Economic rationality does not strike a chord with a public raised on a steady diet of emotional irrationality disguised in the garb of national security imperatives. In the weeks to come, Nato trucks will start rolling through Pakistan into Afghanistan. Dollars will roll into the coffers of the Pakistani exchequer and the Pakistani public will, once again, lambast the civilian government for giving in to American pressure and sacrificing national honour at the altar of the mighty dollar.
The foes of the government will make noise about submission to the Americans and elected democrats will end up paying the price for the rational choice to reopen the Nato supply lines. Nothing angers Pakistanis more than the realisation that our military might does not match up with our own inflated perceptions of our national strength. Any perceived signs of military weakness vis-à-vis other states ignites national passions across the motherland like no other national shortcoming. The media’s disproportionate focus on issues of national security, defined narrowly as military might, has taken the spotlight away from local development issues making them seem only slightly significant to the national interest.
As a result, we do not care about the economy or the dismal state of our social indicators compared with regional peers. We are not ashamed of being one of the last remaining exporters of the polio virus. We fail to recognise that the cost of climate change and associated natural disasters will be far more lethal to Pakistanis than India’s nuclear stockpile.
When we are not debating national security, constitutional issues that have no bearing on the life of the average citizen take up media space as if they were the next apocalyptic catastrophe that Pakistan must brace for. The amount of airtime dedicated to scrutiny or discussion of issues that actually make a difference to Pakistan’s citizens remains abysmally low.
With 2013 being election year, it would be a pity and disservice to democracy if public debate remained focused on drones or continued to drone on about Nato supply lines. What Pakistan needs is in-depth engagement with politicians and political parties on the small issues that television anchors do not have time for. The state of education, underutilised education budgets, mismanagement of municipal authorities and their funds, lack of clean drinking water, our negligence of climate change and associated natural disasters are issues that will not only impact the average citizen but are issues that should be at the forefront of national public debate. While writing about these matters in English dailies has its cathartic benefits, until and unless the mainstream electronic media take up these causes they will gain no traction in the hearts and minds of Pakistani people. Consequently, the establishment will see no cause to give these issues the attention they deserve.
It is time to divert attention from the macro to the micro and to define national security in its broader sense and realise that a child out of school is also a threat to national security, stability and progress. The priorities in public debate must switch to focus on issues other than bombs and contempt notices because how many children go to school and what kind of education they receive will eventually be a more powerful predictor of how successful we become as a nation.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 25th, 2012.
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