Feisal Naqvi

Archive for July, 2013|Monthly archive page

A modest proposal

In Uncategorized on July 27, 2013 at 6:26 am

Aamer Liaquat Husain of Aalim Online fame has recently made waves in the media by giving away a baby to audience members as part of his Ramzan transmission on Geo TV. For some reason, this has caused much consternation in the ranks of the liberal fascists. I’m not really sure why. Frankly, I think he’s on to a good thing.

Let’s begin with an obvious point: Husain is a man of unimpeachable onscreen holiness, and as such anything he does on television is beyond the ambit of moral condemnation. This is a man who—at least in the Islamic holy month of Ramzan—spends eight hours a day, every day, bringing joy to the masses. And yes, I do mean masses. As proudly announced by The News, Husain’s Ramzan transmission has broken all previous records. Since Husain is the most popular television host on Pakistan’s most popular television channel, whatever he is doing obviously has popular support. And as we all know, the Ummah can never unite in error. Besides, how can you doubt the conduct of someone so holy that he prefers to wear a thobe, the floor-length maxi-kurta preferred by the holy people of Saudi Arabia?

Let’s leave aside minor issues such as Husain’s dress sense and focus instead on his genius. As we all know, Pakistan has two major problems: one is a surplus of babies and the second is a shortage of foreign exchange. What the learned Aalim has shown us is how to fix both problems in one go.

Aamir Liaquat

Let’s be honest, poor orphans growing up in Pakistan really have no chance of a decent life. The education system doesn’t work, health care is a mess, and large parts of the country have no functioning law and order system. Forcing them to grow up in Pakistan will only compound their misery.

At the same time, it is also a fact that many of the Western countries are suffering from a population crisis of a different sort caused by the regrettable tendency of their child-bearing women to not produce children. From Singapore to Japan, Italy to Germany, countries are now facing a grayer future in which the population will grow steadily older.

My proposal then is to sell our children to childless couples in the West. More specifically, the Government of Pakistan should establish a child exchange in which Pakistanis can place their children for adoption by the highest bidder. There should be standardized sorting and grading of all babies (color, weight, parentage) so that bidders know what they are getting and the exchange should in turn ensure that minimum market standards are followed (e.g., basic vaccinations).

Given that this proposal respects the basic elements of the Washington Consensus (free markets, freedom of contract and private enterprise) I am sure the multilateral development banks will be only too happy to help out. And in time, we will develop a specialized class of Pakistanis whose only job will be to produce children for export. It should also be noted that Pakistani law has a clever way around what would normally be a production bottleneck. Normally, one couple can only produce one child for export every year or so. However, since Pakistani men can have as many as four wives, this means that production of babies can be undertaken on a continuous basis.

Our Islamic scholars may also wish to see if it is possible to revive the ancient practice of concubinage as that would certainly allow production to boom. So far as I understand, concubines could only be taken from the Dar-ul-Harb. However, Pakistan is fortunately located next to India, a country of more than a billion people, which certainly qualifies as being “Dar-ul-Harb.” Pakistan already has a well-established practice of sending raiding parties into India. The raiders should now be directed to bring back slave women so as to help Pakistan reduce its foreign exchange problems.

One point which has been raised is whether it would be appropriate to send Muslim children to be raised in the atheist culture of the West. Once again, the answer is to look at this problem as an opportunity. The answer is to require baby purchasers to bring up their purchases as Muslims. This way, not only would Pakistan earn valuable foreign exchange but we would also be helping to convert the heathen people of the West.

Aamer Liaquat Husain is being wrongly criticized. The man is a genius.

Published in Newsweek Pakistan on 25 July 2013


The slow fix

In Uncategorized on July 27, 2013 at 6:24 am

As the curtain finally came down on the five-year run of the PPP follies, the people of Pakistan woke up to the news that they now had new rulers. An interim prime minister was eventually announced by the Election Commission and new chief ministers also emerged in each of the provinces.

