Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

For the Students and Faculty of JNU

March 5, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

For the Students and Faculty of JNU
(After Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s dar-e umiid ke daryuuza-gar)

Cursing, hurling vile abuse
They came to tarnish, ravish, debase
Parade the tatters of our soul
As emblems of their rule

Hordes swarm the streets
Goose-stepping, flaunting steel
Threatening, intimidating those
Who dare refuse to keel

We collect the shreds they tore
Dyed red in our blood
Sew them back in a banner
Bigger, brighter than before

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

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Reflections on JNU, India and Pakistan

February 19, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

The ongoing row at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) reminded me of the following statement by Vir Sanghvi: “the gap between Indians and Pakistanis has now widened to the extent that we are no longer the same people in any significant sense” (The same people? Surely not). I am not convinced of this claim and believe that the underlying social and attitudinal propensities in both countries (towards violence, religion, and nationalism, for example) remain fairly alike. It is only accidents of time and place that lead to seemingly differing outcomes in the emergent landscapes.

I explored this argument earlier in a couple of posts (How Not to Write History and Pakistanization of India?) and the response to the recent events at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) strengthens my conviction further.

Despite its very different political trajectory, India is repeating the patterns observed in Pakistan albeit with a considerable lag in time. We have already seen the injection of religion in politics and now, apropos of JNU, we are seeing manifestations of hyper-nationalism and the use of student proxies of political parties to crush dissent and intimidate opposing voices in universities and courts.

The interesting question for an outsider is why this is happening in India today. The answer points to another one of the contingent events of history. It seems that with the election of Narendra Modi a number of factors have come together in India – the rule of a party with a foundational commitment to a conservative ideology that it believes needs to be universally imposed, a visceral dislike for dissent that it deems anti-national, and the undiluted power to attempt to enforce its preferences. These elements might have existed individually or in pairs before but have never come together as they have now with the outright mandate obtained by the BJP in 2014 that relieves it of the need to placate coalition partners.

In Pakistan, the commitment to a conservative ideology was present almost from the outset, the crackdown on dissenting voices followed soon after, but it was only with Zia ul Haq that the there was a long enough period of unchallenged authority to push the ideological agenda to the maximum and change the contours of society for the generations that followed.

In this context watching and hearing what is happening in India today is like replaying an old Pakistani movie. Consider the Home Minister – stating “If anyone raises anti-India slogans, tries to raise questions on the country’s unity and integrity, they will not be spared,” attributing the incident to the Jamaat-ud-Dawah (JuD), and pressing for charges of sedition. Observe the violence in the premises of a court and the passive role of the police. Consider the sentiment of the MLA caught on video in an act of violence stating he would shoot protesters if he had a gun and articulating his understanding of patriotism: “As I was leaving the court I saw a man raising anti-India and pro-Pakistan slogans. I lost my cool, like any patriot, and asked him to shut up.” Add to that the government’s hastily passed mandate to hoist the national flag on a 207 feet mast in all central universities in order to better instill the spirit of nationalism in all who may pass thereunder. “Curiouser and curiouser” as Alice would have said.

Seventy years of very different political trajectories in the two countries seem to have yielded very little behavioral variation. To remove any lingering doubts tune in to the talk shows with their indignant anchors with flashing eyes and heaving chests and panelists flinging accusations and determined to prevent anyone from responding. Clearly both countries have yet to evolve to the state where the etiquette of debate precludes shouting. As for the JNU incident itself, going by Pakistani precedents, it would not be a surprise if it eventually transpires that the entire episode was planted and provoked in order to provide an excuse to crack down on those not towing the official line and to send a signal to dissenters in other universities.

Related to this incident, there is, of course, one obvious difference between India and Pakistan and that pertains to the size and scope of the resistance encountered by the state to the use of strong-arm tactics. Once again, this is a contingent outcome owing itself to the fact that an institution like JNU with its tradition of open discussion has survived through all these decades. Similar institutions in Pakistan had their freedoms curtailed and faculties emasculated much earlier leading to the critical loss of public space in which to challenge official dogma in relative safety. At this time it would be hard to imagine a sizable group of students in any public university in Pakistan sufficiently trained to interrogate the convictions and prejudices with which they entered the institution. That this was not always the case is exemplified by the role of students in ending the military rule of Ayub Khan in the 1960s.

This seems precisely the reason why JNU, the premier institution promoting an open investigation of history and politics in India, has been targeted. If the tide can be rolled back in JNU, India will be well on its way to catching up with Pakistan. One can deem it a tribute to JNU that three members of the student wing of the RSS at the university are reported to have resigned in protest against the response of the state. In support of the thesis advanced in this post they have expressed apprehension at the ‘Talibanization’ of India.

It is hard to avoid the impression that if the BJP had its way it would like nothing better than to crush JNU. In this endeavor it seems to have some popular support voiced by those who believe that an institution subsidized by taxpayer funds should not be allowed to question the actions of the state. Once again, this is an opinion shared with that of the majority in Pakistan. However, there does exist more resistance in civil society in India and, unlike Zia ul Haq, Narendra Modi has to go back to the electorate in a few years. What will happen in the interim is up for grabs and what will happen after the elections is unknown. With a little bit of luck it still remains possible for India to escape Pakistan’s fate although its government seems hell-bent on erasing all differences.

