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In the Service of Pakistan: The Politics of Living Dangerously

by: Sherry Rehman

Karachi – October 10,2013: Sherry Rehman, Executive President of Jinnah Institute and former Pakistan Ambassador to the US, said that the service of Pakistan is the principle lens through which she has viewed her life-path and the choices she made.

She was speaking at a wide-ranging lecture at the Aga Khan University titled “In the Service of my Country: The Politics of Living Dangerously”.

Elaborating on the choice of topic, Rehman said that it was no valorization of her multiple careers, but did say that it had been a “long journey with very few ordinary days”.

On her choice of serving in public office, the former ambassador said, “I have always tried to place personal experience in a universal context, to not separate the personal from the political,” which she says is what has always kept her in public-interest careers.

“My first choice of profession was always journalism, which I enjoyed hugely.”

‘Journalism my First Love’

Speaking on her long tenure as a journalist and on becoming the youngest editor of The Herald, Rehman said her experience was defined, to a certain extent, by “the end of Karachi’s innocence”. She gave reference to the Bushra Zaidi incident in 1985 and spoke of the huge information vacuum and severe state censorship of the decade dominated by one of the worst dictators Pakistan had seen.

Drawing distinctions between the journalism of today and the culture of resistance that had grown around many media offices in the 1980s, Rehman said that journalism used to be a purer craft rather than the nexus one sees between media business and governments of today.

However, she said that today’s media has brought in profound shifts in the way citizens relate to the state, adding that it has gone a long way in creating an enormous public appetite for accountability.

“But there is a vast proliferation of media outlets, and quality, independence, professionalism, and even integrity often suffer,” she added.

‘Politics in the times of intolerance’

Speaking about her long engagement with mainstream politics, which is not over, Rehman revealed that she never planned or sought politics as a career for herself; it was actually the much revered ShaheedMohtarma Benazir Bhutto who motivated her to take the plunge by pushing young women like her with her inimitable positivity, by constantly mentoring her with words like: “Yes, you can.”

“Benazir Bhutto defined my daily experience. For her, and many of us, politics was about hope. Believing in it and transmitting it,” said Rehman, adding that the next step was to prioritize plans.

Rehman focused on three things as an MNA: media laws and RTI; empowering women; and national security and the inclusion of new voices in policy formation.

“Dismantling the scaffolding of censorship built by years of dictatorship; this was a very big edifice to take down,” she said.

Rehman’s second priority, according to her, was to empower women through the creation of capacity and demand for institutional change.

“People often say, but bills don’t matter, and that despite such laws the ground reality remains what it is. But that is not true at all; the foundation of long term change is law, and a lawmaker’s job is to make that law, through hundreds of days of drafting, re-drafting, consensus building. It’s a long, tedious, often heart-breaking process, littered with minefields and reversals. But it has to be done.”

She tabled five bills and all but one have been passed in one form or another today.

“I really think the inclusion of women in parliament had a transformative effect on the discourse. It totally changed, from the mundane to the grand, parliaments used to discuss everything except human rights until women came into the mix,” Rehman added.

Pressing for higher transparency and inclusion in national security policy-making was her third priority. This is why she was asked to present the PPP government’s security briefings to the historic in-camera sessions of parliament that led to parliamentary resolutions for action against terrorism. The military action in Swat was a result of those exercises. “Today, we need to show more resolve in combating terrorism and extremism, as those are Pakistan’s principle challenges,” said Rehman.

The red-eye job

Rehman referred to her role as Ambassador as a ‘red-eye job’, where they were at work often 18 hours a day. It was a huge diplomatic as well as personal challenge, because it entailed stepping straight into the eye of a strategic storm between the two countries, right after the Memogate and Salala crises, said Rehman.

“This was a job I never aspired for, but which life thrust me into,” she said. “But I gave it my best. It was important to restore Pak-US ties, even though there was a huge trust deficit there. Pakistan does need to invest in regional peace pro-actively, and I think both democratic governments have begun to do that. We need to unlock our own economic and demographic potential before we expect others on the global stage to take us seriously. Playing the geo-strategic card has its limits. It is not a sustainable path to Pakistan’s future as a responsible global player.”

During the last days of her US ambassadorship, Rehman said, she told the Americans that the fact that Pakistanis voted in large numbers meant that everyone wanted to be a part of the democratic story.

“Except for Balochistan, which was a sobering reality, all ages and genders braved the heat and terrorist threats to come out and vote. Pakistan stood united in their commitment to democratic consolidation, and that is the message we gave to the world,” she said.

The Democracy Moment

On democracy, Rehman talked about how the concept was often misunderstood as an outcome, not a journey in Pakistan. It therefore, gets loaded with dangerously high expectations.

“One myth is that elections will bring in democracy; they will not. Elections bring in elected governments,” she said, which give people and governments a shared platform for bringing change.

“It is not a Mughal chain-of-justice model where reform flows ineluctably from the top. Ideally, of course governments once elected should follow through on campaign promises, but they get caught in a web of compromises as well as executive drift from a bureaucracy that is unable to unlock policy obstacles and lobbies that block change. Democracy has to be understood as a system that allows you to ask for a change, with greater recourse to transparency and accountability.” she added.

Rehman encouraged people to use parliamentary tools such as petitions to the Committees of Parliament.