But as the now familiar cast of jokers faded away, a new series of questions emerged. If a caretaker federal administration can manage with 14 cabinet members, why did the democratically-elected regime have a cabinet of 60-plus people? If caretaker cabinets can include people who seem to know what they are doing — Ahmer Bilal Soofi as the law minister, for one — then why did democracy afflict us with idiots as ministers? Should we not extend or make permanent the caretaker system? Is it not obvious that we are ill-suited for democracy, that our people will only return cheats and fakers at the polls?

Then there is the national lamentation which has erupted over the shenanigans of our returning officers (RO). In case you haven’t heard, various ROs have deemed fit to interrogate candidates over the extent of their religious knowledge and even disqualify a few for not being able to recite the appropriate duas. Oh, the shame! Oh, the horror.

People of my country, chill the hell out. Just because a few odd judicial officers have gone bananas does not mean we need to start harrumphing like an elderly Sindh Club member confronted by a fly in his mulligatawny.

I’m not disputing the fact that some returning officers have gone overboard. But we are talking about a process involving the scrutiny of 24,000-plus candidates by 700-odd returning officers. Every process involves error, particularly any process which involves decision-making by hundreds of separate individuals. That is why the election laws provide for an appeal against the decision of the returning officer. Indeed, returning officers bent upon a frolic of their own have already been sternly reprimanded by Justice Mansoor Ali Shah of the Lahore High Court to concentrate on the documents placed before them and to avoid free-ranging inquiries.

On a personal note, I appeared recently in Jhang to challenge the nomination papers of a candidate. And while I was joined in my challenge by a lawyer representing an emphatically religious party (the ASWJ), the returning officer there made it abundantly clear that he would not be a party to “trial by dua”. More importantly, the assembled locals watching the proceedings also made it clear that they did not want the RO to test the religious credentials of a candidate.

My point here is simple: democracy is a process as much as it is an ideal. That process requires continuity of operation so that it can steadily improve itself through a process of trial and error. We need to bury this false ideal of a government run by disinterested philosophers, once and for all.

But why, you may ask? Shouldn’t public office be reserved for the best of the best? Shouldn’t our leaders be sadiq and ameen?

Well, duh! Of course they should. But as the punch line to the famous Punjabi joke goes, per kithon? Where are you going to find these benevolent dictators, these disinterested geniuses? And what guarantee do you have that they will return benevolent and disinterested?

Newsflash: being a politician is a pain in the butt. As a member of the national and provincial assemblies, you are directly answerable to hundreds and thousands of people and indirectly answerable to every chachamama and phuppa of those constituents, each of whom thinks it is your express duty to make sure that their kid gets admitted without merit, that their idiot son gets a job, that their murderous cousin gets bail and that their utterly frivolous disputes are resolved to their satisfaction.

It is time for us to give up this pipedream of perfect leaders and perfect politicians. We are an imperfect people and our representatives will always be as imperfect as we are. This doesn’t mean that we have to accept crooks as parliamentarians. But it does mean that we accept that this system will not be fixed overnight. It will require time, effort and repeated cycles of elections and accountability for us to get a better system just like it will require time, effort and repeated cycles of elections and accountability for us to get a better breed of politicians. Gnashing our teeth and wailing is not going to speed that process along.

In his book The Slow Fix, author Carl Honore talks about the modern-day cult of the quick fix and the damage it causes. His point is simple: complex, multi-factor problems cannot be resolved by waving a magic wand. Instead, complex problems require a slow, multi-pronged approach which accepts the fact that any sustainable improvement will only be the result of a gradual and incrementalist approach.

I can’t speak for others but as a former devotee of the political quick fix, I have certainly had enough. Yes, the political system in Pakistan sucks. Yes, we are led by thieves and rogues. Yes, our Constitution is a much-abused document, grossly defaced by various military dictators. But can we just get on with it? Nothing is going to get fixed overnight and the armchair generals who keep on clogging the opinion pages with instant fixes (A presidential system! Thirty-five provinces! Nothing but Sharia!) need to be put out to pasture.