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Fifty Years of Activism in Pakistan: A Sea Change

January 11, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

Pakistan today is very different to what it was fifty years ago. An aspect that has changed significantly – literally turned on its head – is the nature of political and social activism, i.e., the very dynamic that leads to change in society. I describe this transformation based on my interactions with the young – as a student at the beginning of the period and as an instructor of students at its end.

Needless to say, the majority in any society is content to swim with the tide. Members of this majority may hold opinions about desirable changes but they are not involved in the process of bringing them about. On the other hand, there is always a small minority of individuals who become actively engaged in efforts to change society. Such activists mobilize varying numbers of the majority for or against in different situations but the fact remains that most internal movements are initiated by this small number of activists.

As one would expect, activists are motivated by a range of concerns and inspired by varied sets of ideas. Since both concerns and dominant ideas change over time, it is reasonable to think that the nature of activism itself might undergo changes of various kinds. The transformation in the nature of activism in Pakistan over the last half century is the focus of this discussion.

At one level, the situation fifty years ago was simple. The 1960s, with the ongoing Vietnam War and decolonization, was the height of anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist sentiment, both reflected in the popularity of Marxist-oriented alternatives. These had an appeal to those segments of the young who were open to external ideas and focused primarily on political change in the nature of the state. This orientation was supported by the influx of heavily subsidized literature from Soviet and Chinese sources.

There was another set of the young who were motivated much more by internal ideas and focused primarily on moral improvement of individuals in the belief that such moral improvement would result in a better society. These were primarily Islamic moral and religious ideas for a better future.

There were a number of important differences in these two broad categories of activists. The left-oriented political activists articulated the views of a small minority of the total population but were a fair proportion of this population. The right-leaning social activists articulated the views of a large majority of the total population but were a relatively lower proportion of this population. On balance, because of the large difference in the relative sizes of the population pools, the absolute number of right-leaning activists exceeded the number of left-leaning activists.

Other salient differences were quite obvious. Left-leaning activists subscribed to secular ideas, sought systemic political change, and attempted to mobilize collective movements to achieve their objectives. Right-leaning activists derived their inspiration from religion, focused on individual moral improvement, and furthered their objectives through schemes providing social welfare to communities. It would also be fair to say that in Pakistan left-leaning approaches were top-down while right-leaning ones were bottom-up.

Fifty years later, the situation appears significantly more complex. External ideas offering alternative models of state structure have lost much of their appeal. Marxist approaches, in particular, have little credibility to offer and various articulations of hybrids remain too vague to have sufficient resonance in large enough groups of people to be relevant. Internal ideas, on the other hand, have grown from a focus on individual moral reform to offering political alternatives of various shades supported extensively with subsidized inputs from the Middle East. These mark the transition from the Islamic to the Islamist orientation in Pakistan.

What one sees today is a world of activism almost upside down. The segment of youth that fifty years ago would have been in the vanguard of left-leaning, secular, political activism is engaged now in a very different manner. Most are involved in efforts to improve individual social welfare through NGO-sponsored community projects while at the same time being quite at ease with religious prescriptions to achieve a better society. The latter is manifested by initiatives centered on promoting inter-faith harmony.

On the other hand, the segment of youth that fifty years ago would have been in the vanguard of the right-leaning, religious, moral activism has split, with a significant element moving on to religiously inspired activism directed towards political change. (The reader would no doubt register that these are broad generalizations and not applicable to every single individual in either group.)

The bottom line is that there has been a marked rightward shift in activism in Pakistan over the last fifty years. This shift includes both the sources of ideas and the nature of the activism itself. A large proportion of the segment that earlier contributed political activists has transitioned to social welfare approaches while those who earlier contributed moral activists have split into two – a section continuing in the older tradition and another moving on to political activism inspired by internal religious ideas.

This much should be acceptable to the reader who takes the time to reflect on these changes. It is less clear, however, as to what might be the forces driving this change itself. At one level, the erosion of the credibility of externally inspired models is a convincing enough reason for the decline of left-leaning activism. In parallel, the emergence of a seemingly real clash of religions at the global level can explain the rise of right-leaning political activism.

However, there might be a less obvious factor that has facilitated this transition and helped give it the specific character we see today. This relates to the evolution of the labor market in Pakistan over the last fifty years. At the beginning of this period the balance of economic growth and the supply of labor was such that almost anyone with some education was guaranteed a reasonable employment. This assurance was sufficient to allow many young people to indulge their idealistic aspirations whether on the left or on the right.

Fifty years later, the pool of educated youth has expanded manifold and greatly outpaced the growth in the number of acceptable jobs created by a consistently anemic economy. This outcome has pushed even the better educated to struggle for decent employment which has become the over-riding priority. Idealistic aspirations are now satisfied through part-time or incidental social work. At the same time, the job market for the less well-educated is so bleak that many of them have found attractive the promise of political change that would skew the distribution of resources in their favor. One might almost claim that the activism of idealism has been replaced by the activisms of anxiety and resentment.

