Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Life Without Sunshine

November 23, 2019

By Anjum Altaf

For weeks we have not seen the sun in Lahore. There is light without sunshine, diffused as through a dull haze. And we are trudging along as if this is the norm, an inevitable part of our fate.

In Lahore, nobody cares enough to even tell us what we are living through but we can get some sense from the news filtering out of Delhi — so near and yet so far — where the Chief Minister has labelled the city a ‘gas chamber.’ A public health emergency has been declared, five million masks are being distributed in schools which have been closed for two days, construction work has been halted for a week, an odd-even scheme imposed to cut traffic pollution, and many firms are advising their employees to stay home.

The level of dangerous particulates in the air is about 20 times the maximum specified by the World Health Organization. The particulate matter PM2.5 that affects the lungs has reached 533 micrograms per cubic metre in the city while WHO recommends that it not exceed 25 micrograms per cubic metre on average per day.

What the levels are in Lahore we don’t know. What they are doing to us we don’t know. We do know from the science learnt in schools that if plants do not get sunshine, they cannot produce chlorophyll and will lose their green colour and eventually die. Is something similar happening to us that we are unaware of? Are we swallowing some poisons that will turn us sallow and consign us to premature deaths?

The irony in all this is that we know very well the main cause of this condition. In the case of Delhi, half the pollution, visible from satellite photos, is due to stubble smoke (“a lethal cocktail of particulate matter, carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide”) generated by farmers burning crop residues to clear their fields in neighbouring states — “more than two million farmers burn 23 million tonnes of crop residue on some 80,000 sq km of farmland in northern India every winter.” This is surely a cause that can be addressed by policy measures especially when the health of millions is at stake.

Why is there such a stark lack of urgency to act on this environmental catastrophe and to initiate the obvious policy measures that would mitigate it to a considerable extent? Why is this not a subject of urgent debate in the hallways of power?

One can’t help but think that in Pakistan we are confronted with an even more vicious malady. One can’t help but think that our politics itself is a politics without sunshine. For decades we have been enveloped in the noxious fumes of pollutants in the form of politicians and various species of their hanger-ons. These polluting agents have been sucking the life out of us, going about the business of enriching themselves without a care for our wellbeing. We may be ravaged by smog or floods or earthquakes or dirty water or fecal contamination or malnutrition, it matters not the least to them.

How else can we explain how far we have been left behind? We cannot provide clean water to our citizens. We cannot provide decent education. We cannot provide good health. We cannot provide adequately paying jobs. We cannot provide livable housing. We cannot provide public transport. We cannot provide reliable electricity. We cannot provide honest public services. We cannot even provide hope of a better future. All there is on offer is mindless rhetoric regurgitated by highly compensated sinecures, rhetoric that can be swallowed much like the highly lethal particulate matter circulating in the air. 

How can we restore the sunshine in our political lives? It seems impossible given the entrenched army of parasites that clings to and stifles every putative saviour and bends him or her to their self-serving ends. Perhaps these parasites feel they have the wherewithal to fly away on helicopters for good when the day of doom finally arrives. Till then they can plunder and extract the nation’s resources at will, siphoning them to safe havens while taking turns at the helm. There is no sunshine and, in this case, not even the faintest of lights at the end of the tunnel.

Is it possible to think, in our fevered states, that this political malady might also have a cause much like the stubble whose burning is causing the smog in our cities?  Is there something that is generating and nurturing and perpetuating the political pollution and keeping it in play? In our lucid moments, the moments we can spare from the travails of surviving in the deathly air, we can almost point in the right direction. Perhaps, when enough fingers are pointing in the same direction, the sun shall burst forth and there will be light.

This opinion appeared in The News on November 12, 2019 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. 

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A Vision For The Future

July 25, 2019

By Anjum Altaf

It is difficult to support any political party in Pakistan for an obvious reason. They are so full of corrupt, uncaring and incompetent leaders that associating with them comes across either as opportunism or stupidity. Those who manipulate political leaders are even less to be admired.

The kings and kingmakers have now led the country into very dangerous territory. It is a fact that Pakistan entered a moral decline early on when its value system was buffeted by Partition. Only one dimension of this decline need be mentioned to make the point — the land grab. It ensued at the outset, initiated by bureaucrats entrusted with the trust of abandoned properties, was followed by the rampaging era of land mafias, and continued by the legalized involvement of state institutions. This created a worldview in which the only way to get ahead was the  manipulation of rules in one way or another.

This rout of moral values seeped into other walks of life including sports, the arts, and academia. Once the generation fired by the emotion of creating a new country faded out, it was not replaced by talent of an equal stature — there are no modern Abdus Salams.

This decline was unsurprising since organizations that nurtured talent became the playground of patronage. Once again, a single example suffices. Consider the appointments to the various sports federations in Pakistan. As performance dropped precipitously across the board — in hockey, squash, athletics — there was no accountability. Changes, if they occurred, were part of the rotation of favourites coinciding with the change of political regimes.

