Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Games nations play

Pakistan is the sixth largest country in the world, in terms of population. It is one of the seven declared nuclear powers. It has one of the world’s largest standing armies, perhaps sixth or seventh. But how many Olympic medals does it win?

This relationship between a country’s economic and social stature and the performance of its athletes was agonisingly present to me as I watched the incredible opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games on television on Friday evening. And as I write these words on Saturday forenoon, I am sleep-deprived because not only did I wait to also see the recorded version on Geo Super but such was the impact of the occasion that I was sleepless for many hours.

Of course, this dazzling manifestation of China’s astounding progress and achievements during the last about three decades overlapped a major crisis in our national affairs. The decision of the ruling coalition on Thursday to impeach President Pervez Musharraf has pushed Pakistan into uncharted waters. Every columnist and commentator would be obliged to focus on this grave issue. I feel compelled to do this in the mirror of the Beijing Olympics and the rise of China as a great power.

Without any doubt, August 8, 2008 will live in the annals of history, like dates on which great wars begin or revolutions mark their culmination or world leaders are assassinated. Why? Because this is the moment when China has confidently claimed its place at the centre of the world’s stage. Let the word go forth from the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing that the twenty first century is an Asian century.

In recent days, the international media has been preoccupied with China and how it has used the Olympic Games to make a statement about what it has achieved. On Friday, in different time zones, the entire globe saw this spectacle, in awe and disbelief, of the glory of a major civilisation. Yes, there will still be some disparagement of China’s political system in the west with reference to its democratic credentials. But the ordinary people everywhere, apparently more than half of the entire population of the globe, must now confirm China’s great stature.

Here, in Pakistan, we are about to ‘celebrate’ the sixty-first anniversary of our freedom. Incidentally, the Communist revolution in China came two years later. If you refer to those times, in a historical context, you may conclude that we had a better chance of moving ahead. But what have we really made of our freedom, considering also the loss of the eastern half of the country?

Another regret that I have is that though we are such close friends with China and also share borders with it, we know very little about the country in an academic sense. Yet China, with about one fourth of the world’s population, has a recorded history of more than four thousand years. No other nation has ever made so much progress in such a short time. Do we have the intellectual capacity to understand all this and decipher the reasons for our backwardness? After China, another neighbour – India – is moving ahead of us in some significant areas. Why?

I have said, at the outset, that medals won in Olympics and in other competitive sports should reflect a country’s economic, social and political status. In doing this, I am not really leaning on that George Orwell quote, that “probably the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”. Modern sports are a different ball game and China itself presents a convincing argument in this respect. All you need to do is to look at the medals won by China in successive Olympics. This tally has risen in synchronization with China’s economic progress and now it is aiming to win the most Gold medals and for that it would have to beat the United States.

By the way, a BBC feature this week listed ten apparently insignificant countries from the point of view of achievement in sports “whose athletes have the potential to cause a stir”. Ah, Pakistan in not in the list of these “countries to watch”. The ten countries are: Sudan, Botswana, Panama, Ecuador, Iraq, The Korea, India, Afghanistan, Montenegro and Romania. I am not arguing that this list is any certification of these countries’ economic or social potential because just one Gold-winning athlete can make some difference.

Coming back to the present state of Pakistan, the impeachment process has brought to the surface many of our political and constitutional derelictions. It may even be seen as an attempt to exorcise the ghosts that have haunted our socially dilapidated mansion. At the heart of this predicament are our frequent deviations from the path of constitutional rule and political morality. Can we correct the course now, considering that tragic lapse on the part of the ruling coalition of not attending to this issue immediately after the February elections?

This delay, unfortunately, has generated many ambiguities and uncertainties in the minds of the people. One problem for the coalition is to reinvent itself, after a dismal performance of four months. August is surely an appropriate month in which to finally make a new beginning. It was in March last year, another month that marks a historic event in Pakistan’s history, that the promise of a new freedom was launched with the lawyers’ movement.

In any case, we must now try to pick up the pieces and recreate that hope of early spring. That Musharraf is still not willing to depart is one of those misfortunes that have denied our people not only democracy but also economic and social well-being. We have an example here of how some individuals at some critical moments can seriously damage the cause of a nation.

What really baffles a rational person is that a number of individuals in authority, the ones who are seemingly well-educated and aware of the lessons of history, can wilfully indulge in immoral, corrupt and shamefully expedient practices without any concern for the good of the country. Removal of Musharraf, hopefully without the trauma of the impeachment, has become necessary to undermine the scope for wickedness in our polity.

We regularly have disclosures about how our rulers have cheated the nation in the past. One such report, published in this newspaper on Saturday – yesterday – is based on a new book by Ron Suskind, a US journalist. ‘The Way of the World’ includes the episode of Benazir Bhutto’s negotiations with Musharraf with the involvement of the United States. In one telephonic conversation, recorded by the US intelligence, Musharraf told Benazir: “You should understand something, your security is based on the state of our relationship”.

If such revelations confuse and sadden you too much, the Beijing Olympics can serve as a temporary antidepressant.

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