Feisal Naqvi

Archive for June, 2012|Monthly archive page

Not in my name

In Uncategorized on June 26, 2012 at 11:09 am

I wrote last week that the people of Pakistan were getting exceedingly impatient in their wait for the fruits of democracy. I do not think that the appointment of Raja Pervaiz Ashraf as PM has helped things. If anything, it reminds me of that famous scene fromThe Naked Gun in which John Houseman, playing a driving instructor, instructs his student on how to properly respond to a rude trucker. “All right, Stephanie, gently extend your arm. Extend your middle finger. Very good. Well done.”

Pakistan, these days, is in the grip of an acute energy crisis. Many small businesses are being forced to shut down because of massive power outages. Protests against loadshedding are now not just routine, but routinely violent. Even the Government of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, supports these protests, though it claims to deprecate the accompanying violence. Lack of electricity is thus certainly one of the most important public policy problems in Pakistan.

Before becoming the prime minister, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf’s most prominent position was as the federal minister for water and power, a position which he occupied from February 2008, all the way up till February 2011. Raja Sahib not only failed singularly in alleviating loadshedding, but acquired an unenviable reputation as the “Baghdad Bob” of Islamabad, forever making ludicrous pronouncements about how the end of loadshedding was around the corner.

Our new prime minister was also regarded as the main mover behind the decision to try and solve the power crisis through rental power projects. This policy was a byword for corruption from day one, with Pakistanis being treated to the incongruous sight of one federal minister (Faisal Saleh Hayat) repeatedly and publicly accusing a fellow member of the cabinet (Raja Pervaiz Ashraf) of being a crook. Subsequently, the Supreme Court got into the act andshot down the policy in a scathing decision, which called — amongst other things — for the criminal prosecution of Raja Pervaiz Ashraf and his placement on the Exit Control List.

Leaving aside issues of criminality, Raja Sahib’s embrace of the rental power policy raised fundamental issues of competence. Pakistan already has sufficient installed capacity to meet its demands. What Pakistan does not have is the ability to pay for the electricity being generated because, on average, we sell electricity for less than the average cost of producing and distributing it. In these circumstances, signing short-term contracts to buy even more expensive electricity was hardly a smart move.

Given these facts, one thing is clear. I’m not sure what political considerations President Asif Ali Zardari took into account before he finalised the name of Raja Pervaiz Ashraf. But clearly, giving a damn about what non-jiyalas might think was not one of them.

At the same time, let me make one thing absolutely clear. I do not like the PPP. I really, really, really wish that Pakistan was not held hostage by their stupidities. But I do not want anybody other than the people of Pakistan to throw them out.

It has become fashionable for us to bemoan our lack of leaders. If anything, we have the opposite problem; i.e., a surfeit of would-be messiahs. In Pakistan, every person who clambers to the top of a particular heap immediately assumes that he is the institution, not just the incumbent. What I would like to see instead, just once, is some degree of humility; so that criticism of the PPP does not become an attack on democracy; and so that queries regarding Arsalan Iftikhar are not treated as the equivalent of an armed assault on the Supreme Court. All of us, our leaders included, are subordinate to the Constitution and the values enshrined in it. It would be good if our leaders could remember that.

In his book, The Decisive Moment, Jonah Lehrer talks about how the ability to learn from our mistakes is, quite literally, the basis of our human intelligence. He illustrates this point by referring to two different computers. In 1997, IBM built a computer called “Deep Blue”, which became the first machine to ever defeat the reigning chess champion of the world. Deep Blue operated through brute force, analysing more than 200 million possible moves per second. And while it won against Garry Kasparov, the battle between man and machine was close.

The software wizards who came up with TD Gammon, a backgammon programme, adopted a completely different approach. Unlike Deep Blue, their programme started off with essentially zero knowledge. At the same time, unlike Deep Blue, TD Gammon also has the ability to learn from its mistakes. The programme was set up to play against itself and after a few hundred thousand games, it had learnt so much that it was able to consistently beat the best humans in the world.

In terms of Pakistan’s political options, the Deep Blue approach is analogous to the benefits of a technocratic government: take the best people with the most knowledge and throw them at a particular problem. The TD Gammon approach, by contrast, represents the promise of democracy. It starts off incompetent and unskilled. But because it has the ability to learn from its mistakes, it eventually reaches a standard of excellence unattainable by pure technocrats.

My point here is simple: democracy is a process. If you do not let that process operate, it will never be able to fix itself. Instead, all that we will be left with is the endless iteration of the cycle in which we have already wasted 65 years.

Let me be clearer still. I have the highest respect for the superior judiciary but I did not vote for them. I did vote for this execrable government and while I may now regret that vote, the fact remains that Raja Pervaiz Ashraf was voted in by my elected representatives. I do not want him thrown out by somebody I didn’t vote for.

I doubt if any of the people plotting in the shadows give a damn about what I think. Nonetheless, since I am on record as noting that the people of Pakistan are running out of patience, let me make my position clear. Don’t do it, your Lordships. Not in my name.

Published In The Express Tribune, June 26th, 2012.

