Two Conversations

By Anjum Altaf

I want to tie together two conversations about politics because they bring together some strikingly similar views of very different segments in society. I find it useful to explore the implications to better understand what might motivate our politics.

The first conversation, about a month ago, was with a taxi driver in Islamabad. A broken-up road triggered a litany of complaints about the increasing difficulties of existence – shortages of utilities, difficulties in access to services, etc. The monologue transitioned into a critique of democracy – could one eat it? – followed by the oft-heard desire for ‘strong’ governance.

I submitted that we had tried the ‘strong’ route four times without the desired results only to be met with the dismissive judgement that conditions under Musharraf were distinctly better than they were now. It was not the occasion to ask if something done at one point in time could have negative effects later. In any case, I did not feel the attempt would have convinced my companion to rethink his position.

This was a frequently encountered conversation. The preference for a strongman brooking no nonsense and getting things done seems deeply embedded in the segment of society represented by my companion.

What surprised me more was an exchange a few days ago in Karachi with an Ivy League alumnus holding a post-graduate degree. I found my host bubbling over with unusual excitement to the point that I was left with no choice but to enquire as to its likely cause. It turned out that on the way home he had noticed the sudden disappearance of all the road barriers that had fractured the city over the preceding years.

Road barriers

My host could now venture wherever he wanted. It was magic. It had never happened before. For the first time someone had delivered. And, think of it, only someone with ‘real’ power could deliver in such a fashion. Perhaps the really powerful had had a change of heart, perhaps they had seen the light. Perhaps, if they now turned their attention to water, gas, electricity, health, education, we would achieve the nirvana for which the country had been founded.

The number of perhaps were too many for my comfort and it was hard, try as I did, to restrain myself. I advised caution, pointing out that all diligent analyses of politics in Pakistan had established beyond reasonable doubt the negative impacts of strong-arm interventions with consequences that had brought us to the point from where recovery seemed all but impossible.

I have to report I was unsuccessful in injecting any element of doubt in the celebration. Hope triumphed over the evidence I could muster and I was left feeling bad at diluting the euphoria emanating from one of the few victories that citizens could savor in recent years.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t help being puzzled by the two conversations. What was it that our citizens wanted be they rich or poor, educated or illiterate? Clearly, outcomes mattered the most – security, justice, recognition of identity, a sense of dignity, access to services, freedom of movement, etc. How the outcomes were attained was not really a dominant concern – the breed of the cat was irrelevant as long as the color was not very obviously red.

The second realization was that everyone seemed convinced in their guts that our democracy was not ‘real’ – a musical chair of knaves – without quite having a sense of what a ‘real’ democracy might be like. Whence the bald juxtaposition of ‘messy’ democracy with the imagined orderliness of a messiah – divinely inspired or backed by arms.

Finally, I was struck by the episodic nature of our political analyses with comparisons based on discrete snapshots over time – Ayub Khan’s days being the best, for example. The sense that decisions in one period could impact or constrain choices later seemed striking by its absence. Every period was judged solely by what occurred within it.

What prevents a dynamic view of politics for people who seem to have no difficulty with understanding continuity in personal lives? Do trained professionals offering such political analyses fail to shape public discourse because the audience, further distracted by the predominant in-the-moment frame of TV talk shows, is lacking some essential tools?

I wondered if this might contain a clue to the mystery of why the quality of education provided to the majority remains so poor and why history and political science are excluded from its domain even for those who can afford to attend the best institutions. Is this why those with ‘real’ power, who can place and remove barriers overnight, fail to equip the people with the ability to connect the dots but instead allow the circus of talk shows to flourish without restraint?

Anjum Altaf is the provost at Habib University and was formerly dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on April 19, 2015 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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One Response to “Two Conversations”

  1. Fiaz Khan Says:

    I read this in the newspaper first.

    One way of looking at it is by analyzing the audience. Another is by examining the speaker.

    Our intellectual training from childhood onward, in my opinion, shapes how we ‘connect the dots’. To a large extent the population is not encouraged to connect them but to let others connect for them. In other words, critical and logical thinking is discouraged. It explains why a seemingly well educated individual can make such basic errors of judgement.

    In political discourse described in the article this deficiency is exaggerated as discussing and debating politics and its underlying philosophy is discouraged. Students are instead told to ‘focus on their studies’. This stunting creates a educated class that knows little of the basics of political discourse.

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