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The importance of soft power

In the rise and fall of nations, it’s not just the material and economics resources that matter the most. Equally important is a country’s status in the softer fields of culture, literature, sports and tourism where continued focus and assiduous nurturing of positives can create international value and recognition. But more importantly, these soft elements help shape balanced national ethos, give direction, and weave a strong social fabric with threads of humanism, tolerance and coexistence.

Over the past 70 years, our journey as a nation state was warped, stretched, disoriented or in circles due to exigencies and myopic policies. An important aspect missed all along towards holistically assessing the challenges being faced the country is not factoring in, and tapping, true strengths of our land as well sources of soft power and internationally branding finer potentials of Pakistan.

Despite being blessed with a rich archaeological, cultural and ancient civilisational heritage, pristine natural beauty, Pakistan instead of being distinguished as a tourist haven, now stands demonised as an extremist haven. The fault is ours. We, as a nation, individually and collectively, erred seriously in showcasing the true strengths of our land — of people, culture, civilisational and archaeological credentials, arts and crafts, folk music, cuisines, and colourful ethnic apparels — to the world.

In response to the accusations of extremism, we should have taken a lead in highlighting the teachings of the great sages and saints like Data Ali Hajveri, Bahaud Din Zikriya, Abdullah Shah Ghazi, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, Faridud Din Ganjshakar and folk poets Bulleh Shah, Mian Muhammad Bakhsh, Waris Shah and Shah Hussain that were centred on the concept of not just peaceful, but also respectful coexistence.

However, we let things regress, and come to such as a pass that now the poetry of our saints, Sufis and mystics is being used with impunity by the singers, music composers, and film producers of neighbouring India, as if these historic figures and rich legacy were of Indian origin.

We also lagged behind in properly highlighting our rich archaeological heritage featuring the prehistoric habitations of Mehrgarh, Indus Valley, and Gandhara. Mehrgarh’s landmark cultivation of food, Indus Valley’s urban settlements and Gandhara’s syncretic art make a rich legacy that merited proactive preservation and projection so as to remind the world of the immense share of ancient Pakistan to the development of human civilisation.

Modern Pakistan today, carries a proud legacy of curiosity for diverse ideas, quest for knowledge and eagerness for innovation including in art and crafts. We Pakistanis, instead of being defensive in the face of bunkum negative propaganda, should feel rightfully proud of our rich and diverse cultural heritage. We must show to the world the creative genius of our artists and artisans that have been stimulating imaginations throughout the ages.

Another soft power source that ranked low on our national priorities applecart was music and our great singers, composers and maestros like Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, late Alam Lohar, Roshanara Begum, Naseem Begum, Noor Jehan, Ghulam Ali who ruled the Indo-Pak music scene with proud legitimacy. It also adds to our historic failings that we did not adequately showcase to the world the work of renowned music maestros like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Perveen.

Also, the variety of Pakistani music ranges from diverse provincial folk music and traditional styles such as Qawwali and Ghazal Gayeki to modern forms fusing traditional and western music, such as the synchronisation of Qawwali and western music by the world renowned Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, whose “Mustt Mustt” marks a unique collaboration with musician and singer Peter Gabriel, exposing the international audience to the captivating power of Pakistani Sufi music.

Also deserving international branding are our Folk dances that vary according to region. Moreover, our traditional ethnic apparels with their colourful designs and embroidery provided another window of opportunity to positively promote Pakistan’s name in the international couture scene and market.

Pakistani cuisine is also as diverse as its people, which, with proper promotion, could be another feather in Pakistan’s cap internationally. Likewise, tourism, especially adventure tourism, could have been, and still is, Pakistan’s strong soft power resources that remained underutilised.

Successful nations never leave their potentials and strengths to the uncertainty of chances and fate, but take affirmative action to turn remote possibilities, and even challenges, into opportunities. We, as a nation state, failed to realise this reality throughout our history. We seriously erred in narrowing down our challenges and crisis assessment to conventional domains like economy, governance, energy and physical war on terror only, and neglected the key areas of arts, literature, films, and sports where during 60s and 70s, Pakistan had already made itself as a brand name.

To make matters worse, we let things regress and worsen to alarming levels in these crucial areas. Admittedly, it’s never easy for a nation to replace literary doyens like the stature of Faiz, Manto, Faraz, Habib Jalib, Ashfaq Ahmed and Bano Qudsia, but the fact of the matter is that we did not carry forward their precious legacy which once gave Pakistan a distinctive recognition and respect.

When one compares the bar and the standards set by these classics to present work, there is one common feeling that “indeed, the apple has fallen far from the tree”. Granted it is not easy to come close, let alone beat, the literary genius of these writers and poets par excellence, but the bitter reality is that these finer aspects fell out of our national priority applecart. This is the reason that after magnum opuses like Abdullah Hussain’s Udas Naslain, Bano Qudsia’s Raja Gidh and Mumtaz Mufti’s Ali Pur Ka Aili, our literary landscape went relatively barren.