Garmi mein kharaab

In Uncategorized on June 26, 2012 at 11:08 am

Let us try to recap some — just some — of what has recently happened.

A real estate billionaire first meets secretly with prominent members of the media to persuade them that he is being blackmailed by the son of the chief justice of Pakistan, then goes public with documentary proof once the chief justice himself takes suo motu notice of the whispers. After the CJP recognises the impropriety of hearing a case relating to his own son, the remaining members of the bench hurriedly dispose of the matter, claiming that the allegations of corruption stand rebutted by Malik Riaz’s own statement that he never got any relief. Sure. Whatever you say, your Lordships.

Meanwhile, back in media-land, the affair of the errant son touches off a separate firestorm as television anchors accuse each other of being on the take. The mud-slinging then reaches epic heights once a much-hyped interview of Malik Riaz by two prominent anchors is revealed through leaked footage not only to have been carefully  ‘planted’ but the subject of instructions from personalities such as the prime minister’s son. The jhut-put of the anchors then escalates into a war of TV channels as Dunya (employer of the two disgraced anchors) attacks Geo (the self-appointed standard bearer for media ethics), while Geo’s cartoon avatar recites mangled poetry in praise of the chief justice.

At this stage, much of the country has reached the point where all it wants to see are heads on a pike. It doesn’t matter whose heads; just some heads, so that ordinary citizens can assume that this nonsense is over and we can go back to worrying about stuff which really counts, like people being blown up in Peshawar, target killings in Karachi, the Taliban’s ban on polio vaccinations and … hey, look — it’s Meher Bokhari in librarian guise, defending herself against being a sell-out.

Sorry, where was I? Ah yes, the irreducible complexity of our politics and our desire to impose simplistic narratives on what is basically a giant mess. In light of which, here are some of the various storylines currently on offer.

The PPP version — Our people have sacrificed so much for democracy. Their sacrifices must not be allowed to be in vain. The PPP is the only true national party in Pakistan. Attacking PPP leaders is the same as attacking democracy. The sovereignty of parliament must be respected.

The Geo/PML-N version — Our people have sacrificed so much for an independent judiciary. Their sacrifices must not be allowed to be in vain. The judiciary is the only functioning institution left in Pakistan. Attacking judges or their children is the same as attacking the judiciary. The independence of the judiciary must be respected.

The GHQ version — Our people have sacrificed so much for an independent Pakistan. Their sacrifices must not be allowed to be in vain. The army is the only functioning institution left in Pakistan. Attacking the army is the same as attacking Pakistan. The integrity of Pakistan must be defended.

The Zaid Hamid version — Our people have sacrificed so much for an Islamic state. Their sacrifices must not be allowed to be in vain. Can somebody please find me a white horse? And in the meantime, please donate heavily to my think-tank.

The one common theme behind all of these narratives is that a simplistic analysis begets a simplistic solution. In other words, all of our problems first get reduced to the level of  “two legs bad” after which a solution at the level of  “four legs good” is provided.

The answer, self-evidently, is for people to realise that our problems cannot be reduced to a single solitary factor. Only then will the door be opened for a more nuanced understanding of problems and a more nuanced appreciation of their solutions.

All well and good, you may respond. But if wishes were horses, Zaid Hamid would be leading a cavalry charge into Srinagar at this moment. How do we get people to look past the rubbish being shoved into their faces?

Broadly speaking, there are two competing answers.

The first answer is that nothing needs to be done. Instead, Pakistanis will figure it out for themselves because they are no dumber than the people of any other country. All we lack is experience in dealing with the kind of shysters the Almighty has seen fit to inflict upon us. Like people in other countries, we too, will eventually learn to elect better rulers.

The second answer is that “we” — as in the educated, literate, newspaper-reading population of this country — cannot trust the uneducated, illiterate population. And so, we need to forget about democracy, go back to some form of technocratic rule with token participation for the masses and gradually transition to full democracy once the fundamentals of a civilised politics have been established.

This debate is as old as Pakistan. The only difference now is that many people, myself included, thought the events of 2007 and the return of democracy had finally decided this debate. Now, I am not so sure.

As I write this column on a searingly hot Sunday afternoon, my part of Lahore is into its fourth hour of load-shedding. My UPS died half an hour ago and what residual optimism I have left is slowly evaporating in the heat.

It may be that the return of electricity to my quarters will help dissipate the pall of gloom. But what about the many for whom the heat will remain uninterrupted?

In many ways, the debate over authoritarian intervention in government resembles the debate over intervention in economies. Free-market fundamentalists argue that the only cure for a dysfunctional economy is to leave it alone because, in the long-run, the market corrects itself. The classic answer to that was given by Keynes who acidly noted, “In the long-run, we are all dead.”

Similarly, fans of popular governance argue that the only cure for bad democracy is more democracy while supporters of technocratic regimes note that history’s progress may be too slow for our liking.

At least for now, I am still hanging in the pro-democracy camp. But I wonder how long the rest of my countrymen are prepared to be patient.

Published In The Express Tribune, June 19th, 2012.