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Facts at the altar of opinion

May 11, 2012

WOULD you agree that a sizable chunk of the country’s ‘opinion-makers’ believes that Pakistan’s top priority is its sovereignty?

Then you’d also agree that a disproportionate share of the fixation with sovereignty belongs to our media’s influential and affluent star, the talk-show host. Whether it was the Kerry-Lugar bill or the Raymond Davis saga, our talk-show hosts kept all discourse firmly anchored to narrowly, even conveniently, defined sovereignty.

But for Pakistan’s sovereignty to be meaningful, more than a mere slogan, it has to be able to translate into peace and stability, equal opportunity and surely a more equitable distribution of wealth for the bulk of its people. And its selective use as a political ploy, that abuse must stop.

Is sovereignty something to be embraced and discarded at will? You may not believe so. But consider this exchange between the US State Department Deputy Spokesperson Mark C. Toner and the reporter of a channel, all of whose anchors are anchored to sovereignty.

Question: “Mark, are you monitoring the situation in Pakistan where Prime Minister Gilani is simply telling his nation that he doesn’t give a damn about the ‘decision’; he refused to step down after he got convicted by the higher court?

“Now he is taking the country — the entire country to a point where — leaving no choice for the military to take over. It looks like your diplomats in Islamabad are — is not telling you what’s really going on in Pakistan, what’s the constitution is all about.

“And as far as I know from this podium, everyone has been talking about the supremacy of judiciary rule of law, but why Washington is so quiet on this entire situation? You don’t have any concern?”

Mark Toner: “Well, again, I would dispute the premise of your question. And I think we’ve been very clear that we view this as an internal domestic issue but one that is falling on a clear democratic track, that it’s progressing within the Pakistani judicial system and that it’s being addressed in a legitimate and democratic fashion by the Pakistani judicial system.”

Q: “Excuse me. According to the constitution, he can no longer run his office any more. His cabinet has been suspended. But they’re trying to create anarchy, chaos and taking the situation to invite the army. And this is a situation that entire country is looking towards the Washington and West, and why the West is so quiet? Why Washington is so quiet? Constitution is very clear; once he got convicted, he no longer run(s) his office.”

MT: “Well, again, I’m not an expert on the Pakistani constitution. All that I can say is this case has moved forward through the Pakistani judicial system in a way that we view as consistent with Pakistan’s democratic values and in a transparent manner. And we don’t have any real comment on what is a domestic political issue.”

If this conversation doesn’t sound like an attempt to invite the State Department equivalent of the Pentagon-CIA’s drone attack on the government of Pakistan with all its allied implications for the country’s ‘sovereignty’, one wonders what would.

No surprise though as consistency has never been our forte. Consider the hullabaloo over the prime minister’s current foreign trip. Questions about the wisdom of having such a large entourage for a visit of such limited significance are completely legitimate to say the least.

Also, partisan politicians are expected to play politics with an ever-shifting stance on issues. So who’d sit up if informed that a leading opposition figure said the ‘shamed’ prime minister would be rebuffed on the visit abroad and that nobody would want to do business with a ‘convicted’ leader.

And who’d be shocked that the same politician said: “Who cares what Cameron says. His word isn’t gospel,” when told that the British prime minister, in fact, not only received Mr Gilani warmly but also reportedly made kind (and dare I say exceedingly generous) remarks about his services to democracy.

The only consistency expected of opposition politicians is about their perpetual desire to slam the government, score points, and win over the electorate for the next election.

But for leading lights in the media to first say ‘what will the world say about our shameless prime minister’ and when the ‘world’ doesn’t oblige, ‘we are sovereign. We don’t care about the world’ is a bit too much.

If this I-want-to-have-my-cake-and-eat-it-too attitude was the only sin committed by my tribe, who knows one might have found forgiveness. They often, though I am sure unwittingly, misquote statements and misrepresent facts too.

Ever since the Supreme Court convicted the prime minister one such leader of public opinion has said on several occasions that ministers in other countries have resigned over a ‘Two hundred pound traffic fine’.

My humble research shows the nearest to this description is Chris Huhne, a minister in British Prime Minister David Cameron’s cabinet, who resigned earlier this year when faced with a criminal prosecution not because of a traffic fine.

Mr Huhne and his estranged wife have been charged with ‘perverting the course of justice’ as they are alleged to have made statements to the police they knew to be false during a speeding conviction in 2003. A tad more than a traffic fine, my colleague would agree.

Aren’t there so many areas where the government can be legitimately taken to task? Think corruption charges, think gross mis-governance, think rampant crime. The list goes on. As for the world, its only interest in us is seeing us as a possible origin of terrorism. That’s the sad truth.

I am not learned enough to quote Khalil Gibran and very definitely don’t possess the nous to paraphrase him or would have ended my column with: Pity the nation that lets facts stand in the way of its opinions....

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.