Feisal Naqvi

Archive for May, 2011|Monthly archive page

A world lit only by lies

In Uncategorized on May 27, 2011 at 4:48 am

“Lying to the young is wrong.” Or so says the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko in his poem, aptly titled “Lies”.  His advice instead is simple:

They know what you mean.
They are people too.
Tell them the difficulties
can’t be counted,
and let them see

I am reminded of these lines by the current furore over the release of official documents, courtesy of WikiLeaks. What we learn from these documents is that we are being lied to continuously. To take but one example, our governments have been protesting drone strikes ever since they started. But in private, they have been asking for them.

Cynics may say, why the anger? After all, doesn’t every sentient person in Pakistan already know this? The answer to that is no. There is a value to be found in clearly stating the truth which no amount of rationalising can match. More importantly, there is a cost to be paid for lying.

A democracy functions — or is supposed to function — on the basis of a delicate balance of powers. We, the people, nominate representatives who in turn pick a cabinet from among themselves to lead us all. Our leadership is not obligated to consult with us at every stage; or indeed, at any stage. But they are obligated to inform us at regular intervals what they are doing.

The cynical response to this assertion is, why? Nobody is obligated to do a damn thing. So long as people get elected and so long as people get to vote, that’s all that we can ask for.

Let me present two reasons why this position is wrong. The first is theoretical. The second is practical.

At the level of theory, it is not enough for ‘the people’ to be recognised as the ultimate decision-makers (i.e., to be vested with the power to vote people in or out). In order for the right to vote to be meaningful, the people must also be given the opportunity to make an informed choice. If the political apparatus fails in this basic obligation, then the judgment of the people will be like any other uninformed choice and open to challenge.

Let us leave aside the question of theory, though, because once you assume that ‘the people’ need to be informed in order to make a valid choice, it is but a short leap to the conclusion that since ‘the people’ are congenitally stupid, any decision by them can automatically be disregarded.

The bigger problem with lies is that they prevent any sort of connection emerging between the government and the general population.  Lies corrode the spirit and when a country is ruled by liars, the bond that ties the people to the rulers gets frayed. In the case of Pakistan, that bond is tenuous to begin with. In our case, the end result is that no decision of the government has any legitimacy because no decision is ever ratified by the people in clear terms. Instead, all we are left with is a perpetual fog in which anybody can say anything without the fear of being definitively contradicted.

The further consequence of this deliberate policy of lying is that we are stuck in the middle of a war with no clear ideas as to who we are fighting or why. Our biggest media group, for example, is now running a constant stream of op-eds and television advertisements in which the not so-subtle message is that Pakistan has no inherent problem with Islamic militancy and that if we could only muster the courage to part company with the US, all our problems would immediately be solved.

I obviously disagree with this position. But my problem is that neither the government nor the military seems to have the courage to state their convictions. If our government feels that this is not our war, let it say so and let it then also take responsibility for the consequences. Conversely, if this government feels that Islamic militancy is a genuine home-grown threat, let it come forward and say that.  The same goes for drone strikes. Either publicly accept that these strikes happen with the consent of the Pakistan government or stop them. But the fact that the drone strikes are both effective and unpopular does not give the government the right to act like a helpless martyr. (And, pretty please, the idiot who came up with the argument that ‘we can’t stop the drones because they take off from land leased to UAE government’ should be reassigned permanently to dishwashing duties.)

Abraham Lincoln is credited with the saying, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time”. That sage bit of wisdom is as valid today as it was then.  We are now decades deep into a war which has killed more than 35,000 Pakistanis.  And while our people continue to die, our rulers remain busy telling one fairy tale after another. This cannot be the right way to proceed.

My father likes to say that “sometimes the wrong decision is better than no decision”. I’ve had trouble understanding that point for many years but it makes perfect sense in this context.

I really hope that this country and its leadership get the courage to make the right decision. I hope that we find the strength to say that there is a cancer within ourselves, that our society has become diseased, and that we are effectively in the middle of a civil war. But this current policy of deliberate misdirection and confusion is worse: In military terms, it is the equivalent of deserting one’s post.

In times gone by, the punishment for desertion was death. Normally, however, it was the deserter who got shot. In our case, though, we are the ones being executed.

This article appeared first in the Express Tribune on 27 May 2011.

Grow up, young voters

In Uncategorized on May 7, 2011 at 6:07 am

Let’s be clear about one thing: The youth of Pakistan are not going to save this country.