A counterfactual thought experiment might prove useful to probe the plausibility of this hypothesis. What would have happened if the Pakistani economy over the past fifty years had been propelled by East Asian rates of growth? Would we have seen the same patterns of activism even in the face of the decline of Marxism and the rise of the clash of religions?

If not, what might we have seen instead? Perhaps much more activism centered on human rights, participatory governance, and basic freedoms. It is plausible that the concerns could have been quite different. If so, the conclusion supports the contention that the evolution of the labor market is a factor that must be considered in understanding how our society and the nature of its activism have evolved over the preceding half century.

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Faiz – 3: A Twist in the Tail

December 30, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

My interpretation of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Kuttey was published on 3 Quarks Daily on December 30, 2015 (here).


Not even dogs
Go as quietly as these men

Battered and bruised
Idle and begging
Homeless and hearthless
Stabbing each other o’er scraps
Starving in silence


What myth is it
That keeps you
Amongst yourselves
That keeps you
To your strength

The original (in Urdu, Hindi, and Roman) can be seen here.

Over the course of a life there are many who nudge you in one direction or another but very few who entirely alter its trajectory. In my experience I can count four, all encountered between the last two years at school and the first two years in college.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz made me see the world beyond myself in a manner at once appealing and hopeful. Since then, Faiz has become a kind of Bible-substitute in all the manifestations of sight and sound.

Three poems – Kuttey, Bol, and Tanhai – retain a particular association because my son knew them by heart around the age of two. It was a party-stopper of the time when, leaning innocently over the shoulder of one of the parents, he would startle an unwary guest with an imperious ye galiyoN ke awaara bekaar kuttey or bol ke lab azaad hain terey. Our doubts as to whether he was a typical hafiz or knew what he was talking about were set to rest when, on one such occasion, he pointed to a departing friend with an unforgettable woh ja raha hai Bundu bhaii shab-e gham guzaar ke.

My fondness for Kuttey, for this and other reasons, notwithstanding, I continued to rethink the poem over time. For one, I did not feel it had been entirely fair to dogs. For another, and more seriously, I tossed around the issue of agency. This was not a well-articulated concern at the time Faiz was writing but since then we had been introduced to the notion by the growing critique of post-colonial theory. Early accounts in the theory conveyed the impression that the colonized were like putty to be pushed this way or that entirely at the whims and machinations of the colonists. The evolving critiques had challenged this depiction arguing that the colonized too were endowed with passions and interests and acted in their own welfare as they saw best – in a word, they also had agency in the vocabulary of the theory.

The final couplet of kuttey ran headlong into this issue. After asserting that the downtrodden could own the world (yeh mazluum makhluuq gar sar uthaye/to insaan sab sarkashii bhuul jaye) the poem concludes with koii in ko ehsaas-e zillat dilaa de/koii in kii soii huii dum hila de. This external koii, emblematic of the early Marxist vanguard, had become problematic towards the end of the twentieth century – it was the issue of agency.

My rendering of the poem frames this issue of agency in perspective and asks what it might be that keeps the wretched of the earth from acting in their interest. Among the possibilities in this regard are the various powerful myths that shape our lives and convince us that we are living in the best possible world. As one example, it is quite remarkable that only now has economic inequality even begun to be talked about as an issue of any importance in mainstream economic theory and public policy.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz continues to inspire. It remains for us to take that inspiration forward into our own times. I am convinced that is how Faiz would have liked us to honor his legacy.

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The XYZ of India-Pakistan Relations

December 17, 2015

India and Pakistan are engaged in a high-stakes game in which the outcomes (and non-outcomes) are significant for many of the players involved. The essential ABCs of this game are well known; the finer XYZs are less obvious and I aim to address some of them in this article.

It might be useful to treat the high-stakes game as just that – a game – and employ some of the features of game theory to better understand the situation.

For those unfamiliar with game theory, here is a very brief orientation.

We regularly engage in transactions in which our actions are independent of the actions of others and have no measurable impact on them either. If you go to the market to buy a cup of coffee you are engaging in this sort of a familiar independent action.

There are other situations in which the choice of your action can depend on the action of someone else. Such situations can be likened to games. Chess is a classic example of such a game in which your next move depends on the move of your opponent. Not only that, it also depends on what you believe might be his/her next few moves; these, in turn, depend on your move and his/her anticipation of your next few moves.

Since the India-Pakistan relationship is inter-dependent, this is all we need for the moment to think of it in terms of a game. But consider how extremely simple a game of chess is to appreciate the complexity of the India-Pakistan game.

  1. The rules of chess are clearly defined and fixed.
  2. There is a neutral referee to ensure that rules are not violated.
  3. No violence or physical punishment is permitted in the game.
  4. There are only two players in the game, one on each side.
  5. The responsibility for their actions rests solely on the individual players.
  6. Each player acts only in his or her own interest.
  7. During a game, the players cannot communicate with each other either directly or through intermediaries.
  8. Whatever one player wins, the other loses – think of the prize money of the match with all of it going to the winner.
  9. There are no unrelated side-games going on at the same time as the main game.
  10. The game has to be completed within a given time or a given number of moves.