Such a steep decline in moral values combined with the dominance of patronage in the allocation of resources could not leave the economy untouched. What can be a better indicator of the decline than the number of Rupees required to purchase one US Dollar  — from Rs. 3.25 in 1950 to Rs. 158 today. Granted salaries have increased but nowhere commensurate with the decline of the buying power of the Rupee. One way to imagine the change in real income would be to compare the kilograms of flour purchasable with the daily wage of an unskilled worker in 1950 and today. The difference would be marginal. The comparison would be stark with a country like South Korea that has progressed economically over this period.  

The nature of declines is such that they can remain gradual for long periods before reaching a tipping point at which a free fall begins. Pakistan might well be entering such a period where a randomly thrown match could ignite a forest fire. The political dynamics of such periods are quite distinct. It is no longer the case of political parties leading the people to force a change; rather it is mobs whom political parties can decide to rally behind if they choose. Such dynamics can be triggered by a policeman slapping a pushcart vendor or a doctor refusing to treat an indigent woman.

We are no longer living in times when a collapse of governance could be arrested by the intervention of a more competent external power like Britain which ended the anarchy of the decaying Mughal Empire. In today’s world, anarchy could linger unchecked with various players jockeying for advantage from the chaos without putting an end to the misery.          

In such a situation, with tragedy staring one in the face, it is an academic exercise to imagine what a political party would be like that one could support in good faith and with some hope for the future. For one, it would not choose the path of victimization. Not for nothing is the ‘Reign of Terror’ that followed the most celebrated revolution in modern history recalled with horror. No amount of people sent to the guillotine or confined to the Bastille succeeded in achieving the high-sounding goals of purification. 

It is self-defeating to create an environment in which every person, not just the guilty, begins to feel insecure for fear that some excuse would be found to prosecute those who do not fall in line. It is a self-defeating obsession to nab the last crook if the cost is to jeopardise the morale of millions of innocent people. A responsible political party would build the trust that no honest person need fear in its reign and extend the benefit of the doubt with the larger objective in view. 

A responsible political party would adjust to the dire situation by repairing relations with its neighbours even if that necessitated difficult compromises. With a vulnerable economy, each passing day weakens the bargaining position. People need to be taken into confidence instead of being misled by self-serving narratives. This adjustment would allow the reallocation of scarce resources to the stagnant economy.

A responsible political party would craft an indigenous, people-oriented economic policy instead of dreaming of recovering looted wealth or chasing external funds on terms not disclosed to citizens. Such a policy would focus on raising the incomes of the bottom half of the population with initiatives focused on  supply-constrained sectors like low-cost housing and agro-processing, which are less vulnerable to foreign competition. Along with boosting incomes, the policies would have the twin objective of creating the maximum number of jobs. This would trigger a virtuous cycle for products of industrial sectors running below capacity because of stagnant demand. 

A policy of this type would shift away from the la-la land of cutting-edge research, high-tech innovation, and cities as engines of growth and be grounded in the realities of where most people live (rural areas and secondary cities) and work (the informal sector) and of sectors where demand outstrips supply.

A responsible political party would also entirely revamp the education, health, environmental sanitation and contract labour systems, all broken at the moment. These revamps would enable people to realize their potential and be healthy and skilled for the needs of the economy. 

In short, a responsible political party would focus on the majority, not the minority; on rewarding, not punishing; on reality, not delusions; and on the future, not the past.

This opinion was published in Dawn on July 15, 2019 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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The Real India

June 11, 2019

By Anjum Altaf

The overwhelming triumph of the BJP in the recent elections is being interpreted by many as the death of a liberal, plural, and secular India. This is a misreading of history.

Two distinctions are relevant. First, while post-1947 India was indeed characterised by the ideas of liberalism, pluralism, and secularism, these were ideals towards which Nehru wanted to move the country, not necessarily what India was actually like. Second, the long sweep of social history being unaffected by arbitrary dates on the calendar, there is no compelling reason to base our understanding of India solely on what transpired after 1947.

Pakistanis should have no difficulty grasping the first point if they recall Jinnah’s much celebrated 1947 address in which he said: “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed, that has nothing to do with the business of the State.” Clearly, he wished Pakistan to be democratic and secular. That hope died with him and the country moved instead in a contrary direction. It was only the longevity of Nehru and his family that kept the hope alive much longer in India.

Setting aside the ideas of India that marked the times of Ashoka or Akbar, in the decades leading up to 1947 there were at least three other ideas of India in competition with Nehru’s. As articulated by Sunil Khilnani in his excellent book The Idea of India, the oldest among these was Savarkar’s Hindutva conceived as far back as 1923. Then there was Gandhi’s idea of a village-based, anti-industrial society and Patel’s idea that preferred market capitalism to Nehru’s Fabian socialism.