There is an old saying that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now. We didn’t keep our faith in democracy 20 years ago. But the next best time is now.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 9th, 2013.

A sign of the times

In Uncategorized on July 27, 2013 at 6:24 am

Two o’ clock in the morning is a good time for many things. Trying to figure out the front page of your magazine is not one of them.

This particular 2am revelation descended upon me in the summer of 1989. I was in Pakistan on vacation from college and had been dragooned into helping out at The Friday Times (TFT). The problem at hand was the front page of Issue No 2, which the editor of the new venture — one Najam Sethi — wanted to adorn with a picture of some politicians chatting to each other, enlivened by some cartoon-style dialogue bubbles.

Everybody told Najam that this was a bad idea. Since the “everyone” consisted of myself and others who were not the editor, Najam cheerfully informed us “But they do it in Private Eye” and went on ahead anyway.

A year later, I returned to Pakistan with the express intent of working for Najam. This time, I was responsible for all the features pages. On the other hand, since most of the relevant content was — ahem — “borrowed”, this was not the world’s most difficult job. Nor did I find working for Najam much of a problem. Yes, there was the one occasion when I went into the office of the esteemed editor and abused him soundly before storming away. On the other hand, I was diagnosed the same evening with acute malaria and by the time I returned a week later, everybody had forgotten my outburst.

When I went off again — this time to become a lawyer — Najam and the TFT were again waiting for me in Pakistan when I returned. In fact, I owe my first legal job in Pakistan to Najam. I had no idea which lawyer to work for in Lahore. Najam sent me off to Aitzaz Ahsan with the sage words, “OyeChaudhry nu pata hoye ga teray naal ki karna aye.” Indeed.

As a lawyer, I had little time to spare for writing for the TFT. Nonetheless, Najam soon resurfaced in my life. On the night of May 9, 1999, a contingent of the Punjab Police showed up at Najam’s house in Gulberg and dragged him off. Najam’s ostensible crime was to have made an anti-Pakistan speech in India but he had delivered the same speech to an audience of faujis at the National Defence College and nobody had questioned his patriotism then. Instead, Najam’s real crime was his constant criticism of the government of Mian Nawaz Sharif.

A habeas petition seeking Najam’s release was immediately filed before the Lahore High Court. I happened to be in court the day the petition came up for hearing. Two distinguished lawyers appeared for Najam, and with all due respect, neither did much. The Punjab government, on the other hand, refused to accept that it had anything to do with Najam’s sudden disappearance even though the goons deputed to arrest him had arrived from the local thana. Instead, the learned Advocate General argued that Najam was in the custody of the military and that the Lahore High Court had no jurisdiction.

It is now almost 14 years since the date of Najam’s arrest. I have never again read the judgment through which the esteemed Lahore High Court denied that it had jurisdiction. But it remains stuck in my mind as the single most intellectually dishonest piece of legal writing I have ever encountered.

Neither of Najam’s lawyers had pointed out that the question as to the Lahore High Court’s jurisdiction over military issues was not a new one. Neither of them had pointed out that according to the famous case of Brigadier (retd) FB Ali, the High Court would only lack jurisdiction if a person accused of a crime under military law had not only been named in an FIR but had actually been challaned. Instead, it was the judge himself who felt compelled to make that observation. He then noted that in Najam’s case, there was neither a challan nor an FIR. But since these were pre-judicial revolution days, his Lordship abruptly concluded that he lacked jurisdiction.

Najam’s case was then appealed to the Supreme Court where Justice Mamoon Qazi told the government authorities in blunt terms that they had no argument. Shortly thereafter, Najam was released.

I mention all of this for two reasons. First, it gives me great joy at a personal level thatNajam has been chosen as the caretaker chief minister of Punjab. Yes, I know he has detractors. And yes, I know, some of the criticisms are deserved. But, at least for now, the hell with them. I am not in a position to be objective about Najam. Second, it gives me great joy to see that my country has matured enough that the person who once illegally imprisoned Najam Sethi, Mian Nawaz Sharif, is today entrusting Najam with the power of political life and death. Kudos to Mian Sahib.

