photographs published in many newspapers showed former army chief Gen Raheel Sharif inaugurating a cricket stadium in Khyber Agency along with Shahid Afridi, where the latter tweeted: “It is an honour and a privilege to inaugurate a stadium in Khyber Agency with COAS Raheel Sharif. You are Pakistan’s hero and my hero too.” Such images only show how central Pakistan’s army is to developing sport in the country, and the results, after the victory in the Champions Trophy, confirm that they have clearly been stellar. Photographs with the COAS promoting cricket (or football) are clearly good for the future of sport in Pakistan.

We can even sometimes have a civilian opinion on a pressing issue.

It is not just the love of sports and peace, cricket or football, which makes front-page photo news in Pakistan, but numerous newspapers carry an ISPR-released photograph of the corps commanders’ meetings whenever they are held. Not infrequently, there is extensive news coverage about promotions and appointments regarding senior military personnel, not just in the army, but also in the navy and air force. Many Pakistanis must surely follow such events very closely, wanting to know who all have been promoted to air vice-marshal, or are to be one of the many new generals. Such information is important to many, even though some Pakistanis might insist that Pakistan is now a democracy.

While civilian politicians are left with mundane tasks such as inaugurating motorways or power plants, the real business of the state has been left to the military, that of building peace, sometimes with the help of sports. There is extensive coverage in the electronic and print media in Pakistan about the numerous official visits made by whoever the COAS is in Pakistan, to different capitals around the world to meet their counterparts.

Similarly, foreign delegations are shown meeting senior military men who brief our guests about Pakistan’s ‘security situation’. With ISPR’s aggressive use of social media, no one can avoid the numerous important pronouncements made by Pakistan’s best military minds. In this day of information technology, it is essential to be constantly informed lest we miss something of particular significance.

It is possible that in many countries which have a large military, the lay public, or even analysts and newspaper contributors, are often not even aware of who their commander-in-chief or chief of the army is, leave alone what the military establishment’s thinking about a national issue really is. Not so in Pakistan. We are fortunate to be well informed about most critical issues, and we can even sometimes have a civilian opinion on a pressing political or security issue, such as Pakistan’s foreign or peaceful nuclear policies. Those of us who follow the media closely in order to understand what is really going on in Pakistan, know that military opinions matter much more for us to understand the Pakistani state’s policy regarding a particular matter. Where would we be without ISPR’s active use of social media?

Given the importance and influence of such photo ops with the COAS or the pronouncements of the ISPR, one hopes that the military and its institutions will begin to play a far more active role in forming public opinion and in policy formulation in Pakistan, for they can only do good. After the successful transformation of our cricket team, perhaps we are on the verge of seeing Pakistan seriously compete for a place in football’s next World Cup.

The writer is a Karachi-based political economist.

Published in Dawn, July 12th, 2017