Most conflicts in real life can be modeled as games but a moment’s reflection on the above list should convey how much more complex even ordinary real-life games are compared to chess. Imagine the familiar scenario in which an individual dies leaving behind a piece of land with a house or factory on it to be divided among the survivors. Most would agree that few if any of the simplifying assumptions of a pure game like chess would apply in this case even though in theory the rules of inheritance are well defined. There may be a quick outcome or there may never be one; the players might or might not trust each other; some players might desire a quick decision while others might want to drag out the process; intermediaries and arbiters might be bought out or intimidated; there may be a cooperative outcome or a non-cooperative one; all the players might gain, all might lose, or some might gain while others might lose; future gains or losses could be very much more than the present worth of the property if opportunity costs and costs of litigation are factored in.

Consider another familiar example – the game of cricket. We have seen all of the following: sub-games between factions in the same team; players preferring to lose rather than win and strengthen the position of a captain they don’t like; coaches, selectors, or administrators making key decisions instead of the captain; players throwing matches; umpires and players cheating in games; players maximizing their own interest instead of that of the team. The list can continue to be expanded.

One would rightly expect a game between two countries with a confrontational history to be much more complicated than the above examples. The aim of this article is not to propose a solution but to suggest a way in which these complications can be thought through in a systematic fashion using the template of game theory. A fuller understanding might help dissolve some of the myths that perpetuate the conflict.

The following are some salient characteristics of the India-Pakistan conflict:

  1. There is not one conflict but a set of conflicts that are at issue.
  2. There is more than one player with decision-making power on both sides. (Note: India and Pakistan are not players – they are represented by various groups with varying degrees of power.)
  3. The players formally designated as leaders in the negotiation may actually have less power that players acting behind the scenes.
  4. Because of the lack of transparency about players with actual decision-making power, there is likely to be a problem in communication between the two sides. The nominal equivalents on the two sides might have very unequal decision-making powers.
  5. The gains from resolving the conflict are huge. Not only are there actual costs imposed by the conflict (see Who Wants Peace in the Subcontinent?), there are also gains that cannot be realized unless relations are normalized.
  6. The biggest beneficiaries of such gains from normalization are the majority of the citizens of both countries for whom the costs of many essential commodities would decrease and new jobs would be created. They are stakeholders in the game but without any real power or ability to affect the outcome.
  7. The players with the power and ability to affect the outcome are materially well-off. For them the gains from normalization would not make measurable differences in their quality of life.
  8. There might actually be players who gain from a continuation of the conflict. If so, they would need to keep the conflict alive at just the right level of intensity – not so high as to upset the entire apple-cart; not so low as to be ineffective.
  9. Players who believe they would lose from normalization might undermine the credibility of other players on their own side with relatively more to gain.
  10. There are simultaneous side-games between key sub-groups on each side. The end of conflict might lead to a shift in the balance of power between these sub-groups that the negatively affected would resist even at the cost of prolonging the conflict.
  11. The passage of time might affect the two teams in different ways. The stronger team might aim to wear down the weaker one simply by delaying the resolution of the conflict and by raising its costs.
  12. Both teams influence their major stakeholders, the ordinary citizens, in various ways and for various ends, by means of state-controlled media and education and by making it difficult for them to have people-to-people exchanges.

Each of these points apply in differing degrees to both sides. The perceptive reader should have no problem extrapolating them to the reality of the India-Pakistan conflict and in identifying on the two sides the key sets of players along with their internal frictions, incentives, and likely strategies. Not every reader will arrive at the same conclusion but that is not the intention of this exercise. The objective is for the reader to analyze the conflict in a more systematic manner with the common template enabling a mutually intelligible discussion of the resulting viewpoints.

One more premise needs to be stated before the reader embarks on the analysis. In a game, all players (including sub-groups) act in their own self-interest. Any claim by a player that he/she is acting in the larger interest of someone is to be treated skeptically. There might be partial coincidence in some cases and coalitions might form but in general a player would not incur a personal loss to maximize another’s gain even when the other is on the same side. Usually players wielding decision-making power claim to act in the interest of powerless citizens. In theory, such claims are inadmissible. All evidence suggests that the same is true in reality. While saints do exist, they are not part of the games under discussion.

While every reader would arrive at a personal perspective, there are some conclusions that would likely command general agreement. Those with most to gain from an end to conflict, the citizens, lack the power to force its resolution in their interest. Those with the least to gain, and perhaps something to lose, wield effective decision-making power. There are internal conflicts over dominance among sub-groups within teams and these considerations outweigh widely distributed gains from conflict resolution. And key decision-makers might not be averse to keeping citizens misinformed to maximize personal gains.

What should citizens, the majority stakeholders, do in such a situation? That depends on the conclusions they arrive at from their analyses. Citizens do possess some leverage: the vote, the choice to reject misinformation, the space for open debate, and the ability to communicate directly with fellow citizens across borders. Some combination of these is essential to force the power brokers to end a conflict that is preventing a better life for millions of people in the subcontinent.

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Pakistanization of India?

December 7, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

India lags Pakistan in religious extremism but it seems both are headed for the same destination although by varying paths and with possibly different outcomes.