While Gandhi’s idea was swept aside as utopian, and Patel’s early death left his vision without a champion, it was Nehru’s pre-eminent position in the negotiations for independence that enabled him to impose his vision on a Congress whose underlying sympathies were actually more attuned to Savarkar. It is a fact that liberalism, pluralism, and secularism resonated very little with the mass of the Indian population. Nehru’s was really an elite project, launched without any consultation with the population and over the sentiments of the rank and file of the Congress party. As Khilnani summed it up succinctly, “Most people in India had no idea of what exactly they had been given.”

The second distinction, that of the continuity of social history, was reflected most clearly in the prophetic words of Ambedkar articulated in 1949: “Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.” Ambedkar was referring to the India that had existed for centuries, an India not only undemocratic but deeply hierarchical and unequal, characterized by a social exclusiveness almost unparalleled in human experience. To turn this unequal society, whose very basis was found on exclusiveness, into an inclusive one was an outlandish ambition. Dr. Ambedkar knew that well when he made the profound observation that “democracy was not a form of government: it was essentially a form of society” and warned: “How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.”

Sunil Khilnani has noted that the social structure in India was even impervious to urbanization: “Unlike in Europe, where city air was expected to loosen the stifling social bonds of traditional community and to create a society of free individuals, the cities organized by the Raj’s policies reinforced contrary tendencies in Indian society. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, caste groups, paradoxically began to emerge as collective actors and to conflict with one another in the city itself, the putative arena of modernity.”

This India of exclusive, hierarchical and unequal groups was not necessarily violent or conflictual; there were rules of engagement that, in general, allowed for a live-and-let-live co-existence. But, at the same time, the existence of group identities was continuously vulnerable to political manipulation. In recent history, such manipulation was starkly manifest in the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, the attack on the Babri mosque in 1992, and the Gujarat violence in 2002. (India, in this context, refers to the subcontinent — the 1953 Anti-Ahmadiyya riots in Lahore and the 1971 aggression in East Pakistan fall in the same category.)

It is the unequal, hierarchical, exclusive and undemocratic India that has asserted itself with a majoritarian vengeance in the most recent re-election of the BJP. The short-lived attempt to transform India into a liberal, plural, and secular polity has failed with the thin top-dressing, an epiphenomenon courtesy of the Raj and its education of the leading personalities in the struggle for independence, being finally washed away for good.

Any re-emergence, however, is prone to its own dangers. In unsettled times, the nostalgia for a ‘glorious’ past has much more appeal than an invitation to an uncertain future. And, in appealing to the past, whoever can stir up the most emotions is likely to score the highest. Modi, in stoking an injured psyche, generated a powerful wave on the myth of a past marked by amazing feats of plastic surgery and intergalactic travel that was ruptured by evil and marauding invaders who were now to be made to pay penance for their transgressions. (In this framework, Pakistanis are just as susceptible to visions of the Riasat of Medina and the golden period of Islam which they have been allegedly denied by various external enemies.)

The social structures of the subcontinent, where there has been no social revolution of the kind Ambedkar identified, are reasserting themselves as the effects of the British interregnum fade away. One has to credit the late poet Fehmida Riaz for being among the first to understand these realities when she told Indians almost forty years ago that they were no different from Pakistanis — tum bilkul ham jaise nikley / ab tak kahan chuppe thay bhai. In hindsight, this should have been no surprise since social history is not altered by artificial lines in the sand.

This opinion was published in Dawn on June 9, 2019 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Constructing the Enemy

April 8, 2019

By Faizaan Qayyum

They claimed to have invaded the sovereign territory of an enemy country. They had dropped bombs, they said, and hit a terrorist camp that involved no military or civilian targets. In the days that followed, we retaliated: we intruded enemy-controlled territory, chose to strike near enemy targets, and took an enemy combatant prisoner after downing his fighter jet.

No truth is more apparent than our enmity as modern nation states. Indeed, India and Pakistan have followed a largely cyclical process of escalation and de-escalation. Before nukes came into play, we went to full-scale war thrice. In the years since, we have had countless skirmishes. Most of these conflicts have stayed within areas internationally recognised as disputed, and therefore stopped short of the absolute destruction that all-out nuclear war can bring.

The creation of the enemy is central to this story of hostilities and conflict. For this article, I will focus on two elements of this enmity: the nation-state enmity, involving India and Pakistan at the level of the state, and the communal enmity, rooted in the two-nation theory and dependent on creating distinct Indian-Hindu and Pakistani-Muslim communal identities. The Abhinandan saga and Fayya­zul Hasan Chohan’s frequent foot-in-mouth mom­ents mean that both merit some serious reflection.

Let’s start with the nation state. First, the obvious: India is our sworn enemy. It is involved in fermenting unrest, promoting violence and militancy, and trying to break Pakistan through multiple strategies and generational warfare. It is belligerent on the borders, especially the Line of Control, and frequently targets military and civilian targets on the Pakistani side. India is also consuming our share of water from the Indus river system. To counter them and keep our national honour and integrity intact, we must teach India a lesson.