Towards the end of Lincoln (the movie), there is a scene where Abraham Lincoln is talking to commissioners from the rebel South. When he tells them that they should have kept faith in the law and “in the democratic process, as frustrating as that can be”, their anger boils over. “Spare us at least these pieties,” says one. Another asks Lincoln whether the victory of the North had been won with bullets or with ballots. Lincoln’s answer is sublime.

“It may be you’re right. But say all we done is show the world that democracy isn’t chaos, that there is a great invisible strength in a people’s union? Say that we’ve shown that a people can endure awful sacrifice and yet cohere? Mightn’t that save at least the idea of democracy, to aspire to?”

Pakistan is in a fragile state. I do not know if we will ever make it to our own equivalent realm of peace. But the fact that once-bitter enemies have managed to agree upon a safe pair of hands — and those too, the hands of a fierce critic — is a small but extremely heartening sign: that there is a great invisible strength in a people’s union; that a people can endure awful sacrifice and yet cohere; that the idea of democracy, to aspire to, can still be saved.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 2nd, 2013.

Less fragile than we look

In Uncategorized on July 27, 2013 at 6:23 am

A Hard CountryTinderboxOn the BrinkPlaying with FireEye of the StormDescent into ChaosThe Crisis StateThe Unravelling.

It is difficult, if not actually impossible, to find a book about Pakistan whose title does not convey the impression that this is a very fragile and perhaps, ungovernable country, one which could collapse into complete anarchy at any moment. In my view, this pessimism is unjustified. Yes, Pakistan is a mess. But it is neither fragile nor ungovernable.

Let’s begin with the issue of fragility. Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Antifragiledistinguishes between the lifespan of the perishable (humans, animals, etc.) and the nonperishable (books, states). His argument is that while in the case of perishable items, the younger always has a longer lifespan than the older, the same is not necessarily true for non-perishable items. Instead, in some cases, the “Lindy effect” applies, which is to say that older items actually have a greater expected lifespan than newer items.

Not convinced? Let’s look at the Lindy effect in practical terms. Hundreds of thousands of books are published every year. Most of them disappear after a first printing while some last decades. A book that has stayed in print for 20 years, thus has a much greater expected lifespan (i.e., is far more likely to stay in print for another 20 years) than a recently published book (no matter how critically acclaimed the newer book may be).

Pakistan is a country whose imminent demise has been predicted every day since its birth and yet, it has managed to survive into its seventh decade. Going by Taleb’s analysis, Pakistan today, is far more likely to survive for another 70 years than when it first came into being.

But what then of our myriad problems? How does one govern a country which boasts bothMarvi Sirmed and Maulana Samiul Haq as its citizens? How can such disparate individuals be united under one banner?

The short answer is that you do not unite them. No, I’m not saying that Pakistan should be broken apart. What I’m saying is that we need to recognise the incredible diversity of opinion within this country and adopt our legal structures accordingly.

Diversity of opinion is not a peculiarly Pakistani problem. In the words of Yevtushenko — first quoted to me by my ustaad, Aitzaz Ahsan — “Yours is not the only one, my son.” Charles de Gaulle once sighed about France, “How do you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” I suppose the Pakistan equivalent would be to ask “how do you govern a country with 246 varieties of extremists?”

What then is the magic solution? In a nutshell, we need to take the “Federation” part of this country’s title more seriously and stop worrying so much about the “Islamic” part. Yes, we now have the Eighteenth Amendment. But we need to think about federalism, not just in terms of differentiation between provinces, but in terms of differentiation within provinces as well.

The Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibiting the sale of  “intoxicating liquors” was enacted on January 16, 1919. By the time it was finally repealed on December 5, 1933, Prohibition stood as a monument to the limitations of government and the ingenuity of man. Despite more than a decade of efforts, more people drank more alcohol than ever before. But the repeal of prohibition did not mean the repeal of all alcohol prohibition efforts. Even today, almost 80 years after the repeal of Prohibition, approximately 10 per cent of the US lives in “dry” counties where the sale of alcohol is either forbidden or severely restricted.