Much attention has been drawn to the rising injection of religion into politics in India spurring a number of debates in the media. Is India being Pakistanized? Is Modi India’s Zia? What accounts for the phenomenon? Where will it end? These are some of the frequently heard questions.

The dynamics of the phenomenon in the two countries appear similar but are actually different although there is an invisible underlying similarity that propels them in the same direction. A bedrock of religious prejudice exists in both countries available to be mined. In Pakistan, it has entered politics via concession and coercion while in India the drivers are manipulation and stealth. The paths in the two countries along which the phenomenon is evolving also present different constraints that shape its trajectory and growth. This premise bears some elaboration.

The Islamization we see in Pakistan today began not with Zia but with Bhutto. To extract himself from a self-created political crisis towards the end of his reign in 1977, Bhutto made some cynical concessions aimed at diffusing his opposition – the Friday holiday, prohibition on consumption of alcohol, declaring Ahmadis non-Muslims, etc. Had he survived, he might have contained the fall-out, but he didn’t.

Bhutto was replaced by Zia, the military dictator, who found riding this wave a ready means of legitimizing his rule. His equally cynical moves were not Islamization via grudging concession but through proactive coercion. Zia more or less mandated a whole host of measures – the covering of heads by female TV anchors, the use of Allah Hafiz by air hostesses and radio announcers, mandatory Friday prayers for bureaucrats, adding Islamic studies to the school and college curricula, testing religious knowledge in public service examinations, public flogging for criminals, stoning for adultery, etc., etc. Adding momentum to all this was the coincidence of Zia’s accession in 1979 with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the Islamic revolution in Iran. These quite accidental events greatly reinforced the primacy of religion in politics.

India, on the other hand, has had no Bhutto or Zia; nor was Indian society impacted in the same way by the Russian invasion or the Iranian revolution. The primary push to inject religion into politics continues to be India’s electoral particularity, the presence of a fairly significant religious minority tagged with much historical baggage, a situation very different from that of Pakistan. The negatives of this distribution are exacerbated by the choice of the first-past-the-post modality to elect political representatives which creates incentives to divide and splinter coalitions, something to which fanning religious antagonisms readily lends itself in the Indian political landscape. While, there have been some secondary examples of concession and coercion in India – the Shah Bano case being an example of the first; banning the consumption of beef and attempting to alter history books of the second – the primary driver of religious extremism remains manipulation in the pursuit of political power.

Such manipulation reveals itself during the course of most elections in India. It was quite obvious earlier with the issue of the Babri mosque and the BJP electoral strategy in Gujarat. If it was not equally clear in the last national elections, particularly in UP and Bihar, the recently concluded state elections in Bihar removed any doubts. As the election progressed and the electoral outcome appeared shifting away from the BJP, its narrative moved in parallel from the high talk of development for all to rank communalism with the Prime Minister himself party to barely coded divisive messages about the relative rankings of the various communities included in the all.

This brings us to Narendra Modi and the element of stealth. It seems quite clear that while Modi prefers to occupy the high ground on religious tolerance, he has sanctioned a regime in which lower level functionaries, including minsters, can freely exploit or exacerbate religious differences for political or ideological ends. This is the current stealth mode of injecting religion into politics and society in India.

Where India and Pakistan are similar is that they continue to retain huge reservoirs of people for whom religion remains a very salient dimension of identity. This can remain subservient to other dimensions for prolonged periods but is among the ones that can be provoked most readily and with the greatest of ease.

Where India and Pakistan have been different is that while Pakistan has been proactively stoking religious prejudices and invoking religious nationalism for political purposes, India has been, by and large, resisting the temptations. That is till we get to Narendra Modi and the BJPs latest mandate with a dominant majority in parliament. Hence the recent spike in incidents of religious intolerance in India.

These differences between the two countries stem from the fact that while Pakistan is an authoritarian state with virtually no effective checks and balances, India is a democratic polity with a fair amount of space for dissent. Coercion can work in Pakistan while stealth is called for in India.

And this is what lends, contrary to Pakistan, considerable uncertainty regarding the likely outcome in India. The democratic space has engendered a much stronger civil society compared to Pakistan where protest under military dictatorships is far too risky and even under nominally democratic dispensations civil rights of citizens remain in abeyance. The emergence of the kind of protest by intellectuals, artists, and celebrities seen in India, of which the outpouring of awards returned was one example, is impossible to imagine in Pakistan. Even the return of one award would be a surprise; the possibility of a coordinated movement is inconceivable. How Indian civil society faces up to rising extremism and where things stand by the time the next elections come around would determine whether the recent spate of events would ebb or lead to a flood.

The lava of religious prejudice lies very close to the surface in both countries and the future rests very much on how it is managed by the interaction of political leadership and elements of civil society. Pakistani leadership lulled the population into thinking it was pursuing a low-cost strategy that was safely oriented outwards with religious nationalism targeted towards India and religious grievances towards the West. The blow-back of this short-sightedness has finally engulfed the country. Indian leadership, on the other hand, is engaged in a very high-risk strategy of fanning extremism in its domestic space, the risk heightened by the fact that its instrumentality is now tinged with elements of genuine belief in the merits of Hinduization.