But for ordinary Pakistanis, what is this ‘India’ and how do we identify our enemy? Perhaps more importantly, how are we supposed to behave when in close contact with an enemy?

For the military, the rules are relatively straightforward. Professional ethics and the Geneva Conventions define combatants and non-combatants and prescribe ways to deal with injured enemy combatants as well as access to and safety of humanitarian organisations like the Red Crescent. This professionalisation of enemy treatment was demonstrated when Abhinandan was captured: military personnel whisked him away from a charged mob, provided first aid, maintained a hospitable environment, and ensured the prisoner was not physically tortured. They asked him questions, several of which he refused to answer, and even served him some fantastic chai. All of this before he was released, upright, on his feet, and well dressed, within days.

But what of civilians? The mob reaction that Abhinandan first witnessed, before Pakistan Army troops rescued him, should cause us to step back and reflect deeply. Granted, Abhinandan is an enemy soldier and Kashmiri locals are understandably irked by years of ceasefire violations and constant unrest they create. But when his jet was shot down and he was visibly injured, did we require the locals to continue to treat him as a combatant and beat him up?

And then, what of non-combatant enemies? Never in my life have I witnessed ordinary Pakistanis abuse or humiliate Indian visitors. In fact, the feeling is often one of pride in having them visit us. What does that mean about how we see ordinary Indians; are they not our enemies? Or are the Indians we meet in Pakistan the ‘good ones’? This also begs another question: if we must teach India a lesson, are the ‘good’ Indians legitimate collateral damage in that battle?

This leads to the second, communal dimension of our enmity. Muslims and non-Muslims could not live together under a Hindu regime because they were fundamentally different — this is why we fought for and pried a separate homeland from the hands of colonial and Hindu forces who controlled the Indian subcontinent. But what does the same mean today, when there are more than 180 million Muslims in India and more than 4m Hindus in Pakistan?

The two-nation theory would lose its validity if it was meant to be constricted in time. Does it still apply today, when Muslims have a separate state? If so, how should we expect Muslims to be treated in India, and how should we treat non-Muslims (especially Hindus) in Pakistan?

The question of combatants and non-combatants, especially families, is especially troubling here. Of more than a billion Hindus in India, only a fraction includes active combatants against the state of Pakistan. Similarly, only a small fraction supports communal agendas that seek to target Muslims. In our construction of the enemy, are women, children, the elderly, and other non-combatants who have no wish to fight clubbed with Hindu militias and the state military?

Even more critically, we should introspect how the communal construction of enemies shapes our treatment of non-Muslim (specifically Hindu) Pakistanis. It is shameful that a provincial minister would use religion, instead of the state, to denigrate the enemy. The horror is amplified when we imply that Pakistani Hindus must demonstrate their allegiance to the country more vigorously than Muslim Pakistanis. The standards that we hold for Indian ministers and treatment of Muslims in India applies with greater vigour to our own ministers and our own populations before we apply them to the enemy.

Perhaps most telling in this entire saga is the question Abhinandan reportedly asked after he landed: am I in India or in Pakistan? The civilian population of the enemy was indistinguishable from his own, even to a trained enemy combatant. Maybe we should question the historical circumstances that led to the creation of our enmity, and in doing so try to identify who is actually responsible for leaving us in this position.

The writer is a PhD student in urban/regional planning at the University of Illinois. This opinion was published in Dawn on March 16, 2019 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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The Warfare State

March 6, 2019

By Anjum Altaf

Pakistan should be a welfare state. With millions of people straddling the poverty line, there is no other way forward. Those who believe the market will offer a solution are driven by ideology, blind fundamentalists in the same category as religious fundamentalists.

Only the state can cater for such destitution and the fact that a state has no interest or ability to do so does not mean that the task should be turned over to the market. The plain truth is that the market cares nothing for those without the ability to pay and there are many more in that category than should be acceptable. Not just that, without a strong state the market doesn’t trickle wealth down it siphons it up. The only viable alternative is to force the state to deliver on its responsibility and in the long run the only peaceful weapon citizens have to achieve that is the power of their votes. Let not this power be exhausted by either subverting it or ignoring its claims. The demand for bread can be fobbed off only so long with the promise of cakes.

We should pay heed to the fact that instead of moving towards a welfare state we are consciously turning into even more of a warfare state than we already happen to be. It is in this context that one should consider the most astounding decision of the cabinet delivered without any sense of irony by the Minister for Information at the time of the recent mini-budget: “The country’s defence budget is already low as compared to other states in the region, and therefore it should be increased.”

Hello, Mr. Minister. The country’s budget for everything else — health, education, public transport, environmental sanitation, you name it — is also already low as compared to other states in the region. So why just the privileging of defence? On the contrary, the budget for everything else is being reduced even further to make up for the increase.