The point that I am making is simple: law-making needs to be localised, not just provincialised. Obviously, there is only one Constitution for all of Pakistan; but that does not mean that there is only one way in which to run our lives.

Part of the problem with our heritage — whether colonial, Mughal or Ghaznavite — is that it has left us with a mania for centralised decision-making. In our families, all decisions default to the patriarch; in our businesses, all decisions default to the chairman; and, in our bureaucracies, all decisions default to the secretary of the department. Even worse, the provincial Rules of Business provide that no policy can be changed except with the concurrence of the chief minister!

What we need instead of one-man rule is a country in which decision-making is pushed down to the lowest possible level. Power now needs to be taken from the provinces and devolved further into the districts, from the districts to the tehsils, and from the tehsils to the union councils.

But what of the human consequences, you may ask? Do we want to live in a world where residents of rural districts have fewer rights than city dwellers? Can a state justify giving different rights to different citizens?

Well, it depends. Obviously, all citizens should have the same fundamental rights. But the same logic does not apply to statutory rights; after all, residents of Punjab already have different statutory rights from residents of Sindh.

Let me make my point in simpler terms: for many years, reformers have argued that the people in the tribal areas should have the same rights as people in Lahore. Presumably, the intent was to improve the lot of people in the tribal areas. However, by tying themselves to the idea that there can be only one law for everyone, we have also made ourselves vulnerable. In other words, instead of Fata-wallahs living like Lahoris, we are now looking at a future in which Lahoris will live like Fata-wallahs. I really don’t want that to happen.

Devolving legislative power down to the districts serves two beneficial functions. First, it gives power to people who, in the words of  Taleb, have “skin in the game”. Second, it allows for regional differences. Obviously, only limited differences can be accommodated. But if we don’t bend, our only other option is to break.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 21st, 2013.

Time to lead by example

In Uncategorized on July 27, 2013 at 6:22 am

I went to a church this Sunday. It wasn’t a planned visit but a friend of mine had promised to attend and I tagged along.

The church itself was a one-room affair, nestled deep in the Christian community that lives behind Ittefaq Hospital. The walls were painted a fetching shade of purple and bedecked with spangly silver stars. Women sat in neat rows on the left while men sat on the right. When we arrived, there was an organist in full flow and the electronically aided sounds of “Hallelujah” could be heard all the way out in the alleyways outside the church. For a good Shia boy whose main exposure to organised religion is via majalis in Muharram, it was all very surreal.

But when the music stopped and the pastor took the lectern, everything snapped back into focus. If I closed my eyes and focused only on the cadences of the pastor, the sermon itself was not very different from either the khutba delivered on Fridays or the majalis observed during every Muharram.

The focus of the sermon was the well-known story of Jonah and the whale. In case, you don’t know the details, the Bible says that the Prophet Jonah was ordered by God to go to the city of Nineveh to inform them of their wickedness. Instead of obeying the will of God though, Jonah decides to flee from his destiny by sailing off in the direction opposite to Nineveh. Unfortunately for the Prophet Jonah, his ship runs into a giant storm. The sailors on board the ship realise that this is no ordinary storm and when Jonah confesses his actions, they decide to save themselves by tossing him overboard. The sea then immediately returns to a dead calm while Jonah is swallowed by a giant whale in whose stomach he then spends the next three nights.

Just another standard sermon on another standard Sunday, you might say. Except, of course, that this past Sunday was not just another Sunday for the Christians of Lahore. This Sunday was the day after a mob of thousands, angered by allegations of blasphemy, hadassaulted a Christian community in Badami Bagh and burnt more than 100 houses.

As the indispensible Amir Mir has observed, the Badami Bagh attack was not an isolated incident. Instead, it was a further blemish on “the already depressing record of the PML-N government”. As noted by Mir, it is now almost four years since SSP hooligans burnt alive eight Christians in Gojra, and yet, not one of the 72 accused persons — incidentally including the president of the local PML-N chapter — has yet been convicted.

