Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

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.

Back to Main Page

Advertisements

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.

Back to Main Page

Rotten Tomatoes

November 5, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

Rather than asserting that the military and the judiciary could be criticized if criticism was merited, a distinguished minister has taken the position that parliament is just as sacrosanct and hence above being challenged.

In anticipation of what is likely to follow, this being Pakistan, one cannot afford to lose any time taking to task another minister who has asked for the treatment. I am referring to a news item in which the Minister for Industries, Commerce and Investment has informed the Punjab Assembly that there would be “no tomato import despite mafia’s manoeuvring.”

The minister is said to have elaborated that “now tomatoes from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were being sold at Rs. 70 per kilo in the city and would continue to be sold till prices get further stabilized with supplies from Sindh arriving in the local market.” The justification for the policy is contained in a direct quote from the minister: “Why pass the advantage on to foreign farmers instead of our own?” According to the minister, “an influential mafia” was trying hard for resumption of import from India which would not be allowed to happen.

This minister needs to have a whole load of rotten tomatoes thrown at his head and the party chief responsible for his appointment to the ministry needs to explain the poor selection. Imagine a modern minister for commerce who can publicly state “Why pass on the advantage to foreign [producers] instead of our own?” Just follow through with the implications of the logic — it would put an end to all international trade because the only things traded are those that are made better or at lower cost by foreign producers.

There are a whole host of other problems with the argument. First, note the irony that the statement is coming from a minister in a country where even common pins are being imported from China and garbage collection is being contracted out to the Turks. There has not been a peep about the advantage being passed on to foreigners in these and a slew of other sectors.  

Second, this new-found love of “our own” is confined to producers, setting aside entirely the welfare of consumers who vastly outnumber the former. Why? Are consumers not equally are own? And is the government not elected to enhance the welfare of the majority?

Third, what if someone extends the minister’s argument to the provincial level? Why pass on the advantage to producers in KPK and Sindh instead of our own farmers in the Punjab? Such a person would immediately be labelled an anti-national element even though the logic of the argument remains unchanged.

Fourth, who is this “influential mafia” trying hard for resumption of import from India? What does it have to gain from the import? And, if this is actually a resumption of something that was taking place earlier, why wasn’t this mafia hauled in for anti-state activities at that time? Could it not be a producer mafia trying to block imports? Would a producer mafia not be infinitely more influential than one of consumers?

The point of all these seemingly absurd questions is to highlight the mindlessness of the minister’s statement and the sheer vacuousness of the logic offered for his decision. The fact of the matter is that a blind nationalism is at the bottom of this ridiculous anti-trade stance that is hurting the budget of the vast majority of citizens who have to purchase essential commodities in the market.

At the time when tomatoes were selling for Rs. 300 a kilo in Lahore they were available at Indian Rs. 40 a kilo in Amritsar a mere 30 miles away. But a visceral Indo-phobia, shared by many of our influentials, stood in the way of consumers benefiting from the lower priced supply. It was then that another distinguished minister, the Federal Minister for National Food Security and Research said that “the government will never allow import of any vegetables, including tomato and onion, from India despite record high prices of these kitchen items in local markets due to limited local supply.” He elaborated that “this step has been taken to encourage the local farmers to grow more besides saving huge foreign exchange.”

Our ministers are not alone in articulating such puerile logic emanating from their Indo-phobia. I recall a meeting in which an ex-chief of the ISI similarly railed against trade with India because it would destroy “our own” industry. The specific example he gave was of footwear that was being produced at lower cost across the border and whose import would put Pakistani producers “out of business.” During a break, a participant jokingly enquired about the make of the shoes the chief was wearing — it turned out they were Italian.

The point to note is that this India-centric anti-trade hysteria is shared by many who have no compunctions consuming products imported from all other countries and whose income brackets are such that commodities like tomatoes and onions are a miniscule proportion of their budgets. These are people who tell their car drivers to fill up the tank without ever asking the going price of petrol. They are indulging in the psychic pleasure of “hurting” India at no cost to themselves while pushing millions of people who can afford to buy only a litre of gas at a time below the poverty line.

The ultimate irony is that such callous and shallow prejudice does virtually nothing to hurt India. On the contrary, the gap between the two countries continues to widen while our leaders make fools of themselves trying to prove to a wide-eyed world that India is the “mother of all terrorisms.” It is a sad commentary on the state of affairs and a sign of the extent to which people have given up that nobody even bothers to point out these follies before the narrow window for questioning inevitably draws tightly shut.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on October 27, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. An Urdu translation appeared on the Dawn website the following day.

Back to Main Page

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.