The deficit is intended to be made up “through the generation of more revenue” but given that no elite has ever taxed itself voluntarily except under extreme duress, this burden of taxation is also likely to fall on the middle and lower classes through dubious withholding taxes on cell phones and the like.

In actual fact the deficit is being made up by scrounging around for a billion here and a billion there on terms that cannot be disclosed to citizens and by printing money like there is no tomorrow. All that the printed money is causing is inflation that is eroding the purchasing power of the helpless even further. I am sure the poor are ready to sacrifice for the nation but what does the interest of the nation entail? Is it always more guns at the cost of butter? And will the sacrifice ever be equitably shared or will one category continue to be evicted from tiny plots where they have lived for decades while others are allotted plots on which pets live better than the humans who feed them?

Where is the sense of irony in all this? Recall the out-of-the-box policy of some wizard in the Economic Advisory Committee who advocated a ban on imported cheese with the justification: “Does a country that has no foreign exchange afford to eat cheese?”

Hello, again, Mr. Jack-in-the-Box. Granted a country that has no foreign exchange ought not to eat imported cheese but can its leaders still afford to fly around in helicopters and ride in SUVs? Why doesn’t the cabinet set an example by getting to work on camels and setting up offices in tents instead of sprawling complexes with perpetual air-conditioning? And while they are demonstrating how people — all people — ought to be living in a country with no foreign  exchange, why don’t they turn off the hot water as well since that has now been declared a luxury in the New Pakistan?

Have we learned nothing from history? The Soviet Union collapsed ballooning its defence budget while making people wait in endless queues for the necessities of life. Countries that neglect the minimum welfare of their citizens and fight endless futile wars get hollowed out from within and ultimately implode. This insight was obvious even to a President like Reagan who was otherwise not a very bright man. All the US had to do was to engage the Soviet Union in an endless arms race and the latter ran out of space.

Modi is a much sharper politician and he is following the exact same strategy with Pakistan — no negotiations till the room for maneuver disappears. And we are blithely helping him along. When two countries are developing at radically different rates, every day that passes weakens the negotiating position of the laggard till the only recourse left is capitulation or the madness of mutual destruction.

Verily it is said that those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad. And when they wish to destroy completely, they make them madder still.

This opinion was published in Dawn on March 3, 2019 and is reproduced here with  permission. Anjum Altaf is the author of Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz published recently by Aakar Books, Delhi.

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Ali Baba and Robin Hood

November 21, 2018

By Anjum Altaf

Daniel Kahneman (2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics) has a lovely book called Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) in which he distinguishes between the two modes of thought. Fast thinking is instinctive and emotional and subject to many cognitive biases; slow thinking is deliberative and logical and much to be recommended when stakes are high and situations are unfamiliar.

In Pakistan, we have succumbed over time to fast thinking and the graver the situation the more instinctive and emotional the thought process tends to become.

It’s time to take a deep breath.

Look at the current situation which offers a surreal scenario of a major country reduced to a farcical contest between Ali Baba and his forty thieves on one side and Robin Hood and his merry men on the other. Ali Baba’s gang purportedly looted the people and got phenomenally rich under the protection of earlier kings while Robin Hood and his gang are vowing to get it all back to the poor with the support of the reigning monarchs.

Those with the luxury to enjoy the spectacle can let their imaginations roam and fill in the secondary characters of King Richard, Maid Marian and the Sheriff of Nottingham but the poor who have been looted and to whom the loot is to be putatively returned are paying a very heavy price for the fast thinking.

This fast thinking incorporates a number of biases. The Ali Baba-Robin Hood frame assumes that there is a fixed pot of money in the economy that has to be in one set of hands or the other; that nothing can be done till this money is recovered; that all those on one side are thieves while all those on the other are saints; and that the end of corruption is the precondition for development.

All these assumptions are flawed as even a cursory look at any real world economy would reveal. There is no country in which corruption has been completely uprooted and there are vibrant neighboring economies in which the size of scams is much bigger than those in Pakistan. Corruption exists in developed countries like Japan and Korea where prime ministers have gone to prison, as well as in China, India, and Bangladesh. Nowhere has life been put on hold till the end of corruption. China and India have been growing at unprecedented rates for extended periods and even the Bangladeshi economy is growing faster than Pakistan’s despite being rated more corrupt than the latter.

There is no argument that corruption is a problem to be addressed but it is also an ironic fact that its extent is often a good indicator of the size of the economy. Fast-thinking attempts to go after corruption can often strangle the economy or, like similar perennial attempts to purge prostitution, spread it even further into the interstices of society. Slow thinking would force one to balance the difficult choice between a fast growing economy with some corruption and a land of the pure that is mired in equitably shared poverty.  

It is also silly to posit that saints and sinners are distributed non-randomly in the world. Here we do not even have to look beyond our borders. How can it be when so many of Robin Hood’s merry men were earlier members of Ali Baba’s set of heartless thieves? And what does one make of the fact that our Ali Babas and Robin Hoods share the same set of ever-ready advisers, a phenomenon that would have been quite alien in Sherwood Forest.