This past Sunday was, therefore, more than just another Sunday. This Sunday was a day that the Christians of Lahore were forced to confront yet again the ugly fact that they were very very alone, very very exposed and very very dispensable.

In light of all this, it would have been understandable for the sermon to have been either angry or self-pitying. Instead, it was neither. What the pastor told his flock of Lahori Christians was that like the other sailors on the boat endangered by Jonah’s disobedience, a community too can be placed in peril by the acts of a few individuals: in other words, the Badami Bagh attack was the work of misguided idiots, not the expression of a deeper hatred against Christians. And so, the sermon resounded not with hate or even the anger of an oppressed minority but with the love of citizens for their country. It was, if anything, a perfect example of “turning the other cheek” and it left me humbled and deeply moved.

Not all members of the Christian community were as peaceable as those I saw in the church.Some of them took to the streets where they were lathi-charged and tear-gassed by the ever-obliging Punjab Police. The chief minister of Punjab, however, expressed his shock and horror over the Badami Bagh incident and appointed a committee to investigate. Unfortunately, the beneficial impact of that gesture was diminished by the fact that the committee was to be headed by Rana Sanaullah.

More substantive relief for the Christians of Lahore arrived in the form of a suo-motu notice from the chief justice of Pakistan who demanded a full report from the Government of Punjab. As admirable as that gesture is, may I humbly suggest that it is time for the courts of this country — and specifically the superior judiciary — to do more than simply harass the executive branch.

The root cause of the Badami Bagh incident was an allegation of blasphemy. That allegation joins a host of other such allegations festering in the bowels of the judicial system. These cases linger within the system because both the police and the lower judiciary are intimidated by the thugs who abuse the law. Consequently, the merits of the allegations often don’t get examined for years.

Given the precarious position of the lower judiciary and the police, I don’t blame them for wanting to avoid blasphemy cases. But the superior judiciary does not have that excuse. The High Courts of our country have ample power to act as trial courts in appropriate circumstances. Now is the time for them to exercise that power. If even a few false complainants were punished, the ability of the blasphemy law to be abused would be greatly reduced.

I know that High Court trials are rare (the last known criminal trial in the Lahore High Court was that of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto) but these are unusual times. What is at stake is not just the social fabric of our country but our collective existence as a nation. The civil servants of Pakistan are told every day by their Lordships to have the courage to follow the law. It is time for their Lordships to lead by example.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 12th, 2013.

An unholy alliance

In Uncategorized on July 27, 2013 at 6:21 am

Amir Mir is one of Pakistan’s most respected journalists and an authority on militancy and terrorism. He has written a number of books on the subject including the well-regarded “Talibanisation of Pakistan: From 9/11 to 26/11.” In 2006, he won the APNS award for the best investigative journalist.

Mr Mir’s credentials are worth noting because this past Friday, he authored a front-page article for The News which stated in blunt terms that: 1) the Federal Government wanted the Punjab Government to “launch a massive crackdown on the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ) and the defunct Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP)”; 2) “Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif is unlikely to oblige” the Federal Government by launching such an operation; and 3) the “main reason” why the Punjab Government is refusing to take action against the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is because it has “a seat-to-seat adjustment deal between the PML-N and Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) for the upcoming elections”.

In case the alphabet soup of parties has left you confused, let me explain.

The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is a militant group which has explicitly taken responsibility for the mass killings of Shias in Balochistan and elsewhere. The LeJ has also expressly taken responsibility for last week’s murder of Dr Ali Haider and his 12-year-old son in Lahore.

The SSP is an organisation established in the early 1980s by Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi whose avowed intent was to turn Pakistan into a Sunni state. The SSP was banned in 2002 as a terrorist organisation under the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997. According to Mr Mir and others, the ASWJ is merely a rebranded version of the SSP. In any event, the ASWJ has also been declared to be a banned organisation.

Let me therefore repeat Mr Mir’s central contention in simpler words: the Government of Punjab is unwilling to act against the self-proclaimed killers of Shias because the PML-N has an electoral alliance with a banned organisation believed to support the killing of Shias.