In Pakistan, the battle is lost, at least for the near future. In India, the outcome remains to be determined with a lot resting on the strength of the resistance in the next few years.

Related Reading:

Electoral Choices
Pakistan-India Relations
India’s Pakistan Policy?
What Kind of Revolution Do We Need in South Asia?

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Reading the Elections in Bihar

November 13, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

Could the 2015 state election in Bihar signify anything about the future of politics in India? It could, and I want to draw out that possibility by linking this analysis to a previous one related to the equally surprising outcome in Delhi earlier in the year (Electoral Choices). Very briefly, the point made was that while the BJPs share of the vote between the elections of 2014 and 2015 in Delhi remained the same, about a third, its share of the seats dropped sharply from 52 percent to 4 percent. This, it was argued, was a vagary of the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) method of election in vogue in a very few countries in which the candidate with a simple plurality of the votes in a constituency is declared the winner.

Now look at the parallels in Bihar between the results of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the 2015 state elections. For the BJP, the share of votes dropped from 29 percent to 24 percent while its share of seats dropped from 55 percent to 22 percent. For the RJD, the share of votes dropped from 20 percent to 18 percent but the share of seats increased from 20 percent to 33 percent. For the JD-U, the share of votes increased from 16 percent to 17 percent while the share of seats increased from 10 percent to 29 percent.

It is clear that while the vote shares remained relatively stable, the share of seats was much more volatile. Once again, the outcome was dependent on the idiosyncrasy of the FPTP system. The simple explanation is that in 2014 the RJD and JD-U votes were divided while in 2015 they were pooled.

This highlights very starkly the ugly underside of the FPTP system in a country like India and the almost exclusive focus it directs towards the making and breaking of electoral coalitions by foul means or fair. This was clear even in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections where the BJP engineered communal tensions in the swing states of UP and Bihar to break opposing coalitions. It became even clearer in the 2015 state elections in Bihar. As soon as the BJP felt its development plank failing to resonate with voters it fell back on the tactic of attempting to split the opposition by lighting communal fires. First, the task was outsourced to the second-tier leadership which came up with some truly bizarre scenarios but when the margin continued to shrink the sab ka saath Prime Minister himself weighed in with references to the appeasement of some communities at the expense of others. In doing so, he became a fellow traveler, very ironically, of none other than Bibi Netanyahu with the latter’s fear mongering of the other community voting in droves and even being responsible for the Holocaust itself.

Be that as it may, our emphasis here is less on the collateral damage and more on the likely implication of the Bihar outcome for the future of electoral politics in India. Now that it has become obvious beyond doubt that the way to best the BJP is by putting together strong coalitions, one is quite likely to see a repeat of the same in elections to come. Here, one must note that the stability of the winning coalition in Bihar required that personal egos be set aside – the RJD agreed up front to yield the leadership to the JD-U and the once-mighty INC was content with being a junior partner.

While this could set the pattern in the state elections to come, there is no straightforward extrapolation to elections to the Lok Sabha where one might be faced with the incongruous situation of not having a single party with a significant national following. The INC has already been decimated and there are no signs of its early revival. The Left parties are also on the ropes. If the BJP loses popularity by virtue of faltering on its development promise, which is quite likely given the mismatch between the urgency of expectations and the time it takes to turn around a country of the size of India, there will be not a single party remaining with a national mandate. Even if there is partial success on the development front, the model the BJP has adopted of economic growth delinked from social welfare does not augur well for its popularity. This could well be a repeat of the ‘Shining India’ debacle.

If this scenario of the absence of any party with a national mandate does transpire one could foresee an India of stable regional parties attempting some very unwieldy coalitions at the center. It is difficult to say at this time whether that would work or not. Quite intriguingly, it could take India back to its norm of being a landmass governed by many quasi-independent rulers tied together in shifting arrangements. After all, in its very long history, India has only really been united for brief interludes under Ashoka, Akbar, and Victoria. The Victorian legacy has now had a seventy-year hangover. Has the pendulum begun to swing the other way?

We will find out sooner rather than later. One thing to watch would be the strategy of the BJP from here on. From a rational perspective one might think it would read the tea leaves and adjust towards a more inclusive and welfare-oriented stance. But politics is rarely ever rational. It is more than likely that the BJP would harden its stance while simultaneously becoming unable to control the fringe elements it has unleashed as part of its tactics. If that happens, not only might there be a regression to the mean, it could be accompanied by a lot of unpleasant tremors.

Let us hope better sense prevails. India’s strength is its civil society and its remarkable response to the unraveling of the social fabric gives hope that some corrective action, whose exact nature is unclear at this time, would right the situation before it swings too far out of control.

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Revolt and Revolution in Pakistan

October 25, 2014

By Anjum Altaf

In Pakistan, revolution is confused with revolt. A revolution sweeps away the old order; a revolt just replaces the faces at the top. As we have discovered, a revolt is not enough. No matter how often the system is restarted by new saviors, it converges to the same outcome that is compatible with the attributes of the old order.

The principal attribute of the old order is stark social inequality in which the majority is dependent on a tiny minority for access to services and basic rights. This kind of hierarchical order is compatible with patron-client forms of governance which is really what we have had in the guise of democracy. Everything we observe confirms that our rulers consider themselves monarchs while the ruled think of themselves as subjects.