Slower thinking would help absorb the reality that the primary task of any government dedicated to the welfare of the poor is to make the economy grow, even at the cost of some corruption, and to understand the concept of sunk costs and let bygones be bygones as the price of moving ahead. The biggest impediment to that realization is the obsession with purity, proving oneself holier than thou and chasing the mirage of hidden wealth and looted plunder. This instinctual urge to move money from one pocket to another, a corollary of fast thinking, is consuming precious time that should go into formulating policies to move the economy forward.

A deliberative stocktaking is also part of slower thinking. China and India both commenced their historic trajectories of rapid growth, in 1979 and 1991 respectively, following major innovations in their policy regimes. Neither owes its economic success and poverty alleviation to ending corruption, recovering looted wealth, or indiscriminate harrassing of non-filers of income tax in countries where vast majorities do not even earn enough to be liable for taxation.

All these are lessons that are there for the learning, preferably sooner than later, but it would be much more ominous if the fast thinking on display masks a lost ability to think slow in policy terms. If that turns out to be the case, the merry men would push the country over into a certain catastrophe.    

This opinion was published in Express-Tribune on November 16, 2018 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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The Morning After

September 29, 2018

By Anjum Altaf

It is a fact that no one outside Pakistan considers the most recent electoral exercise to have been even-handed — some analysts have gone so far as calling it a ‘soft coup.’ This is no surprise. Most outsiders also insist that Pakistan sponsors terrorism. But while there are many Pakistanis who contest the latter, it is striking that the number believing in the fairness of the recent electoral exercise is relatively small. Even partisans benefiting from the outcome, while offering various justifications, do not really dispute the charge.

It seems that in nudging the choice, the power elite (the segment of the elite that has the ability to affect other people’s lives) may have overplayed its hand. Does this, and the intervention itself, come at a price? Recall that negating the electoral mandate of 1971 resulted in dismemberment of the country. What kind of price might we expect this time around?

First, there is a clear loss of institutional credibility. While praetorian rule in the past was attributed to individuals — Ayub, Zia, Musharraf — the narrative this time is depersonalised and centred on the uniform — slogans are in the air that have never been heard before.

Second, there are still many Pakistanis who, while accepting the reality of nudging, justify it as being for the good because the previous dispensation was allegedly so corrupt and anti-national that giving it five more years would have spelled disaster for the country. This predicament arguably legitimized the use of any available means to replace the predecessors with an upright and patriotic team. If the expectations of this segment of the population are belied yet again, it could erode the legitimacy of the power elite, and its claim to represent the national interest, for good.

Third, the probability that the above-mentioned expectations could be fulfilled is not high. Leave aside the fact that the new dispensation is peopled largely by the same individuals who were part of the erstwhile lot of the corrupt, and subscribe, for the sake of argument, to the comforting myth that an honest leader could keep them in check. There is nevertheless no escaping the reality that no leader, however upright personally, can defy the structural imperatives that define a system and circumscribe the room for maneuver.

To start with, there are structural imperatives that push from below in a society characterised by widespread poverty and the dependance of the many on the few for rights and entitlements. With a parliamentary system, and the majority of electoral constituencies having a dominant rural vote, such a configuration cannot but throw up the kinds of power brokers now characterized as ‘electables.’ The motivations of such representatives, who have dominated Pakistani politics throughout, are well known and they do not barter their loyalties for free. Let us assume, however, that a truly great leader can keep them in check.

But then there are structural imperatives from above. A leader beholden to the power elite cannot but acquiesce to its dictates which means that foreign and defence policies could remain out of bounds. At the same time, if the leader is not inclined to take on the theocracy, the internal dynamics are unlikely to change if not become more dangerous — consider the abject surrender on Atif Mian. Add to this the constraints that would accompany the recourse to the IMF that has already been signalled as inevitable and the fiscal vice would tighten some more.

Pakistani politicians are very much reduced to the status of the princes in pre-Independence India who were rulers only in name while power was exercised by the British — they can revel and indulge thier egos in their restricted domains while the real business is conducted elsewhere. It is not any fault of of the politicians, just a reflection of the reality on the ground. The princes, to their credit, left us a glorious cultural heritage of art, poetry and music that continues to enrich our lives and provide solace in trying times. Our politicians have focused on enriching themselves and adding concrete to our lives. Imran Khan may make different choices but he would nevertheless be operating at the margins turning opulent rest houses into hotels and colleges.        

This is ironic because the broad framework outlined by Imran Khan points in the right direction — the country can move ahead only if it prioritises the productive uplift of the bottom forty percent and invests heavily in its security and human capital. But will there be enough left to do that after satisfying the obligations of all the paymasters listed above — defence, debt repayments, conditionalities, luxury imports, political payoffs, and the inevitable leakages — that would leave the kitty bare and beyond the reach of minor austerities and absurdities like forbidding cheese and inviting donations to build dams?

