Feisal Naqvi

Archive for February, 2008|Monthly archive page

When tomorrow comes

In Uncategorized on February 20, 2008 at 4:31 am

Today is election day. Tomorrow is a brand new day.

Or is it?

It is likely that following today’s vote we will have tomorrow a political set-up which is marginally more democratic than the current regime. It is possible that we will emerge from our long dark winter into a glorious spring filled with democracy and development. Or it is possible that things could get a whole hell of a lot worse.

Frankly, both outcomes are equally probable.

I wish I had words of comfort to provide. I wish that I had some blinding beautiful insight that would explain how things are going to all work out. But the truth is that nobody knows. Churchill once referred to Russia as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Much the same can be said about Pakistan.

Two weeks ago, I attended a seminar organised by the SECP to publicise the launch of Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs). The seminar was erudite, the audience was learned and the vision being painted by the SECP of Pakistan’s rosy future was both enticing and entirely plausible.

But when one picked up a newspaper, all the good vibes disappeared. Dozens dead in suicide bombing, screamed one headline. These elections are a farce, shouted another. Between the seminar and the surkhis, my brain all but split into two. Either one or the other had to be right. Pakistan could not be simultaneously so advanced and so messed up.

But that is actually the case.

The problem with Pakistan is not that there are shades of grey which are being missed by casual observers. The problem with Pakistan is that it is a checkerboard with lots of blacks and lots of whites. Whether you think of Pakistan as shining or screwed up, you can find all the evidence you want. What you won’t find is a definitive answer either way.

So where does that leave the undecided voter?

Well, I decided to take the Sherlock Holmes approach and first rule out the impossibles. So, vote for Zardari? Hell no. Vote for Nawaz Sharif? Over my dead body. Vote for Moonis Elahi? Only if you took me aside later and shot me in the back of the head.

But who did that leave? A bunch of no-names including the no-name running under the sign of the elephant whose house happens to be opposite mine. But that would mean wasting my vote, my precious democratic vote. At that point, I was sorely tempted to use my seven-year-old’s solution to all complicated issues: eeny meeny mina mo, catch a tiger by his toe…

I wish I could give a coherent explanation as to why I finally settled on the PPP but I don’t think I can. When I reached the polling booth, my head was still spinning from the lack of decent choices.

Inside the polling station, all was confusion. There was a PPP polling agent but he could not figure out my name on the list and so told me to go outside. Outside was no better, as the PPP booth was literally unmanned, being staffed only by a gaggle of ladies who told me in the most shaista Punjabi that they had no lists and did not know what to do with them anyways. Not knowing who else to approach for help, I went to the PMLQ booth where a bunch of efficient organised workers soon had me all set up and ready to vote.

After I had gone back in and managed to manoeuvre my way through the whole finger-painting, thumb-stamping process of casting a vote, I asked the PPP’s polling agent why his party was so woefully disorganised that I had to get my slip filled out by the PMLQ guys. His first reaction was, “Challo ji Moonis Elahi da koi ta faida hoiya na!” And when that excuse did not quite pass muster, he tried a different tack. “Sarkar, we have no computers. Only the Q wallahs have computers”.

At this lovely riposte, I have to say that my heart sank. All I could think of were the lyrics to an old Ray Charles song titled, “Here we go again”.

Here we go again
She’s back in town again
I’ll take her back again
One more time
I’ve been there before
And I’ll try it again
But any fool knows
That there’s no way to win

As the last chords of the song faded from memory, I tried to figure out what to say to this gentleman, now representing the party to whom I had entrusted my political future. I wish I could report that my response was profound, but what I actually said was, “This is your third time. For god’s sake, don’t f**k it up.”

The logic of nonzero

In Uncategorized on February 5, 2008 at 4:02 am

In game theory terms, our basic mentality within Pakistan is that life is a zero-sum game: if somebody else is winning then I must be losing. If somebody else has money, then I must be worse off

There is an old joke told with much relish by Pakistanis about a visitor to hell being given a guided tour. The visitor is taken to various locked rooms where people of different nationalities are being tortured and punished. When the tour reaches the Pakistani dungeon, the visitor notices that there is no door to prevent the prisoners from escaping and asks his guide about this curious omission. “Oh,” says the guide, “We don’t need to guard the Pakistanis. Every time one of them looks like he is getting out, the others pull him back in.”

The joke may be lousy but it says much about our national psyche and our national predicament. And this is not just an abstract question of social psychology. This is an aspect of our lives that is deeply problematic.

People often ask why is it that the same Pakistanis who make model citizens in other countries are so unproductive in their own country. While that is a complex issue, one of the reasons, which affects how people respond and perform relates to how they view their environment.

In simple terms, when an average Pakistani in Pakistan looks at a successful person, his first reaction is that the successful person is not too different from himself. His second thought is that the successful person must be a crook of some undefined sort. His third thought is resentment of the “fact” that the crook has stolen the share which rightfully belonged to him. And his fourth reaction is to start plotting how to get “his” share back.

Conversely, when the same Pakistani immigrates to New York or London and sees a successful person (or successful fellow immigrant), his first reaction is still that the successful person is not too different from himself. But crucially, his second thought is that he too can be successful if he works hard.

In game theory terms, our basic mentality within Pakistan is that life is a zero-sum game: if somebody else is winning then I must be losing. If somebody else has money, then I must be worse off.

Conversely, the second approach to life found more often outside Pakistan is nonzero. In other words, the fundamental assumption is that we can all be better off with nobody being made worse off.

Admittedly, my observations are gross oversimplifications and entirely unscientific. But let me ask you a question: how many times have you met or heard of a successful businessman and thought, “If only I work hard, I can be successful like him”? And how many times have you heard somebody tell you that some successful person was actually a fraud, that his family was a bunch of thieves, and that he had accumulated his fortune by bribing all and sundry?

One classic example of the latter approach can be seen in the book penned by the son of the late General Iskander Mirza, “From Plassey to Pakistan”. In that book, the author repeatedly describes Ayub Khan as “the son of a sowar.” Now, say what you like about the late Field Marshal, but he was not only the son of a trumpeter: he was also a graduate of Sandhurst, a well read and educated man, and the President of Pakistan for the better part of a decade.

The reason why these approaches matter is because they fundamentally affect the way people interact in life. If I believe that life is a zero-sum game, I will not help anybody and I will spend a significant portion of time trying to screw over anybody who gets near me or my business.

The only time I will go out of my way to help somebody will be if I believe that I am immune to attack or if I already have so much that I don’t care about making more, both of which are rare events. On the other hand, if I believe that life is a nonzero game, I will be willing to cooperate with others on the assumption that we can all succeed together.

All this is good in theory but can we change social attitudes? At one level, changing social attitudes towards wealth will be difficult unless we change the nature of wealth. For most people in Pakistan, wealth means land. Land is a zero-sum resource. If you have more land, I have less. Fortunately, land is no longer the only form of wealth. But it will take a long time and a lot of social change before people stop thinking about wealth in old ways.

What then can be done in the meantime? Well, there came a time in the late 1970s when the late Deng Xiaoping made the statement “to get rich is glorious”. That statement may stick in the craw of our peculiar brand of limousine liberals who drive from rally to rally in well-cushioned comfort, but I don’t think we have any option but to accept the desire for worldly success as a valid choice.

If we stick to zero-sum politics, elections will always be about getting more for our own group as opposed to getting more for everyone. And until that happens, Pakistanis will continue to be their own worst enemies.