Years ago I asked a peasant why they did not elect an honest representative instead of the incumbent criminal. He took about a second to pose a counter question: Would the honest person be able to get his son out of the police lockup or employed in public service? People are not stupid; they understand well the distribution of power in which they have to survive.

A revolution would transform subjects into sovereign citizens; monarchs into accountable representatives. This kind of revolution has yet to occur in Pakistan. The political order has not changed; the departing British left the reins in the hands of the same social class that held power under it.

Is a revolution a la the French Revolution possible in Pakistan? No, because there is no intellectual ferment that accompanies and energizes systemic change. Adrift between faith in divine providence and charismatic saviors, Pakistan seems set to follow its pied pipers into anarchy and oblivion.

This comment appeared in the September issue of Herald Magazine and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. At the time Anjum Altaf was dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

For more on this subject, see What Kind of Revolution Do We Need in South Asia?

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Chaos in Islamabad

August 26, 2014

By Kabir Altaf

For the last ten days, Pakistanis have been fascinated by the sit-ins occurring in Islamabad.  Led by Imran Khan (of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf) and Tahirul Qadri (of the Pakistan Awami Tehrik), the movement is calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif, the Chief Minister of the dominant Punjab Province.  The PTI is also calling for election reform and for the holding of midterm elections under a new caretaker government.  This anti-government movement has deeply polarized the country, particularly on social media.  Many young Pakistanis are supporting Khan’s demand for Sharif’s immediate resignation, arguing that the May 2013 general elections were massively rigged and that the PML-N does not have the people’s mandate.  Others argue that Sharif is the legitimately elected Prime Minister and that he cannot be forced to resign simply because a mob of 55,000 people demand it.  They worry that the prolonged sit-ins may force the all-powerful “third force”, the Pakistan Army, to step in and declare Martial Law.

While most reasonable people would concede that the 2013 elections were rigged to some extent, it is questionable whether this rigging substantially changed the results.  Nawaz Sharif’s party won by a landslide– especially in Punjab (the dominant vote-bank of the PML-N).  Observers called the elections the fairest held in Pakistan’s history (not that this is high praise, given Pakistan’s shaky grasp on democracy).  Asides from the issue of the possibly tainted mandate, it is highly unlikely that either Nawaz or Shahbaz will resign. The PML-N has the support of most of Pakistan’s political parties.  This past Saturday, former President Asif Zardari, the Chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party, had lunch at the Sharif estate in Raiwind, outside Lahore, after which he declared that he was fully in support of Nawaz Sharif.  Rumor has it that Nawaz offered Zardari the post of President of Pakistan, which the latter is said to have declined.  In any case, the PPP and other major parties are in agreement that the demand that the sitting Prime Minister resign is “unconstitutional” and cannot be countenanced. Cynics may argue that this seeming solidarity is simply members of corrupt political dynasties protecting each other. However, unless there is much more public pressure on Sharif (or perhaps pressure from the Army), his resignation seems almost impossible.  At the time of writing, the Army also seems remarkably uninterested in intervening; saying only that the parties must settle the issue through negotiation. Perhaps, if the standoff continues or the situation turns violent, the “third force” may be forced to take matters into their own hands.

Imran Khan wants Sharif to resign. Suppose he does. What then? Khan wants new elections held under a caretaker setup as well as electoral reform.  Since systemic reform cannot happen immediately, it seems likely that any new elections are likely to be as flawed as the most recent one is said to have been.  Suppose the new elections do not bring Khan to power.   Will he accept the results as legitimate?  Or suppose that Khan does succeed in becoming Prime Minister. What is to say that a year down the line, mobs will not be protesting in Islamabad demanding his resignation?  Forcing a sitting Prime Minister to dissolve his own government sets a bad precedent and would derail democracy in Pakistan.

Imran Khan could have pursued the alternative course of focusing on governing in Khyber-Pakthunkhwa (KPK), the province where his party did receive a mandate and formed the governing coalition.  If he had succeeded in addressing the issues of the province, he would have been in a stronger position for the 2018 general elections and perhaps would have succeeded in winning power in Punjab.  However, Khan seems to have had little idea of how to address the challenges of KPK, the province that has borne the brunt of the “war on terror” and the instability in Afghanistan.  Rather, he found it was easier to lead agitations and hold protests.  There is a section of opinion in KPK that feels that Khan has ignored the province in an attempt to win power in Punjab, the locus of power in Pakistan.

A final point needs to be made about those young Pakistanis who are advocating for some kind of French or Russian Revolution or even for an “Arab Spring”.  These people seem to be discounting the fact that revolutions are bloody and often lead to civil war.  The French Revolution led to the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.  The Russian Revolution caused civil war between the Bolsheviks and the “white Russians” who supported the Czar.  Even the example of the “Arab Spring” is not exactly salutary.  Though the Egyptian people did succeed in removing Hosni Mubarak from power, the legitimately elected government of Mohammad Morsi was itself removed through a military coup. Khan has repeatedly labeled Sharif the “Hosni Mubarak” of Pakistan, suggesting that he sees himself as Morsi. If so, than has he considered the real risk of being summarily removed by the Pakistani equivalent of General Sisi?  As for his young supporters, the prospect of sending the Sharifs to the guillotine may seem attractive, but they should remember that revolutions often cause entire societies to turn on each other. With the Sharifs go much of the Pakistani establishment, the business community, and the landed classes.  It would seem difficult to believe that the prospect of civil war in Pakistan is something that would be acceptable to many of PTI’s young supporters. Revolution may be necessary, but at what price?

