Feisal Naqvi

Archive for January, 2016|Monthly archive page

Show me the money

In Uncategorized on January 5, 2016 at 7:35 am

If there is any city in Pakistan likely to reward an impromptu decision to snack, that city would be Lahore. Seen in that light, the decision of one Narendra Modi to stop by Jati Umra for a quick nibble seems eminently sensible. Had his Modiness stopped in Islamabad instead, the gastronomic (and diplomatic) consequences could have been disastrous.

On a more serious note, the Indian PM’s visit was, to say the least, unexpected. At the genteel lunch party being hosted by my parents, reactions to his impromptu arrival ranged from stunned stares to muffled oaths and fits of spluttering as half-eaten egg sandwiches went astray.

Indeed, it was not until the Indians had come and gone that the usual trolls ventured out onto Twitter. Presumably, the intervening period had been spent in desperately seeking instructions from the concerned quarters. And presumably the concerned quarters were as perplexed as the rest of us. I mean how do you go from spittle-flecked denunciations of Pakistani treachery to walking hand in hand like a pair of idle Pindi bwoys?

Oh well. Ours not to wonder why and all that jazz. The question now is what comes next.

I know that the eternal question of Kashmir is not going to get solved any time soon. But what opening up trade? Is that a realistic option? And if not, why not?

I am neither an economist nor a trade specialist. I do, however, believe in the free movement of both goods and people. And if I can be allowed a completely anecdotal argument, my friend Savail Hussain (who makes writing instruments for a living) assures me that if only he was allowed to freely export his wares to India, he would make out like a bandit. I also know that just before the BJP won the last elections, the current Pakistani regime had successfully negotiated a trade agreement with the then Indian government, which agreement was then never signed because of: (a) fauji pressure; (b) palpitations within Pakistan’s coddled community of industrialists; (c) not so subtle hints from the BJP wallahs that such a deal should be reserved till after the Indian elections; and/or (d) an international Zionist conspiracy.

Whatever. The question is not why free trade didn’t happen two years ago. The question is whether it should happen now. And so far as I am concerned, the answer is most emphatically yes.

As I’ve already said, I’m not an economist. Having added that caveat, let us at least generally agree that getting people to invest in Pakistan is a desirable thing. And from that perspective, open access to Pakistani markets via India is a game-changer.

There is a brilliant scene in Roger Altman’s movie, ‘The Player’ in which a desperate writer is pitching a script called ‘Goldie goes to Africa’. The gist of the story is that Goldie Hawn goes to Africa and is found by a tribe of small people which decide to worship her. “It’s like ‘The Gods must be Crazy’,” says the writer, “except the Coke bottle is an actress.” And the studio guy sagely nods his head and responds, “Right, It’s ‘Out of Africa’ meets ‘Pretty Woman.’”

The point of that segue is that investors (normally) like to have some idea of where their money is going. And the best way of communicating familiarity to a potential investor is by comparing their potential investment to something the mark already knows. Most people don’t like making great leaps of faith. They prefer baby steps.

Right now, international investment has to fly in to Pakistan. This means the guy making the decision is most likely sitting one or more plane rides away; Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, London, New York, Silicon Valley – take your pick. The important thing about these cities is that they look and feel nothing like Pakistan. Each of them offers a wonderful place for rich people to live and to spend their money. But when you’re sitting in London, Lahore is not even on your horizon. Lahore is not where the cool money goes to party. Lahore is just some dusty, dingy third-world dump somewhere way the hell out there, completely indistinguishable from a multitude of other fly-ridden dumps.

Now compare our hypothetical London based investor to a Delhi or Bombay based investor. The Bombay-wallah looks across the water to Karachi and sees a reflection of his own city. He sees the same laws, the same dysfunctionalities and the same communal networks. Similarly, the Delhi-wallah looks across the border to Lahore and sees a mirror image of his city. And like the Delhi-wallah, the international investor who has already made a commitment to India requires markedly less persuasion to investigate an opportunity in Pakistan than his colleague ensconced on Wall Street.

To use an analogy, the difficult part of getting into space is escaping gravity. Once you’re already in space, moving from one orbit to another is relatively easy. Similarly, getting money out of one of the major financial hubs is a pain. But once money has already escaped the gravitational attraction of its original location, moving it from one third world country to another is a lot less difficult. In simpler terms, if you open up the border with India, your money will no longer have to fly in: it will now be able to walk in.

Beyond the economic rationale, there is a broader social issue as well. The existential fear of India which has driven our foreign policy for the past 68 plus years rests on the frankly insulting assumption that we Pakistanis cannot be trusted with freedom, that if exposed to too much India we will somehow mutate into vegetable-loving Hindus.

This fear is idiotic. The Muslim demand for a separate homeland arose after 1,200 years of commingled living between Hindus and Muslims. If a thousand plus years of neighbourliness only resulted in the desire to have separate states, giving visas on arrival to Indian travellers is unlikely to reverse Partition.

In any event, the old vision of a Pakistan as a hermetically sealed, mono-cultured, test-tubed, purely Islamic baby is now dead. Most of the country now has access to cable television just like most of the country has access to the internet. As a result, while our physical borders have remained unchanged our cultural barriers disappeared a while ago. We don’t share the same land as India any more than we used to earlier. But we do now share the same airspace. And guess what, the country hasn’t collapsed.

