THERE is a wearingly familiar pattern in the statements and utterances of federal government ministers. Already well established is their preoccupation with berating the opposition by using rhetoric more commonly heard during election campaigns. There is also a recurring tendency to cry conspiracy and resort to a victim narrative when faced with a setback.
Ministers and official spokesmen increasingly adopt a complaining tone and go on prolonged rants about the problem of the day. Consider the response by senior government figures to New Zealand’s cancellation of its cricket tour of Pakistan. Public disappointment and anger with this decision was perfectly understandable. As was questioning the grounds on which the decision was made. But it hardly warranted the verbal overdrive ministers went into.
First there were contradictory statements by the information minister. In his initial knee-jerk reaction, he declared that both New Zealand and England abandoned their tours because the prime minister had said “absolutely not” — referring to his refusal of the US request for bases, despite both countries having said this request was never made. He also claimed an “international lobby” was working against Pakistan. The next day, addressing another press conference with the interior minister, he explained how a fake email emanating from India conjured up a security threat to the New Zealand team and led to its decision not to play. To have issued contrary statements earlier detracted from this significant finding.
Official reaction to the cancellation should really have been in the form of a sober and measured statement — rather than long press conferences — to convey how Pakistan viewed the cancellation, what it had determined lay behind it and what the government planned to do in response. Such a statement would have carried weight shorn of the verbiage and drama of the pressers. Dramas usually undercut the seriousness of a message. Conflicting official explanations further undermined this. The chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, Ramiz Raja, said one thing while ministers claimed another. The PCB chief launched a tirade against what he called the ‘Western bloc’, accusing it of seeking to isolate Pakistan. In a video message he castigated this ‘bloc’ and said he felt “used and binned”. He also donned the mantle of victimhood.
Narratives of victimhood are self-denigrating and disempowering and also undermine national confidence.
This was only the latest episode in which a negative development was over-dramatised by senior ministers and officials as if it was make or break for the country. The proclivity to do this has frequently been on display. Often an adverse comment by some insignificant Western commentator, obscure ex-MP or editorial in a foreign publication is accorded such disproportionate attention as if it poses some kind of existential threat. What has also become an official habit is to explain a situation or an event as a ‘conspiracy’ against the country. This resort to conspiracy theories frees government officials from responsibility and from having to do anything to remedy the problem at hand.
The narrative of victimhood is frequently deployed by senior ministers on a diverse set of issues which include the country’s economic difficulties, relations with key countries and dealings with international financial institutions. Significantly though, Prime Minister Imran Khan has rarely if ever engaged in this. Despite that it figures regularly in his government’s foreign policy assertions. Rather than articulate Pakistan’s policy and explain policy actions, top officials often bemoan how unfairly Pakistan is treated in media interviews — as if saying that will influence the world or put the country in question on the defensive. This is often accompanied by an inordinate focus on the past, and a recount of the history of being wronged.
This has made whining second nature to those charged with enunciating Pakistan’s foreign policy. Far from invoking sympathy this narrative is tiresome for others and does nothing to advance Pakistan’s case in the international arena. What it does is to expose the country’s vulnerabilities especially to its detractors. A whining tone only reflects helplessness and frustration. It also conveys the impression of being stuck in the past and being bereft of anything substantive to say.
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Constantly referring to international conspiracies builds an image of the country as having a siege mentality and does little to address the situation being attributed to the conspiracy. It also trivialises the real threats Pakistan faces and shifts the focus away from them. Sinister moves by the country’s adversaries are a reality but they have to be evaluated and responded to with seriousness away from the glare of publicity. Talking about them won’t make them go away. Moreover, press conferences at home get virtually no media play abroad which amounts to having these conversations with ourselves.
As for the victim narrative this is self-denigrating and also disempowering. It does nothing for national self-confidence and instead corrodes self-esteem and holds up the country as a weak and powerless target of malign actions by outsiders. If everything is someone else’s fault it also takes away the incentive to solve our own problems and take steps towards the country’s renewal. It is seen both at home and abroad as a substitute for policy actions.
It can be argued that conspiracy beliefs and victimhood, which go together, are deeply embedded in societal attitudes for reasons too complex to discuss here, which include social and political factors, an atmosphere of uncertainty and historical experience. That accounts for the general public’s readiness to believe conspiracy theories. The social media also fuels and amplifies these. From that perspective political leaders in and out of government only play off that reality. But in so doing they further reinforce such attitudes and encourage paranoia and a victim mentality. And on issues where they know better, they mislead people by invoking conspiracy as an expedient diversion from owning up to their own responsibility. In any case leadership is about guiding and shaping public attitudes not leveraging societal prejudices and irrational viewpoints for political advantage. Stagecraft can’t be a substitute for statecraft. Responsible statecraft requires responsible leadership.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.
Published in Dawn, September 27th, 2021