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A matter of respect

From the Newspaper | Editorial | By Hajrah Mumtaz


January 3, 2011
WHY does the average Pakistani have little respect for the leaders of his country, and why
is he so ready to suspect the democratic process? One clue can be found in the spectacle
three political leaders treated us to on the steps of Parliament House last Wednesday.
Evidently these legislators, from historically mutually hostile parties, could no longer bear the
pot-shots that have been being taken for a while now. They utterly lost their tempers and
exchanged no-holds-barred invective, ironically at the entrance to a building that represents the
rule of law.
Their shouting match included accusations about the PML-N leaders` image choices and
domestic affairs, and the MQM leader`s dietary and residential preferences. Threats were hurled
about the people rising up against certain parties and allegations were traded over patriotism and
competency in governance.
It would have been tragic if it hadn`t provoked such helpless laughter. The fact of the matter is
that once the true import of this scene sinks in, you realise that it adequately explains why
Pakistan is the way it is.
The people of the country will respect their politicians and the political process if those pacing
the corridors of power themselves show respect in these areas. Wednesday`s exchange shows that
not only do the three people involved have scant respect for each other or their parties as
though we didn`t know that already they also have no respect for all the people who saw them
standing purple-faced, nose-to-nose.
Our leaders need to consider more carefully the full consequences of the expansion of Pakistan`s
media industry. Amongst the tasks fulfilled by the media are to bear witness and to put as much
as possible on the record. This the Pakistani media do with alacrity, particularly where the
country`s political elites are concerned.
Just as it is all over the world, anything that is said in the public arena which is where the
political elite operates is fair game for the media: opinions are put under the microscope,
inconsistencies are highlighted and contradictory opinions pointed out. And, as in Wednesday`s
case, regrettable displays of emotion are played and replayed. Ill-judged comments and action
live forever in the public discourse and memory; they remain on the record, ready to be accessed.
Political actors need to learn that media exposure is a double-edged sword. The media are a
powerful tool for airing views and for drumming up support for parties, ideas or ideologies. But
the media, television and the Internet in particular, also allow public figures to trip themselves up
in the worst manner possible.

Irresponsible comments, rash statements, less than parliamentary behaviour played and replayed
on our television screens amount to the inadequacies of public figures played out under the full
glare of the cameras. The media can be the rope that public figures can hang themselves with.
Our leaders must be aware of this. It follows, then, that they must know that most things they say
and do in the public sphere will reach the millions-strong audiences of the country`s news media.
Therefore, it behoves them to remain vigilant and consider carefully what they say and do.
The participants in Wednesday`s spectacle behaved with far less than desirable self-restraint.
This is an extreme example, but plenty of examples are available where the country`s political
actors have spoken first and thought later, taken U-turns on matters of import to the citizenry,
prevaricated and levelled allegations at each other.
When this is done publicly, with the knowledge that it will be reported in the news, political
actors are sending out the signal that they don`t really care in what light they appear in the media
reports that shape the citizenry`s views.
Consider, by contrast, the utter silence that shrouds the issues that they really do take seriously:
how many houses owned, for example, or how much tax paid. And if they don`t care how the
citizenry views them, then the only conclusion to be drawn is that they really don`t care about the
citizenry at all.
It`s a simple point, really. In front of people you respect, you take care to speak and behave with
restraint and decorum. It is only before people for whom you have no consideration at all, whom
you consider beneath you, that otherwise upstanding citizens descend into uncivilised behaviour.
Consider the complaint, so common in Pakistan, that the same man will behave differently with
his guests and his servants.
Because of the expanded reach of the media, Pakistanis are now getting almost daily reminders
of what appears to be political leaders` contempt for them and the very serious business of
governance. One by-product of this is that insidiously, quietly, people`s faith in the democratic
experience is eroded.
`If the democratic process produces leaders who behave with such contempt, is some other
process of governance not preferable?` is the suspicion. (It is our bad luck that in the current
instance, it is during a period of democracy that these exposures are taking place. Had it been
another sort of system of governance, people`s faith in that would have been similarly eroded.
Consider how Musharraf`s post-2007 actions in particular tarnished the image of the army and
highlighted the disastrous effects of dictatorship and military rule.)
Obviously, in no way do the failures of democratically elected leaders or political parties that
claim allegiance to democracy belie the principles of the theory of democracy. But in the real
world, outside the realm of theory, it is hard to have faith in, and respect for, a process that is
characterised by people who show little respect for anything or anyone, least of all principled
behaviour and the rule of law.

The writer is a member of staff.


hajrahmumtaz@gmail.com