Is Mr Mir’s assertion correct? Frankly, I don’t know. The PML-N has denied Mr Mir’s report as it had denied an earlier report to the same effect in The Express Tribune. Unlike theTribune, Mr Mir has issued a response to the PML-N’s denial in which he has reasserted his contention. He has noted that he had filed his report after getting the PML-N’s version from a member of that party’s central executive committee, that the PML-N and the ASWJ had jointly contested a by-election on a Punjab Assembly seat for Jhang in March 2010, and that Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah had openly campaigned for a PML-N candidate in 2010 along with Maulana Ludhianvi (a leader of first the SSP and now the ASWJ). Mr Mir has also noted that the Government of Punjab has admitted paying a monthly stipend to the family of Malik Ishaq — the vice-president of the ASWJ, allegedly a founder of the LeJ, and an accused in at least 43 different cases for the murder of over 70 people. As noted by The Express Tribune and other newspapers, witnesses who appear against Mr Ishaq tend to die suddenly.

What does all of this mean? I do not know for sure. But I am certainly not reassured by what the PML-N hierarchy is saying.

Take, for example, this recent statement by Ahsan Iqbal:

 “We strongly condemn terrorist acts against Ahle Tashee …. These incidents have been happening for a while now. Who is behind these acts of terrorism? Why are these elements still at large?”

Seriously? The PML-N is the second largest political party in the country and, as the ruler of Punjab, directly responsible for governing half the population of Pakistan. The Shia population of Pakistan has been getting slaughtered at an increasingly rapid rate. How is it that the Deputy Secretary General of the PML-N can have no idea and no opinion as to the entity responsible for those killings, especially when the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has repeatedly, proudly and openly claimed responsibility?

Not convinced? Take a look at the statement of condemnation issued by Mian Nawaz Sharif after more than 80 people were massacred in Quetta. That statement is too long to reproduce here but is notable only for the blandness of its language and its refusal to blame any specific group (excluding, of course, the Federal Government).

Khurram Dastgir Khan of Gujranwala, my good and extraordinarily learned friend,represents the PML-N on Twitter. I specifically asked him to comment on Amir Mir’s report but got no reply. Instead, Mr Dastgir has linked to reports of Mian Shahbaz Sharif ordering action against LeJ after prefacing them with the slogan “action, not words”. If Mian Shahbaz Sharif is finally taking action against LeJ, that is a good thing. But it needs to be understood that words too are important.

I have criticised Imran Khan in the past for his desire to enter into negotiations with the Taliban and I stand by that criticism today. At the same time, Imran Khan deserves tremendous credit for being the only major opposition figure to openly denounce the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. I have yet to see any similar open and public condemnation of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi by the PML-N. And its absence is being increasingly noted by Pakistan’s Shias.

Let me state some simple figures. Shias make up anywhere from 15-25 per cent of Pakistan’s population which in turn means about 30 to 50 million people. Even the lower end of that range represents a very large number of people.

I mention these figures because the PML-N needs to understand that: 1) the Shias are watching; and, 2) irrespective of how many Shias get killed, the remainder will still outnumber those tempted to vote for the PML-N by its pussy-footing around with the likes of Maulana Ludhianvi.

I’m sure the Sharif brothers already know that killing Shias is immoral. But they may also wish to consider that buying votes with Shia blood is bad politics.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 26th, 2013.

Better the devil you know

In Uncategorized on July 27, 2013 at 6:16 am


The standard argument of the bright young people drumming up votes for Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party goes something like this: Asif Ali Zardari is a crook and so are the Sharif brothers, why waste your vote on people who are tried and tested failures? Khan is honest and he deserves a chance, they say.

