Presumably, defining national interest is not in the national interest of Pakistan. So often it is invoked and with such certainty and gumption that it is easy to forget what a demonically nebulous and intangible concept it actually is: are there not, after all, 170 million national interests here? But over time it has been flung into such a motley bunch of causes that whatever meaning it once conveyed has long been corroded from memory. That is of no little convenience to all concerned.
Just recently, for example, Nawaz Sharif’s last ditch pole-axing of the 18th amendment was borne out of a belated concern for national interest. Most others thought of him to be blocking the pursuit of national interests. He is in august company. The fact that the war on terror is in our national interest is told to us by as many people who say that it isn’t. Historically, the abrogation of the constitution has always been in the national interest, as has each subsequent restoration. The army, and our intelligence agencies are always working for national interest, whether in creating the people who are currently killing us, trying to destroy them, or conducting peace-talks with them.
The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority is never slow to remind us that the cultural invasion of Indian channels is a whole tide against the national interest. And yet most cable operators don’t seem to think so, not only broadcasting Indian channels but also benefitting from them financially. The cable association of Pakistan prevented a local channel from rightly and legally broadcasting the Indian Premier League, after the exclusion of Pakistan’s players from the league — the association thought it was against our national interest. But at least two channels, illegally aired by the same cable operators, have ensured that Pakistani viewers do not actually miss a single ball of this year’s tournament.
Long ago, even before Ayub Khan took over the country and the Progressive Papers Ltd invoking the national interest had become a thin cloak for all manner of hypocrisy and self-interest.
What national interest isn’t, is easier to work out. It isn’t, for example, in our national interest to stop our own people from getting killed. Clearly it isn’t in our national interest to provide power to people’s homes and businesses. Neither is it to make life particularly affordable for any of its citizens. And making sure a decent education is available and affordable to all is never in the national interest. Neither is a viable public transport system or any kind of land reforms.
An even deeper concern than what it may or may not be is the jingoism that is inevitably hidden beneath it; one thing we do know about national interest, after all, is that it branches out from the tree of ideology and these are things that can be easily manipulated.
If it is too harsh that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel – so believed Samuel Johnson anyway – then perhaps today we can accuse the scoundrel of seeking respite in nationalism. There is a difference. George Orwell figured nationalism as not being confined to a sense of nationhood and instead saw it as an inherent aggression — a chauvinistic ill, and the need for a person, people or power to prove that whatever it is they believe in is not only worthy, but is better than the other.
The lurch is a global one, but it is at least subtle here in the new subcontinent, where the shrieks of the electronic media are mirrored in the chauvinism of the people, and most obviously in religion. This great unthinking acceptance of not only what is good for the nation – or in the nation’s interest — but also why the nation must be better than another, is both dangerous and not a little distasteful.
What has nationalism brought us this last century? World wars, a nuclear race, ethnic cleansing, genocide, economic and social disparity, sport as war, war as sport? We in Pakistan – like many other young countries – have perhaps too often confused nationalist drivel with patriotic vigour.