Same has been the case with sports. Pakistan had made an exceptional name for itself in squash, hockey and cricket in particular. So much that Pakistan became a force to reckon with in these three sports, bagging multiple championships, titles and laurels. The decay in many sports and abandoning of others is a source of concern for the government and society. Our pathetic participation in last Olympics was a shame compared to early decades.

There is no dearth of talent, potential and skills, as recently proven by a young Pakistani cricket team in front of the whole world (Champions Trophy). This win holds important lessons for the whole nation, especially the policy makers and leaders. If one sporting event win can have such a strong positive impact on the whole nation, imagine what plethora of dividends can we accrue by carefully and consciously rallying and tapping our potentials in other sports and softer areas like arts, literature and entertainment.

Likewise, our film industry and TV dramas are another soft power and image-building source that remained neglected. Compared to the golden and most prolific age of Pakistan film industry in 60s and 70s when scores of ‘super hits’ were produced, our present status, despite recent efforts, is only a shadow of what we used to be. The Pakistan film industry managed to generate dozens of ‘super hits’ between 1970 and 1977.

Although, the efforts made recently to revive the film industry are promising, however, a lot more needs to be done. Considering the negative perception and propaganda that Pakistan is facing today, the need of the hour is to produce movies that highlight the sacrifices rendered and efforts made by Pakistan towards rooting out extremism and terrorism. It’s time we showcase our strengths and prides rather than weaknesses, corruption and vices which would further vitiate our image in the world. It is the moderate view that should be woven into the plots and imagery of Pakistani films.

The 1970s are also remembered as the ‘Golden Age of Television’ in Pakistan, in which the institution generated a series of high quality drama serials and music programmes reflecting the socio-cultural, populist-socialist and liberal zeitgeist of the era, reflected by plays such as Sonay Ki Chirya, Khuda Ki Basti, ‘Kiran Kehani’ and Zair Zabar Pesh. ‘Aik Mohabbat So Afsanay’ (1975-76) was a classic that captivated the audience. In television we had been able to rule over India.

And when compared to India, our neglect of soft power sources and potentials becomes even more pronounced. Our neighbour has used soft power, partly based on its actual strengths e.g. continuing democracy, but mostly in an manufactured, engineered and well-orchestrated manner, using ‘Bollywood’ as a major tool. The ground realities of India in terms of tolerance, secularism, peace, colour and beauty are vastly different from what is portrayed and now believed everywhere.

Bollywood movies and media were used to hoodwink world opinion in order to accrue favourable deals and economic benefits. Going a step further, India has used its soft power both in the fields of entertainment and sports to frustrate and isolate Pakistan. Refusing to play cricket series and blocking Pakistani hockey and Kabaddi teams’ participation in international events by denying visas are some of the “proxy” tactics brazenly used.

But it is also a fact that Indian film industry initially thrived on many actors, singers, and song writers who were of Pakistani origin. Even now in joint projects or through borrowed talent, Bollywood is benefiting in a big way from Pakistani singers and actors. It comes as a matter of great national pride that Pakistani singers, actors and actresses became all the rage in Bollywood due to sheer talent and skills that were genuine and not nurtured in drama or film academies available to Indian actors.

Now India may ban Pakistani actors, but the fact remains that Fawad Khan, Ali Zafar, Mahira Khan and Saba Qamar along with internationally acclaimed musicians like Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Atif Aslam proved the magic of Pakistani artist’s right in the heart of India. And when it comes to banning Pakistani actors, perhaps, India should also have considered banning the Bollywood superstars of yore like Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Sunil Dutt, Sadhana Shivdasani and many others for being guilty of having been born in Pakistan, and thus having ‘culpable or ‘questionable’ roots.

Likewise, how India projected Pakistani, food, fruits, colours and architecture as its own is also worth highlighting. The Tikkas, Karahi and all related foods have origin and currency in Pakistan. It started from ‘Bara’ where Dunba Karahi was first served, and then it came to Lahore and spread all over. The Indian food staple is mainly Daal Saag and Paneer, but they benefit business and image wise by selling Pakistani food as Indian in the world. If we do no act very soon the ‘Shinwari Namkeen’ will be Indian, as has been the case with our mango and rice.

At the same time, we need to embed in our nation building efforts, the inspiring stories like that of Malala Yusufzai, Abdul Sattar Edhi, and late Arifa Kareem, the then youngest microsoft certified professional, who define the real Pakistan. Our greatest blunder, admittedly, is not honouring and projecting world renowned personalities like Dr Abdul Salam, Abdul Sattar Eidhi and Malala Yusufzai, who could easily have been the soft image ambassadors of Pakistan in the world.

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