Feisal Naqvi

Archive for November, 2011|Monthly archive page

The morning after the night before

In Uncategorized on November 15, 2011 at 7:12 am

Falling for a political party is not all that different from selecting a mate. It can be a passionate affair, full of sound and fury. Or it can be a more sedate, more calculated affair in which one weighs up the pros and cons of matrimony with someone whose features may not excite the heart, but whose dowry (or financial health) offers a comfortable future.

Prior to the tempestuous arrival of Imran Khan on the scene, the three candidates on the Punjab scene (the PPP, the N and the Q) represented only varieties of the second approach. True, each of the three offered a different mixture of ideology, corruptibility and administrative (in)competence. But at the same time, all three were not just known quantities but tried, tested and failed quantities.

The prospect of voting for any of the three established parties therefore did not cause any flutters in peoples’ hearts. If anything, the reaction of the voting public was simply ‘ick’. And as a consequence of the ‘ick’ factor, a frighteningly large number of Pakistanis had simply written off the prospect of a happy political future altogether, preferring instead to wallow in apathy or to grimly ignore their daily diet of corruption and incompetence.

Sunday’s show of strength by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), however, altered this picture in two very important ways.

To begin with the obvious, the emergence of Imran Khan has — after a long time — injected some much-needed romance into the wooing of the electorate. People who had given up hope of ever seeing reform or movement in Pakistan’s calcified power structure are now, after many years, beginning to believe again in the prospect of a better future, in the possibility of hope.

The problem with romantic, hopeful dreams though is that they tend to get dashed by reality. For example, the stormy young poet hoping to take the world by storm with his revolutionary verse tends to present a considerably less appetising marital prospect after a decade of hardship than in the days when the future was still unlimned.

Similarly, the problem with Imran Khan the revolutionary leader was not just that he represented the romantic option but that he seemed to represent the hopelessly romantic option. And so, while the youth of this country swooned over him, others shook their heads and said that he had no chance. I confess that I was one of those shaking their heads.

It is in that context that Sunday’s rally represents a quantum shift. Anybody who can gather 100,000 people in Lahore is no longer a flake or a fluke: instead, that person represents real political power in its most elemental form, which is the ability to bring people out of their homes. Imran Khan always had the style to be a people’s leader. What has changed now is that he appears to have the substance as well. Or to continue the matrimonial analogy, he offers not just romance but the prospect of a steady job too.

Let me not get too carried away though. Notwithstanding the euphoria of Sunday’s rally, there is still a long way to go. I have no crystal ball with which to predict the future and I cannot say whether the PTI will win five seats or 50. Instead, what I can say is that PTI’s rally marked the first time for me when I took the PTI as a serious political contender. And I don’t think I’m the only one.

At the same time, being able to pull 100,000 people to a rally is a hell of a good start but it doesn’t guarantee a damn thing. If the PTI is to win seats in the upcoming elections, it will have to conduct a constituency by constituency analysis to find acceptable candidates. And within each constituency, its candidate will have to go door to door to negotiate with biraderi groups and, in essence, outbid them for their votes.

Again, it is in this context that PTI’s rally was so important. The ordinary voter prefers to be wooed but, more importantly, the ordinary voter wants to make damn sure that his vote counts. Thus, while I do mind if my chosen candidate loses, what I mind more is if my chosen candidate is not even a plausible option. To put it another way, I have no interest in symbolic protest votes: I want my vote to make a difference.

What the rally taught me is that a vote for Imran Khan is not going to be a wasted vote. His candidates may or may not win any seats. But they are unlikely to be embarrassed at the polling booth either. And so, for the first time, Imran Khan has credibility in my eyes.

Note, credibility does not mean that the PTI can bank on my vote. I still find the PTI to be hopelessly confused in its policies. And I also have deep reservations about Imran Khan’s fondness for negotiating with the Taliban. In other words, I may be interested but I’m not sold yet.

The point I’m trying to make though is not about my choice as a voter but a more general one about the importance of hope.

Pakistan is not a complete disaster but it often feels like one because of the sense of despondency we live with, the sense that no matter what we do, the future will be no better. What hope does is that it breaks the vicious circle by means of which apathy produces more apathy. What hope does is that it gives people other than complete cynics a reason to be in politics. What hope does is that it makes a better future more likely.

I don’t know if Imran Khan and his followers will succeed in their quest for political power. What I do know is that I now have a certain hope in the politics of this country that I did not have earlier. What I also know is that there are a lot of people out there like me. And for that, if nothing else, Imran Khan deserves all the praise he gets.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 1st, 2011. 

Heroes not wanted

In Uncategorized on November 15, 2011 at 7:11 am

Let us begin with a simple fact of life: politicians always suck.