At this point, the best one can hope for is that some accommodation will be reached between the government and the protestors, perhaps through the formation of a national unity government.  If the success of the sit-ins does force Sharif to implement needed electoral reforms, they will have had some positive impact.   At worst, the impasse may lead to prolonged instability in the country, forcing the Army to impose Martial Law, an outcome that very few Pakistanis—whether PML-N or PTI supporters—want.

Kabir Altaf attended the Lahore University of Management Sciences and graduated magna cum laude from George Washington University.

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Mr. Modi: Good for Pakistan, Bad for Muslims?

June 4, 2014

Early on in Ulysses, Joyce has Stpehen Dedalus harking back to Aristotle and thinking the following thoughts:

Had Pyrrhus not fallen by a bedlam’s hand in Argos or Julius Caesar not been knifed to death? They are not to be thought away. Time has branded them and fettered they are lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted. But can those have been possible seeing that they never were? Or was that only possible which came to pass? Weave, weaver of the wind.

We are at that momentous point in South Asia where all of a sudden there is a burgeoning of potentialities only one of which will turn into reality – the actuality of the possible as possible in Aristotle’s formulation.

I have no way of knowing which of those possibilities will become the reality we will look back on ten years from now. What I can do is sift through them and palpate the one that, a priori, seems more than likely to oust the rest.

So let me weave and explicate the thesis that Mr. Modi could be good for Pakistan and bad for Muslims.

First, there are the things that Mr. Modi has come to believe about himself: that he is decisive and that he is a manager par excellence. Whether he is or not, whether he has always believed so, or whether he is the victim of his own sustained rhetoric, is now irrelevant. His reputation and his legacy rest on his acting out that role and delivering on his promise of development and economic growth.

This could be good for Pakistan because he will be decisive in bilateral relations but not so decisive that it comes in the way of the economic development of India.

At one level this is obvious enough, at another slightly more nuanced. Why might Mr. Modi’s decisiveness in bilateral relations be good for Pakistan? Look at it from Pakistan where the state is accountable neither to its people nor to anyone else. No amount of carrots, cajoling, or appeals to common sense can make it alter its ways that rest on fooling all the people all the time. It is only the stick that can possibly impose any kind of constraint on its behavior.

Think of the scenario with regard to polio. The Pakistani state has absorbed billions of dollars in aid and advice and yet remains amongst the only sources of the virus in the world. For years it has fudged the figures and laughed its way to the bank. Only when the world has finally imposed restrictions on travel that inconvenience the rulers has there been any acknowledgement of the seriousness of its irresponsibility.

What holds for polio holds just as well for terrorism. No amount of argumentation is likely to come in the way of what has become an integral strategy to prevent a durable peace that would undercut the control of vested interests. Only the threat of a decisive retaliation could force a rethink of this strategy.

This, of course, would call for a very fine balance. Irrationalities in Pakistan have spawned to such an extent and control over violence become so fractured that nothing can be ruled out by way of likely actions. A decisiveness that discourages but does not push over the edge would be good for Pakistan; a misstep could be a disaster for South Asia.

At the same time, the quickest boost to development of at least the western parts of India would come from a quantum increase in trade with Pakistan. Given Mr. Modi’s imperative to deliver development, and that too in short order, this might be one of the pills he would be willing to swallow. And any increase in trade would be disproportionately beneficial for Pakistan by virtue of its much smaller economy and land mass.

But second, and counterweights to the above, are the things about Mr. Modi that are unlikely to change even if he tries to change them. Mr. Modi has a communal and majoritarian perspective and just as the overt promises of development have to be delivered, so have the winks and nods to his core constituency be made good. He would be held equally to both poles of the bargain he has entered into with his supporters.

The concessions to Pakistan that might be necessitated by the imperative of development could well be compensated by the narrowing of space for Indian Muslims, more so because Indian Muslims wield very little countervailing power. Mr. Modi’s party has no representative from the community and the Lok Sabha as a whole the lowest representation ever. Pakistan, of course, would care little for the fate of Indian Muslims; it never has. They will be entirely at the mercy of Mr. Modi and Mr. Modi is not a sympathetic man.

As I said at the outset, I have no way of knowing if it is this particular possibility that would be actualized though it does seem plausible. I can only hope I am right about the first part and wrong about the second.

One might ask what is to be gained by displaying such displeasing weaves and airing such unpalatable thoughts. It is the hope that looking the implications of a possibility square in the face could well lessen the likelihood of its actualization. In the room of infinite possibilities, another, more benign one could take its place. It is up to us to articulate the possibilities and be part of the movement that stands in the way of one and lends a helping hand to the other.

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