Back to Main Page

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.

Back to Main Page

Education and Politics

December 11, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

I wonder what the concerned students would be thinking of the government’s directive to some teachers of the Pak-Turk school system to leave the country. I guess they would consider it political interference. If so, they would be wiser than the experts who look upon education and politics as separate domains.

The real lesson that the affected students need to internalize is that the incident involving their teachers is not unique. Since schools are not teaching students how to think, exploring what has been happening to schools might induce some much needed reflection.

The reality is that education has always been subjected to political interventions. That may be one reason why history is no longer taught in our schools. The less one knows of the past the less likely it would be to decipher the ways in which education is manipulated to advance political interests.

Some political interventions can be considered incidental to education. The deportation of the Turkish teachers falls in that category. The sole objective of the government was to please one man and it was mere coincidence that the cause of the latter’s disapproval was associated with schools. The personnel could just as easily have been part of another industry, say health. Even so, given that the foundation operated only about two dozen schools, the impact on education as a sector remains marginal.

Another political intervention of this type was the outright nationalization of educational institutions schools in 1972. An ideological rationale, which had its supporters and detractors, was offered for the intervention. In this case, however, the impact was spread across the sector and most educationists consider it one cause of the subsequent decline in the quality of education in the country.

A second type of intervention pertains to what students are allowed to do in educational institutions. It is deeply ironic that those who lauded the intense politicization of students at Aligarh University during the Pakistan Movement concluded it was not such a good idea after all once Pakistan was achieved. Not surprisingly, interventions in education remain subservient to political ends.    

A third, quite different, type of political intervention has to do with influencing the purpose of education itself. One may consider Macaulay’s intervention in 1835, changing the medium of instruction in British India from local languages to English, to be a classic case of such an intervention – the stated purpose being to form a “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” It is ironical that those who vilify Macaulay have done nothing to reverse the intervention after the British departed. The politics of that contradiction remains to be fully explained.

Ziaul Haq’s contribution, infusing education with morality and nationalism, is another example of such a political intervention. Yet another is the funding from the Middle East to promote an alternative education in support of a political ideology. And how many people know that in the mid-1980s textbooks for schools in Afghanistan promoting jihad were produced in America under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Development at the University of Nebraska and routed through Pakistan. Whatever one’s position on these interventions there is little doubt that they have quite significantly altered the very nature and purpose of education in the country.

All kinds of political interventions are of interest but the third type merits special attention. A botched nationalization of education can be reversed, as it has in Pakistan, and sensible measures can retrieve the institutional damage. Student unions can be re-introduced in colleges. But altering the nature and content of education has much longer-lasting consequences – it produces cohorts of decision-makers who by virtue of their orientation rule out the very possibility of certain types of policy reversals.

An obvious example is the production of the class of persons envisaged by Macaulay. It was unsurprising that the departure of the British witnessed no radical discontinuity in the colonial system of education – the class whose privileges rested on the knowledge of English had little incentive to empower speakers of native languages.

Similarly, Ziaul Haq’s ‘children’, now ensconced in key positions have virtually taken curriculum reform off the table. No amount of studies demonstrating problems with the existing curricula and pedagogy can get past the mindset generated by that intervention.

These examples should make clear why education is such a fiercely contested political domain. The most vital resource of a country are its students who will graduate to become the next generation of decision-makers – they are virtually its future. Whoever controls what these students believe and how they think (or do not think) controls the future as well barring unforeseen events or unintended consequences. The stakes are very high; not surprisingly, interventions to mould education to political ends are endemic.      

One should keep in mind that countries that are globally competitive, or aspire to that status, are forced to promote scientific and technological innovation which, by its very nature, requires the freedom to think openly. Hence the existence of top-tier educational institutions in the US, for example. But the outpouring of innovations comes mixed with intellectual questioning which is an outcome of the same freedom to think openly.This  dissent has to be tolerated and managed with sensitivity.

Rulers in countries like Pakistan with a primary focus on maintaining the status quo and no real intent to be globally competitive see no reason to promote open minds that can only result in the citizenry asking difficult questions. Hence the continued interventions in education to stifle the promotion of critical thinking and muzzle the possibility of any dissent that could threaten the political status quo.

If our students had read Bulleh Shah or Kabir at school they would have been equipped with the tools for self-reflection. The fact that they do not is as telling a clue as one might need to figure out the purpose being served by our present-day system of education.

This op-ed appeared in Dawn on Saturday, December 10, 2016, and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

Back to Main Page

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.

Back to Main Page

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.

Back to Main Page

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.

Back to Main Page

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.

Back to Main Page