Like it or not, it is my strong opinion that two countries are unfit to lead South Asia. Yes, two not one, namely, India and Pakistan. Regardless of what they tell their people, both nations are a bad influence on the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc). Why? Because both are obsessed with politics. And within these nations, the worst influence is that of the electronic media. No seriously, hear me out. How often does it happen that during a Saarc summit, Indian and Pakistani media respect the multilateral nature of the forum? They don’t; they treat it as an arena for the projection of national power. On the rare occasions when India-Pakistan relations are not allowed to dominate (read hijack) the multilateral association’s gatherings, the media of the two countries presents these as a competition between the two to hurt each other, to rally support against each other, to isolate each other. That’s how bad these influences are.
Consider this also. Both countries have a huge segment of society living below the line of basic subsistence. And we don’t even know how reliable the poverty-related data is in the two countries. In Pakistan, where no census has taken place since the controversial exercise in 1998, the previous government changed the definition of poverty just like the incumbents seem to be changing the meaning of luxury items. And if you thought the situation was any better in India, this year’s Nobel Prize for Economics Winner, Angus Deaton, pointed out some “very serious discrepancies” in GDP data and poverty figures. “One of the things you worry about with statistics is that growth is so much a flag under which recent Indian governments have flown,” said Mr Deaton. “They are very much tied to that measure of success. That makes it very difficult for accurate data-keeping.” In short, politics.
As if the permanent denial mode about poverty was not enough, the two sides show no serious regard for the poor in other Saarc countries. No, there is only a quest for yes-men. If you are one, you are Bangladesh, if you are not, you are Nepal. It is interesting how selfishly the media of both sides has presented the disasters in neighbouring countries in a very myopic and selfish way. In this space, I have made it abundantly clear I am no fan of Afghanistan. But in this context, our media’s coverage is a case in point. The Indian media’s coverage or lack thereof, of the unfolding humanitarian disaster in Nepal and what goes on in Bangladesh is another example. The only thing you will hear the media crowing about in these two countries is how selflessly their respective country is helping out the neighbours and how evil the other one is. Politics, politics, politics. In truth, there are no villains here. Only fools in abundance.
So when the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process moot kicked off in Islamabad, and eminently missed the heart of the matter, the media of the two countries did what it does best. It tried to hijack this conference too: the Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is about to leave New Delhi for Islamabad, she has left, her plane has entered Pakistani airspace, just landed. That’s how the bright minds on both sides covered the developments. Meanwhile, talk show hosts from both countries were doing their best to sabotage the chances of thaw in their joint transmissions.
Given that many of them can understand Urdu/Hindi, our Afghan neighbours must have winced uncontrollably seeing such transmissions and wondered why they were told that the conference was, in fact, about them. The conference too missed the heart of the matter for a reason. Afghanistan’s woes are primarily of an economic nature. The cash-strapped world pretends they are political and security-related because it is the convenient thing to do. I was expecting some financial pledges, but not one ostensibly made it to the joint declaration. And the media forgot to highlight this as well. It is in Afghanistan’s interest to insulate itself from the Cold War between India and Pakistan, especially its media, because everything in these two countries is a feast for political crows. Cricket, religion, economics, music, movies and everything else; for us it’s nothing but politics.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 12th, 2015.