When Imran Khan recognises these constraints, as he inevitably will, and attempts to wriggle free of any of them, he will face the same reality as all those who have had the crown placed on their heads before him. And so one might expect the cycle to repeat and the status quo sustained. But there might well be an accompanying downward drift with the continued erosion of institutions and their loss of legitimacy. Already, we are in a surreal situation in which every organ of state is carrying out the functions intended for another. This is not a lasting arrangement and the lost time in which competing economies move further ahead could exert an enormous toll.

Pakistan has a very young population, poorly educated and trained, that is looking for employment to survive. What will happen when the dreams dissolve and its survival is at stake? I suppose one could tell them to go climb one of the trees that might be sprouting by that time. On the other hand, the descent into anarchy could accelerate, the power elite flee to its foreign abodes — Dubai, Jeddah, Paris, London — and the parties that have been mainstreamed as part of the electoral engineering step in to destroy the old and rotting system once and for all. This might well be a triumph that could bear the mark of a colossal tragedy in the making.

An edited version of this opinion was published in The News on September 27, 2018 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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India, Pakistan and Cricket: To Play or Not to Play

July 23, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

Pakistan wants to resume bilateral cricketing ties with India while India refuses to play ball. How would an alien from Mars, unaffected by nationalist biases, assess the situation?

It would be hard to dismiss the Indian position outright. Think of it this way: If you live in a community and a neighbour throws his trash over your wall you would be justified in being annoyed. You might go over once for a friendly chat but if the dumping continues you would be well within your rights to protest and break off relations. The neighbour’s invitation to a friendly game of chess will clearly smack of hypocrisy in the circumstances.

Extrapolate the analogy to India-Pakistan politics. There seems little doubt that Pakistan has been abetting incidents of terrorism in India – the 2008 attack in Mumbai was the most egregious and the most explicitly linked to Pakistan. Add to that unprovoked border incursions like the one in Kargil and one ought not to be surprised if India is riled up. In such a situation the demand to suspend sporting relations with a country exporting terrorism does carry weight.

However, extending the analogy of neighbours to countries is logically incorrect.  Neighbours are humans with agency in the sense that they can decide where and when to dump trash and whether and how to retaliate. Countries, on the other hand, are inanimate entities incapable of doing anything on their own. Rather, individuals or groups, acting in their names, carry out actions. And there is never a complete consensus on any action among the individuals or groups in a country.

The implication is that just as all Muslims are not terrorists, all Pakistanis are not guilty of instigating incidents of terror in India. At the same time, it is not possible to deny that some are and openly so. Therefore, the question to ask is whether the Indian state is justified in punishing all Pakistanis for the actions of a few?

At an intellectual level the representatives of the Indian state know that some rather than all Pakistanis are involved in the incidents of terror in their country. However, their claim is that either the Pakistani state is complicit in the actions of the offending groups or, if not, is not doing enough to put a stop to their actions. Once again, on the basis of available evidence it is hard to deny that there isn’t validity to one if not both accusations. Therefore, the decision of the Indian state to suspend sporting relations continues to merit consideration.

Does this stance hurt or advance the interests of the Indian state? It would seem the latter because although it recognizes that not all Pakistanis are complicit in the acts of terror across the border, the Indian state does not discourage its media from painting all Pakistanis with the same brush, that is, to convey the impression that Pakistan is evil as an entity. This perception generates public support for a political stance which seems to be maintained for reasons other than those of pure principle.

In support of this conclusion one can cite the fact that despite the boycott, the Indian state is not opposed to contests between the two countries in multilateral competitions such as the World or Asia Cup tournaments. A principled stance that India would not play against a state promoting terror would call for a boycott of matches in such tournaments as well. There are precedents for such principled positions — many countries participated in a boycott of sporting relations with South Africa when its government practised the policies of apartheid. Similarly, Israel used to concede walkovers in global competitions if matches were scheduled on Yom Kippur.

One could be forced to conclude that there is more to the position of the Indian state than what it professes. In a period of RSS dominance, could it be too far-fetched to presume that an ideological consideration of the Indian state might actually be to punish Pakistan as much as possible while minimizing the cost of such a policy to itself?

The contradiction in the Indian position on bilateral and multilateral sporting engagements with Pakistan would seem to support the hypothesis. At the bilateral level, global sympathies are clearly on the Indian side and the finances of its sporting bodies are much stronger than those of the counterparts in Pakistan. Thus the relative economic loss from the bilateral boycott is quite asymmetric in favour of India.

The same would cease to be true if the boycott was extended to multilateral competitions. Not only would India diminish its chances of winning such tournaments by conceding walkovers against Pakistan, it would find it virtually impossible to sustain universal public support for such a position. Thus it is not surprising that Indian policymakers refer to contests at the multilateral level as ‘only a game’ while simultaneously allowing their media to paint bilateral contests in hyper-nationalist terms as an extension of war. This allows the Indian state to have its cake and eat it as well.