Ok, so I exaggerate. There have been moments in particular countries when the population there has come to think of somebody as the second coming of Churchill. But, in general, so far as I have ever been able to tell, the vast majority of people tend to be convinced that their particular bunch of hopefuls is the biggest bunch of eejits and crooks ever produced.

I mention this because, notwithstanding the sudden ascension of Imran Khan into the ranks of prime ministerial candidates, my general reaction to the current slate of nominees is much the same as being poked in the eye with a sharp object.

I concede that matters could be much worse. I could, for example, be a Republican voter in the United States where the leading choice is currently one Herman Cain, a man with no political experience, a penchant for sexually harassing his employees and a knowledge of policy so limited that The New York Times recently described him as appearing to be “someone who, quite frankly, has never opened a newspaper”. Not only that, but like the Khadim-e-Aala and the Earl of Edgeware Road, he too is fond of enlivening political speeches withsolo musical performances. Great minds may or may not think alike but great political minds clearly do.

On the other hand, the fact is that Pakistan does not need a Churchill: all we really need is somebody slightly better than what we have now. Yes, a Churchill would help. But even Churchill wasn’t a legend for most of his life. Had he died in 1935, which would have been almost 30 years after his political debut, he would have been remembered as one of the more talented but also more inconsistent politicians produced by England, with the disaster at Gallipoli most likely being his epitaph.

Let me try and elaborate this point. I think too many of us are obsessed with the great man theory of politics. We, the electorate, keep on believing that the one thing keeping Pakistan from turning magically into Switzerland is the ascension to power of the ‘right man’, some deep thinker jo keh senior tajziyakaar ki tarah‘tamaam umoor pay gehry nazar rakhtay hon’. Ideally, of course, he should not even be interested in power, but should be the equivalent of Cincinnatus who, when summoned to the defence of Rome by its Senate, was found plowing his fields, harnessed to a horse.

Array logon, sun lo! Aisa koi hero hamari zindagi mein nahin aa raha!

More to the point, the search for the hero is not helpful.

The hot topic over Eid lunch some days ago was one NGO lady’s anger over what she called the colonial slave mentality, in other words the tendency of the Pakistani to shamelessly prostrate himself before his superior rather than take a potentially problematic stance.

I did not disagree with NGO lady that this was indeed one of Pakistan’s biggest problems. Instead, what I told her was that she was being unfair in calling our tendency to indulge in grovelling servitude a colonial legacy.

The truth is that leadership in the subcontinent has practically always been completely autocratic. Under the Mughals, the emperor was lord and master of all he surveyed, able to make every person bend to his will. All property was deemed to be the property of the emperor, so that when high-ranking advisers lost favour and were removed from their post, they tended to lose their belongings as well as their ranks.

By comparison, the subcontinental bureaucracy established by the British was a veritable haven of meritocracy. More importantly, a bureaucrat who displeased his masters could not be economically destroyed. Instead, a senior civil servant was free to give unpleasant advice to his political masters, confident in the knowledge that the most that could happen to him would be reassignment to a different post.

The protections enjoyed by the bureaucracy in 1947 have been systematically destroyed since then. Today’s bureaucrats are still formidable but they are a pale shadow of their predecessors. And while the faujis have a lot to answer for, the disemboweling of the civil service is not one of their crimes: instead, the blame for that falls on our civilian leaders who have tried their best to reduce civil servants to just servants

I don’t want to sugarcoat history or to imply that the bureaucracy in Pakistan has no sins to atone for. Instead, my point is very simple: good governance requires more than one man. In fact, good governance requires a whole team of good men and women. Most importantly, good governance requires that the relevant leadership be willing to listen to good advice.

The cult of the hero, by contrast, operates on a kun faya kun basis, the assumption that the grand leader needs only to snap his fingers to call forth blessings for the masses. Since the grand leader is the one responsible for the miracles pouring forth, the grand leader obviously knows better than everybody else. And since the grand leader knows better than everybody else, obviously no decision can be made except by the grand leader alone. And since the advisers to the grand leader have no insurance against falling out of favour, they make sure that the grand leader is continuously reassured of his infallibility and his importance.

In an earlier column, I had expressed some cautious optimism about Imran Khan. I don’t wish to walk that back but I do want to clarify that what he needs to do to win my vote and what he needs to do to fix this country are two very different things.

In order to win my vote, Imran Khan only needs to be better than the other alternatives on offer. But in order to fix this country, Imran Khan needs not just to come to power but come up with substantive policies and a core team of advisers whom he is willing to entrust with serious responsibilities.

We’ve had enough heroes in this country. What we need is somebody who knows how to get the job done.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 10th, 2011.