I have no problem with the first half of the argument. The Pakistan Peoples Party-led government, which finished its five-year term in March, set new records for fecklessness. That is, for not giving a damn about the welfare of the nation. I hesitate to say that the PPP also set new records for corruption because there are countries out there over which we can still claim moral superiority. But I can say that I have never seen a collection of elected representatives who exhibited such open contempt for the welfare of the people they notionally represented. In years to come, people will talk of Zardari’s selection of Raja Pervaiz Ashraf to the prime minister’s slot in the same awed terms as Caligula’s decision to send his horse to the Roman senate.

What then about the Sharifs? Aren’t they also inveterate thieves? The answer: not quite.

Zulfiqar Balti

Zulfiqar Balti

Before I elaborate, let me first introduce a concept which Isaac Asimov called “The Relativity of Wrong.” Asimov’s point was fairly simple. People who think the earth is flat are wrong, and people who think the earth is round are also wrong. This is because while the earth is roughly spherical, it is actually flatter around the poles and therefore not perfectly round. At the same time, people who think the earth is flat and people who think the earth is round are not equally wrong. The flat-earthers are a hell of a lot wronger than the round-earthers. In other words, it is important to know not just whether a concept is wrong but how wrong it is.

Just like there is a relativity of wrongness, there is a relativity of crookedness. I hold no brief for the Sharifs, but so far as the last five years of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) government in the Punjab are concerned, their record is clean. I simply do not know of any major financial or corruption scandal involving the PMLN during this time. Yes, several of the projects on which former chief minister Shahbaz “Khaadim-e-Aala” Sharif lavished attention were economically dumb (the Sasti Roti scheme, for one), but there is a difference between dumb policies and policies designed only to enrich the policymakers.

Similarly, one can reasonably argue that the Metro Bus service is overpriced. At the same time, one also has to concede that Pakistan needs urban transport projects, that the Metro Bus project has been completed, and that it does function. The fact that this project could have been done better or cheaper should not take away from the simple truth that at least this project has been done, that it is beneficial.

Fine, say Khan’s Insafians, but can we not dream of something better? Why should we not aim for the stars; for an honest, competent, dedicated leadership; for a “New Pakistan,” and for a brighter future?

The problem is that while Khan certainly seems to have figured out how to hustle for votes, what he knows about governance can be fit onto a postage stamp—with space still left over for the PTI manifesto. Governance requires knowledge and experience. Khan has neither. Yes, I concede that he has the best of intentions, but, as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

I agree wholeheartedly that the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital is a wonderful achievement. But there is a huge difference between setting up a hospital with a staff of less than 2,000 and running a government with more than 600,000 employees. (Public sector corporations employ millions more.) More importantly, Khan does not run Shaukat Khanum. That job is done by a professional chief executive who is advised by a board of governors. Prime ministerial responsibilities, on the other hand, cannot be delegated. Asking Khan to be the prime minster because he inspires people makes about as much sense as asking him to conduct surgeries because he inspires people.

Khan’s supporters have compared him to Ronald Reagan in an attempt to show that administrative inexperience does not preclude greatness. The comparison is inapt. When Reagan became president of the United States, he had already served two terms as governor of California and been active in politics for decades. In any event, Pakistan is not the U.S. In America, a new president gets to appoint his own (top-level) administration and his own cabinet. In Pakistan, a new prime minister is highly restricted in his cabinet choices and has essentially no choices when it comes to administrative appointments. Given Pakistan’s history as an “overdeveloped state,” there are only two choices when it comes to administration: either you control the bureaucracy, or else the bureaucracy controls you.

I am going to vote for the PMLN this time. That doesn’t mean I support all their policies, because I certainly don’t. My disagreements with the PMLN regarding their playing footsy with sectarian killers,their tendency to grovel before the Taliban, their antipathy toward local government, and theircompulsion to centralize power are all a matter of record. Unfortunately, democracy means picking the least flawed option, not the perfect option. Right now, that least flawed option is the Noonies.

Five years ago I wrote a column in which I documented my very reluctant decision to vote for the PPP.The last two lines of that column read as follows: “This is your third time. For God’s sake, don’t f— it up.” Zardari chose not to take my advice. I certainly hope the Sharif brothers will.

This column appeared in Newsweek Pakistan on 7 May 2013