Beyond the "Master Narrative" on Pakistan

UPDATE (9/10/07): SHARIF BANISHED (AGAIN) -- Musharraf has apparently made Nawaz Sharif's stay in Pakistan a brief one, openly defying last month's Supreme Court order and expelling him to Saudi Arabia. (Would it more appropriately be characterized as rendering? Or "kidnapping"?) Some Pakistani bookies will feel vindicated, but what happened to the Bush administration's insistence last week that Pakistani leaders "honour the terms of Pakistani law and constitutional process"? Perhaps we all just misunderstood -- maybe when the State Department spokesman said "honour ... Pakistani law and constitutional process," what he really meant was "do whatever the Saudi intelligence chief says".... More details at SAJAforum and All Things Pakistan.

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On the eve of the anticipated return to Pakistan of former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to lead their parties in the coming elections, I have a column for AsiaMedia that tries to reframe somewhat the particular way in which U.S. observers have been characterizing the soap opera unfolding between Bhutto, Sharif, and General Pervez Musharraf and to consider some of the deeper issues that transcend the conflict among these personalities. As sometimes also happens with coverage of domestic politics, U.S. news coverage of the relationships among these three individuals at times has edged close to relying upon what NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen might describe as a “master narrative,” the "big story ... that generates all the other stories." In this case, the net result has been to obscure some of the more fundamental issues that lie beneath. In particular, the focus on the mutual antagonism between Musharraf and Sharif, on the one hand -- who literally tried to kill each other in 1999 and 2000 -- and the current negotiations between Musharraf and Bhutto, on the other, has obscured the third side of the triangle: the relationship between Bhutto and Sharif, and the larger issues at stake for Pakistan that arise from that relationship.

Bhutto's unilateral, U.S.- and U.K.-backed negotiations with Musharraf raise questions about the fate of the Charter of Democracy, an important preconstitutional declaration that Bhutto and Sharif signed on behalf of their respective political parties in May 2006, when very few people in the United States were paying attention to developments in Pakistan at all. We often don't think about the significance of preconstitutional documents like the Charter, but as Kirsten Matoy Carlson has argued, analysis of such documents can be helpful in "identifying and better understanding persistent constitutional tensions" within a particular political community. The Charter of Democracy is a remarkable document, bringing together two Pakistani political figures between whom no love has ever been lost. When Bhutto and Sharif agreed to the Charter -- a moment that most U.S. observers ignored altogether -- a number of Pakistani citizens spoke about the declaration in strikingly grand terms, with some even comparing it to preconstitutional documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Lahore Declaration, and the Magna Carta. Unfortunately, the current efforts by the Bush administration to broker a deal between Musharraf and Bhutto at the expense of Sharif and other opposition leaders might well be undermining the viability of the Charter as a foundation and starting point for a collaborative effort to restore democracy.

While on the subject of Pakistan, let me also quickly plug the terrific work of my former colleagues at The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, who have invested significant resources to do some serious, in-depth reporting in Pakistan this month. Every day this week, the show featured extended stories filed from Pakistan by Margaret Warner, who spent the last two weeks along with producer Simon Marks in Lahore, Islamabad, and Karachi. Margaret also conducted a couple of extended interviews with Bhutto and Sharif before arriving in Pakistan.

Their coverage is not entirely beyond critique — in particular, I think that they, too, could have contextualized their political analysis by going beyond the conventional narrative about the relationships among Sharif, Bhutto, and the Pakistan army a bit more than they have. Moreover, it also would have been particularly appropriate for the NewsHour, as a U.S. news organization, to probe a bit more deeply the active role that the Bush administration seems to be playing in bolstering Musharraf’s regime and seeking to influence the political dynamic among Musharraf, Bhutto, and Sharif. (As an example of both gaps in the coverage, Monday’s story contrasted Pakistan’s economic growth under Musharraf with the “instability” that prevailed under Bhutto and Sharif, but without noting the potential role in that recent growth played by massive, post-2001 inflows in U.S. aid and the lifting of sanctions that had been in place throughout most of the 1990s.) By not doing so, the stories at times make developments in Pakistan sound a bit too much like events taking place in a vacuum "over there," unaffected by anything that the United States is doing. In fact, as Mohsin Hamid — whose excellent novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was just shortlisted for the Booker Prize — wrote over the summer, political developments and attitudes in Pakistan have long been influenced by the United States's engagement with the region. Hamid goes so far as to say that to the extent that anti-Americanism may be ascendant in Pakistan today, it has been fueled — at least in part — by the "accreted residue of many years of U.S. foreign policies." [link]

Still, the NewsHour's nuanced reporting in this series has been quite good — well beyond the standards of most television news outlets in the United States, who don't seem even to phone it in any more when it comes to meaningful international coverage, and excellent even when evaluated against the NewsHour’s own high standards. All of the stories are available on this page, and a series of podcasts produced in connection with their coverage is available here.