The Indian state can get away with this contradictory stance as long as the world believes that the Pakistani state is turning a blind eye to the promotion of acts of terrorism across the border. Given this perception the latter’s high-minded claim that sporting relations should be independent of political considerations is rightly seen as hypocritical.

Needless to say, and quite independent of anything else, the Pakistani state should be taking a much more forthright stand on restraining agents using its soil for acts of terror across its borders. However, given the mood of the moment in India, it is not clear if that would be sufficient for the Indian state to end its boycott of sporting relations at the bilateral level.

This opinion appeared in the Express-Tribune on July 22, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Pakistan and its Neighbours

July 6, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

Look at the map of Pakistan. The overwhelming length of its land border (92% of a total of 6,774 kilometers) is shared with three countries – India (43%), Afghanistan (36%), and Iran (13%). Pakistan has poor relations with each of these three neighbours.

Has anyone seriously asked the two obvious questions: Why? And, At what cost?

Before we jump on the moral high-horse and go into paroxysms of indignant self-righteousness, could we consider the following:

When George Bush asks ‘Why do they hate us?’ and answers ‘Because we are so good,’ we marvel at his intelligence. When we proclaim the same, we want to be taken seriously?

Surely, some self-reflection is in order.

Point number one: When nobody likes you, the problem could very well be with you. At the very least, intellectual honesty demands one should be open to the possibility.

Alright, there is a ready-to-serve narrative for the hostility with India. It is a Hindu country and Hindus are sworn enemies of Muslims wanting nothing better than to undo Pakistan. Ergo, we have to terrorize them from time to time lest, God forbid, they change their minds.

But what about our fellow-Muslim neighbours. Do we have semi-plausible narratives to explain our unhappiness with them?

We need to have a friendly regime in Afghanistan so we can be friends with them. Of course, this involves regime change about which we have serious qualms except when we are desperately seeking friends. And a little strategic depth won’t hurt either because when we have to pole-vault over the Indian border, we can start running from much further back.

Meanwhile, as Madeleine Albright said about the death of 500,000 Iraqis: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.”

And Iran, don’t they belong to a different sect? In any case, the enemy of our friend is our enemy, isn’t it?

Okay, I am exaggerating (slightly) but could we put some more coherent narratives on the table and have a national discussion without being defensive or afraid. And, while we are at it, could we also discuss who the geniuses are who are making these brilliant foreign policy decisions because it is certainly not the citizens.

We do seem to have a surreal notion of how to resolve our issues. Instead of trying to get along with the neighbours we have, we seem desperate to relocate ourselves to another neighbourhood. If only we could become Bakistan and cuddle up to Saudi Arabia or attach ourselves to the udders of those wonderful ’Stans, or be an extension of China, wouldn’t everything be so wonderful?

Quite aside from the fact that moving a country is not quite the same as moving a family from quarrelsome Harbanspura to peaceful Bedian, the nice thing about counterfactuals is that they never need to be put to the test. Having made a hash of SAARC and RCD, we can boldly dream we would make a great success of CAP (Central Asia and Pakistan – seriously).

It does help to have a short memory. Didn’t we have a neighbour (a little more than a neighbour, actually) about a 1,000 miles to the east and what exactly did we do to it that it could not bear our embrace?

Is everyone in this pipedream too smoked up to keep track of the contradictions? We launched a jihad in Afghanistan because godless communists were being nasty to our fellow-Muslims and now our best friends (sweeter than honey, etc.) are godless communists who allegedly won’t allow Muslims in their country to grow beards or fast during Ramzan (sorry, Ramadan). We are sincerely upset about Kashmir but, please, could we sincerely avert our eyes from Xinjiang. Or else.

More and more this comes across as a melange of self-serving gibberish that just doesn’t hold together. But who is to say and we know who there is to hear?

And what about the benefits and costs? Every situation has its winners and losers and in almost every case two truths hold: The winners are few and the losers many; and, the winners convince the losers that everything is happening in the latter’s interest and is exactly as the Good Lord willed. How much better the reward when it is finally conferred in the Hereafter.

There’s no prize for guessing the winners and the losers. Just look for the folks whose lifestyle is immune to whatever happens on the borders and those who are laughing to the bank and onwards to the Bahamas. There go your winners. As for the losers, think of those for whom a few Rupees less in the price of food would mean two meals a day instead of one.

You may not be able to do much about it but I am sure you can figure it out.

This opinion was published in the Express-Tribune on July 5, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Faiz 5: A Tribute to Kanhaiya Kumar

March 6, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

(After Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Bol)

Now is the time to speak

Lips not sealed
Body unbroken
Blood coursing still
Through your veins

Now is the time to speak

The iron glows red
Like your blood
The chain lies open
Like your lips

Now is the time to speak

For the tide of life runs out

For truth and honor shall not wait

Say all that needs be said this day

Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem can be accessed in Urdu, Hindi and Roman here.

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