Crowded conscience

You can’t make this stuff up: Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, held a press conference on September 13 to ‘prove’ that the fact that his wife and children are US nationals does not make him “pro-America.” The revelation about viscerally anti-America Ch Nisar’s secret comes via WikiLeaks. Indeed, if there were a single theme in the thousands of Pakistan cables released by WikiLeaks, it is how often our politicians go knocking at the doors of the American embassy looking to exchange information for support.

A telling example is a secret cable to the State Department dated September 19, 2008, written by then Ambassador Anne Patterson covering a meeting with Ch Nisar that took place right after he was voted the new opposition leader. Archrival PML-Q leader Pervaiz Elahi had resigned from the position a few days ago on September 14, in a move that many suspected was part of a Q League-PPP plan to oust Nawaz Sharif from power in Punjab.

Nisar, it seems, was dispatched to the American embassy to ‘be of assistance’ to a player his party genuinely believed had final say. Patterson had been an important behind-the-scenes figure in the move from Pervez Musharraf’s military dictatorship to an elected government and was now being chased by politicians of all hues, their mouths watering, tongues wagging at the prospect of getting on the right side of Patterson. The stakes were very high for Ch Nisar, at the time positioning himself as a candidate for prime minister in case the Sharifs were debarred from the upcoming battle with the PPP in Punjab.

“As always, Nisar insisted that he and the PML-N were pro-American. (Saying that his wife and children in fact are American, Nisar did admit that he went to the US embassy in London to renew his daughter’s passport because he wanted to avoid being seen at the embassy in Islamabad.),” reads Patterson’s cable, adding that Ch Nisar said he “reserved the right to criticise US actions to remain politically credible.”

It appears Ch Nisar got the results he was hoping for. In her comments at the end of the cable, Patterson writes: “Nisar is at heart a nationalist, and he will be an eloquent and formidable opposition leader. But he does recognise the need to stay in the good graces of the US, and we should invite him to Washington when an opportunity arises.”

Three years later Ch Nisar, whose anti-US rhetoric is the stuff of legend, would have to defend his ‘patriotism’ once the contents of these conversations were revealed through a cable dump. Pleading at a presser that his wife was already a US national at the time they wed and that her parents settled in the US in the 1970s, he narrated incidents where he told off US officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, for claiming in a meeting with the PML-N that the Pakistan Army was supporting terrorism. “I am hurt since elements subservient to foreign powers are casting doubts on my love for my country,” Ch Nisar lamented.

That Pakistani politicians and generals play to the gallery – tapping and stoking anti-America sentiment to gain popularity and establish their nationalist credentials – is hardly breaking news. Indeed, the army knows this game better than most. It has been at the receiving end of public disenchantment with the US since 9/11. In the wake of the Raymond David crisis and the May 2 raid, it has been increasingly exposed as duplicitous and incompetent and the public’s tempered anger has grown into unmasked fury. In the choice between survival and course correction, an army instinctively averse to self-reflection was left with one choice: to convince the people that the enemy had been identified and would be taken care of. What followed was the tangling of US diplomats’ visas in bureaucratic red tape for months, crippling of aid projects and coordinated intelligence efforts, loosing of anti-American conspiracy theories into the media wild, and much more.

The often sensationalist, ratings-obsessed talk show hosts make the job so much easier. The media wingnut, the professional partisan, the paranoid conspiracy theorist – a godsend in a country predisposed to the belief that other countries are joined in a conspiracy to dismember it.

Pandering to the populist claptrap that foreign powers are out to harm Pakistan is a multipurpose tool available to everyone: politicians, generals, the media, and, of course, the mullah, his opinions resounding from the mosques in virulent anti-foreigner sermons during Friday prayers. Often, then, this deep-seated fear and loathing of the US is also used to beat a weak civilian government on the head. People like Ch Nisar don’t stand a chance. They can only dream of having such a sophisticated public-management system at their disposal.

Alas, the irony: it’s not just that events happen and the army, the politicians and the media react to them. There is a third element: what the public is ready to accept; what the public wants to know. So, what do you do when you’re dealing with a public raised on a diet of conspiracy and paranoia and a cable reveals you as being soft on the Americans? You certainly don’t take this as an opportunity to initiate a rational debate on the pros and cons of establishing a working relationship with an important if problematic ally.

Ah, the world in a constant conspiracy against the brave patriotic Pakistani politician! It’s the age-old struggle: the roar of the crowd on one side, and the voice of your conscience on the other. If you were Ch Nisar, which would you choose?

(From News International)

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