I agree that it is wonderful to have an informed and educated youth calling for reform, but reform does not come from desire alone. Reform requires both political will and knowledge. And the youth of this country can supply neither.

Since it is more debateable, let me take the issue of political will first.

Political will means the desire of people in power to change that which is wrong about this country. The term ‘people in power’ includes not just politicians but also the bureaucracy, the judiciary and the military. None of the last three give a rat’s patootie about what young people think. On the other hand, each of the three can be affected by elected governments. So whatever little hope the Pakistani youth have of impacting political will is dependent entirely on political parties.

Political parties can mean either the established political parties or some new force. As far as the established parties are concerned, all the youthful enthusiasm in the world is not going to make a damn bit of difference. No matter how much the youth protest, the established parties are still going to present the people of this country in the next election with a slate of candidates ranging from the overtly criminal to the covertly corrupt. If a few individuals do become strongly identified with a popular demand for reform, they will be co-opted into existing power structures, perhaps even given a ministry or two. And then, as desire fades, they, too, will become indistinguishable from their former opponents.

But what about new parties, you say? What if Imran Khan or some other reformer rides a wave of popular support into power? After all, it has been done before: Look at Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) and the 1970 elections.

There are two answers to that fond hope. The first is that Imran Khan is no ZAB. Pakistani politics is based on a first-past-the-post system with 272 directly-elected constituencies spread across the length and breadth of this country (all the rest are indirectly elected). In order to have a meaningful number of seats, Mr Khan would need not just massive support but well-distributed massive support. There is nothing that I have seen or read which comes close to indicating any such movement for him in Pakistan. His most recent jalsa in Peshawar — undoubtedly his most successful till date — netted him a grand total of about 10,000 people. Even if independent estimates are off by 50 per cent, that support would not be enough to get him a single seat in the National Assembly, even in Peshawar itself.

I do not mean to malign or belittle Mr Khan. I have immense respect for his determination. It is quite possible that I am completely wrong in my estimate of his popular standing. But let us just concede for now that an electoral tsunami in his favour looks somewhat unlikely.

My second point is quite different. Even if it can be assumed that Mr Khan will pull off a massive upset in the next election, he has yet to put forward any plan or a detailed set of policy prescriptions explaining how he is going to fix all the myriads of problems that Pakistan faces. Instead, Mr Khan’s response is that he will select technocrats, who will take care of all this for him.

Mr Khan’s response is not a workable solution. To begin with, Mr Khan, as prime minister, will not have the option of simply appointing technocrats to all ministerial posts. Instead, he will have to pick ministers from the ranks of his fellow members of parliament (with some limited exceptions). Unless Mr Khan has been busy persuading brilliant and honest technocrats to stand by him, he will not have an all-star team of governance experts from which to choose his cabinet.

The next point is more important. Irrespective of the quality of Mr Khan’s fellow parliamentarians, formulating policy whilst in power is simply not an option. The reason for this is simple: When you are in power, practically every single waking moment of your life is spent in dealing with urgent pressing problems. In the middle of this tumult, politicians do not have the luxury of stepping back and taking months to formulate policies.

Let me put this in cricketing terms: The time to learn technique is when you are practising. You can’t figure out how to bowl inswingers after you walk into the stadium.

The standard response to this view is that everything is okay in Pakistan, that all we need are some honest people at the top. This response is rubbish. Yes, we suffer from a plague of corruption. But replacing the current crop of ministers with well-meaning people is not going to solve our problems. Those problems are deep-seated and require structural reforms, not just new faces. To use another cricket example, getting rid of Salman Butt may have helped our match-fixing problem, but it didn’t teach our opening batsmen how to play outswingers.

Does that mean the youth of this country should give up hope? No, of course not. But we need to start growing up and stop treating our problems as minor. Imran Khan has no magic wand that he can wave to fix our problems. And if the young people of this country want to be taken seriously then they need to take politics in the same vein. What they need to demand is not just a pledge to be honest, but a pledge to be intelligent, a pledge to take our problems seriously.

I believe that Imran Khan is honest. But if he wants my vote, he needs to show me that he also knows what to do if he becomes prime minister. As for the youth of this country, I suggest that they take themselves and our problems more seriously. I’ve had enough of empty slogans: Sooner or later, they will too.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 7th, 2011.