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The patriotism card

“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” – Samuel Johnson. Nothing exemplifies the role of the patriotism card in our national affairs better than the raging brouhaha about Nawaz Sharif’s interview to Dawn in which he questioned Pakistan’s increasing international isolation despite our sacrifices in the struggle against terrorism. He pointed out in the interview that our narrative is not being accepted and we should look into this. But the part of the interview that has literally put the cat among the pigeons is when he states that militant organisations are active (on our soil). Nawaz Sharif questioned whether we should allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai and goes on to ask why the trial could not be completed.

All hell has broken loose after the interview appeared on May 12, 2018. ISPR tweeted that a National Security Council (NSC) meeting had been called on May 14, 2018, whose unanimous rejection of Nawaz Sharif’s statement is being reported as these lines are being written. After the NSC meeting, Prime Minister Shahid Khan Abbasi met Nawaz Sharif and subsequently issued a statement defending his leader along the lines of being either misquoted or misrepresented. Nawaz Sharif on the other hand stuck to his guns, asserting that he had not said anything new or wrong, quoting statements from the past of former dictator Pervez Musharraf and former PPP interior minister Rehman Malik to substantiate his argument.

Rehman Malik went one better than any of the critics and defenders of Nawaz Sharif by asserting that the Mumbai attacks of 2008 were an Indian RAW ‘sting’ operation (presumably he meant a false flag operation). Chaudhry Nisar Ali, the estranged former interior minister of the PML-N government, predictably distanced himself from Nawaz Sharif’s statement by blaming India for non-cooperation in the investigation and trial of the incident. PML-N president and Nawaz’s younger brother Shahbaz Sharif stuck to his line of not ruffling the feathers of the establishment by reiterating the latter’s narrative vis-a-vis Pakistan’s security considerations.

A chorus of voices from the opposition has not just criticised Nawaz Sharif for ostensibly embarrassing the country on such a sensitive topic but some have even called for charges of treason to be placed against the former prime minister.

Is any of this surprising? Does it not follow a familiar, tired script of political rivals playing the ‘patriotic’ card against each other to paint the other in the blackest colours on the touchstone of national interest? This and other similar shenanigans are what the late Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, both battered by their experiences at the hands of the establishment, attempted to quell through the Charter of Democracy. Unfortunately, the Charter was abandoned in all but name soon after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Now the patriotic card is back in action, its benefits extending from doing down the rival in the establishment’s eyes while currying favour for oneself with the latter. These tactics in the past have, even if they reaped temporary gains, rebounded against the authors and users themselves down the road.

The political class has internalised the ‘wisdom’ that no civilian elected government can come to power let alone survive unless it accepts the axiom that it serves at the pleasure and will of the establishment, irrespective of its electoral support or popularity. The no-holds-barred rivalries amongst the political parties in the fray are regularly and frequently used by the establishment to further its agenda. Appearing more ‘patriotic’ than the other is how the political parties have opted for seeking the favour of the ubiquitous establishment.

But these are not the only games the establishment plays or is currently engaged in. Freedoms of the media, expression and peaceful assembly and protest are not without risk to life and limb. In a repeat of what occurred on the eve of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement’s (PTM’s) rally in Lahore on April 22, 2018, its rally in Karachi on May 13, 2018 was preceded by the arrest and disappearance of its activists. Although mercifully these activists were soon released, the intimidatory intent of these actions was never in doubt.

Citizens, particularly those who hold dissident or critical views, are now expected to hold their peace or parrot the dominant narrative of the establishment. This narrative consists of the assertion that Pakistan is not involved in proxy wars (now lumped in the catch-all basket of terrorism) in its neighbourhood, is in the forefront of the struggle against terrorism, having achieved great success at the expense of human and material sacrifices and now confronts a ‘proxy’ war against it from Afghan soil (the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan). Unfortunately, as National Security Adviser Lieutenant-General Nasser Janjua (retd) has admitted, this narrative does not enjoy any traction in the world. Pakistan’s incremental isolation (support from China and Russia notwithstanding) stems from the world’s rejection of this narrative as untrue or at the very least a half-truth.

In the hard world of global geopolitics, such isolation is cause for much discomfort, since whatever (indirect) actions have ensued because of the gulf between our establishment-driven narrative and the perceptions of the world may well turn out to be the thin edge of the wedge of more stringent steps in the offing. Our soft underbelly remains the economy, dependent as it still is on the bilateral goodwill of the world powers-that-be and the multilateral goodwill of the international financial institutions still under the influence if not control of the western powers led by the US, who are increasingly impatient with Pakistan’s role in supporting proxy wars against its neighbours to east and west.

If push comes to shove, the economy is where the offensive will incrementally tighten the screws on us till the pain becomes unbearable, in the hope that Pakistan will then reconsider its reliance on proxy wars and return (after more than four decades) to the (largely theoretical, it must be admitted) norms of international relations and good (i.e. acceptable to the rest of the world) behaviour.

Rashed Rahman, "The patriotism card," Business Recorder. 2018-05-15.
Keywords: National Security Council , Militant organisations , National interest , Critical views , Multilateral goodwill , International relations , Samuel Johnson , NSC , RAW , PML-N , PTM , 2018