Feisal Naqvi

Learning to live with the chai-wallah

In Uncategorized on June 14, 2011 at 5:14 am

Given that this column appears in an English-language Pakistani newspaper, the chances are good that you, the reader, are in the immediate vicinity of somebody whose job includes serving you tea.

So, raise your voice, or pick up the phone, and call for some tea. When the chai-wallah comes, take a good, hard look at him. He may work for you. If he is a serf from your village, you may even have power of life and death over him. But in the democracy that we wish to become, he is your true master. Let me give you a few minutes to recover from the shock. And then let me explain to you why democracy actually is a good idea.

Let us start with the assumption that former president Pervez Musharraf did many good things. From freeing the press to defanging the Hudood Ordinance, there is plenty for which the Commando can take credit. At the same time, many of the substantive achievements of the Musharraf regime have simply disappeared. Take, for example, the local government ordinances; dead as a doornail now. Ditto for reform of the tax laws.

The point then is that dictators — even well-intentioned enlightened dictators — build on foundations of sand. When they go, their achievements tend to go with them. By comparison, democracies work slowly and fitfully. The achievements of a democratic regime are built on foundations of stone. What a democracy builds tends to stick around for a very long time. Or in other words, so far as political reform is concerned, democracies and dictatorships have the same relationship to each other as the fabled tortoise and the hare.

There is an old saying that nobody ever learns from anybody else’s experience. I suppose that is why every generation in Pakistan feels compelled to make the same errors made by its predecessors. But speaking for myself, the great debate between an enlightened dictatorship and an egregious democracy finally got resolved some years ago when I realised that the cavalry — aka the 111 Brigade — was not going to remove the current set of fools. In short, I was stuck with them; and the chai-wallah.

In my case, this realisation has forced me to think differently. Previously, when confronted with a governance problem, I used to try first to discover the solution and then to worry about selling that solution to the powers that be (who would then be responsible for onward sale of the solution to the masses).

You might ask why I need to change my ways. After all the masses have always been… well, you know, out there. What’s the big deal about them now?

The answer to this question is that because of our newly developed media, the masses are no longer just ‘out there’; instead, they are very much part of our lives. This means that politicians can no longer peddle a convenient populist line of pablum to the masses while doing something completely different. Instead, the arrival of an independent media — and by that I mean the television media — means that politicians are being forced to keep at least a minimal relationship between their version of the truth and the actual facts. In other words, what the public thinks is rapidly turning into a substantive constraint on policies far more than ever before. We now have no choice but to build our future on the basis of what ‘the people’ actually think. Which, given the rubbish that has been stuffed down their throats for the past 60-odd years, means that we may be forced to live for quite some time with the consequences of our past propaganda; which, in turn, scares the living daylights out of me.

Let me put this whole point in context. For the past six decades, the Pakistani masses have been sold the story of India as an existential threat so much so that it has become part of our basic philosophy. In the meantime, we actually are facing an existential threat from a completely different source, one which is killing our citizens in very large numbers. But, try as we might, nobody seems to be able to get people to believe that the Tehreek-i-Taliban and others of their ilk are actually threats. Instead, they seem quite happy to listen to delusional ex-cricketers tell them that the Taliban are just poor, misunderstood folks who can be set to rights so long as we shake hands with them using a special Islamic pinky-swear (and throw out the Americans).

The object of this column is not to go into yet another round of army-bashing or Imran-bashing. The ignorance of our masses is a crime for which all shades of political opinion are equally responsible. All of us, from the left and the right, have colluded in treating the ordinary Pakistani, as the saying goes, like mushrooms (that is, in the dark and covered with manure). But until such time that the people are educated into some semblance of reality, we will be forced to live in their unreality. You cannot sow seeds of hatred and hope to reap peace in return.

The point of this column, therefore, is to get you — yes, you the reader — to understand the consequences of democracy. If you want peace with India, your chai-wallah has to want peace with India first. If you want the army to stop screwing around in Afghanistan, your chai-wallah has to want that first. If you want your government to give a damn about business laws, your chai-wallah has to give a damn about it first. Because if he doesn’t, all the candlelight vigils in the world are not going to make a damn bit of difference. This is the chai-wallah’s world; we English-medium types just happen to live in it.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 14th, 2011.


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