My point is that Pakistani housewives can watch six hours of Indian saas-bahu kay dramay every day without feeling the urge to put a bindi on their foreheads and run screaming for salvation towards Akhand Bharat. Similarly, our local Lotharios may want to watch every movie starring Salman Khan but they still live and die for this country like the rest of us.

As I have written before, I have never known any homeland besides this Pakistan. And neither has the vast majority of my fellow Pakistanis.

I would like to go shopping in Connaught Place. I would like to eat bhelpuri in Bengali Market. I would like to go stay at the fabulous hotel my friend Sumant Batra has opened in Uttarakhand. But after that, I will want to come home. Trust me.

This column was printed in The News on 3 January 2016


A time for gratitude

In Uncategorized on January 5, 2016 at 7:34 am

Outrage sells. So does sarcasm, disgust, anger, loathing, bitterness and snark. Man bites dog is news. Dog bites man is not.

My point here is that most column writers are in the business of getting angry. Their job is to find some element of sorrow, some tragic scene and to then wail at length. Rending of clothes, gnashing of teeth, general hysteria – it’s all to the good.

I am tempted to say I’m different but any such assertion would be unwarranted. I too have to write my allotted share of words. And more often than I should, chest-beating is the solution: 1200 words, more in sorrow than in anger; here you go.

Today, though, is not one of those days. We are coming now to the end of 2015, a year that like so many others began with unblemished hope and is ending with tear-stained recriminations. But unlike many others, I think it has been a good year for the country. And I think it is time we recognised this.

The realisation that perhaps our normal pessimism was not in order was brought home to me by an American friend, a distinguished professor of law and history, whom I was trying to entice into moving to Pakistan. Despite my rapturous description of Lahore as a land of milk and honey, he regretfully declined. He has two young daughters finishing up high school and he thought it would not be fair to drag them to the other side of the world.

During our discussion he paused for a second and mused, “Five years ago, what with the Arab Spring and all, who would have thought Pakistan would be the most stable Islamic democracy.”

When I disagreed, he reiterated his point. Immediately west of Pakistan are the unending brutalities of Afghanistan and the theocratic idiocies of Iran. Beyond those two are the monarchies of the Gulf (some big, some small) with their oil intoxicated leaders and restless citizenry. Further beyond them are Iraq (madness), Syria (more madness) and Lebanon (slowly recovering from madness). Then comes the Maghrib: Egypt (dictatorship), Libya (chaos), Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.

I was stunned. As a Pakistani, one is so used to being defensive that being at the head of the class seemed like a waking dream, a kind of honour extended only through an excess of courtesy. Pehlay aap. Nahin, pehlay aap. That kind of business.

But there is more than a kernel of truth to my friend’s observation. Yes, he is ignoring Malaysia and Indonesia. But the fact remains that Pakistan is today in a better state than it has been for many years.

There are two main reasons for this happy situation.

The first is that we have (I think, I hope and I pray) finally buried the spectre of technocratic leadership, this pernicious myth that a group of disinterested experts led by some valiant hero can sweep in and fix everything.

Again, I must confess to being a recovering believer. Ironically, what converted me was the tenure of Asif Ali Zardari. During those five years, I watched as the dregs of a once-proud party systematically pillaged my country. But this time, my memories of Musharraf were sharp enough that instead of wishing for another coup, I just promised myself that, by God, I would not vote for these scoundrels again. And I didn’t.

I don’t know when the watershed moment came for the rest of the country. But my sense is that it came during the second half of 2014 when Imran Khan was leading his crazy charge from atop a container, when the fate of the nation hung in the balance and finally came down on the side of continued civilian rule. It may have been that had the military taken over then, the nation would have gone along. But I suspect they wouldn’t have. And I suspect the faujis knew it too.

That idiotic dharna ended in December 2014. Given that the period from May 2013 to December 2013 was spent under the baleful gaze of former CJP Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, 2015 has been the N-League’s first real chance to govern. And while there hasn’t been any radical change in Pakistan during 2015, there also hasn’t been a radical disaster. My sense, therefore, is that while the average Pakistani still looks at his lot and wishes for betterment, he (or she) now wishes for that improvement not through a revolution or a coup but through a change of elected leadership. And that is a huge, huge, huge, big deal.

The second reason why Pakistan is in a better place today can also be traced back to December 2014, more specifically to the Army Public School massacre. That tragedy shook up our national discourse like a tsunami. Before December 16, 2014 it was unremarkable for our pundits and politicians to hint at sympathy with the TTP. This was true even though Operation Zarb-e-Azb had already been launched, even though we had already lost thousands to jihadi terror and even though we had repeatedly failed to negotiate peace with the terrorists. After December 16, 2014, it was unacceptable. The time for explanations and apologies was over. Even Imran Khan finally got it.

Much of the credit for exploiting this new turn in public sentiment goes to the ISPR, and the dynamic General Bajwa. While the civilians cowered behind banalities, it was the army that orchestrated public sympathies like a conductor leading a symphony. If there is a more brilliant piece of PR in Pakistan’s history than the devastating song, “bara dushman bana phirta hai”, I do not know of it. I do know that like millions of others, that song made me weep. And very very angry.

The point of this column is not to wish away our problems. I know they exist. But there is also a very good reason why the practice of gratitude is such good therapy. When we reflect on the good things in our lives, we acknowledge that there is and can be goodness, that there is a beneficence in our lives, that there are moments when all of us are touched by amazing grace.

Our national poet is Allama Iqbal. And yes, we owe much to him. But perhaps the true voice of Pakistan is Faiz. Iqbal is sunny and inspirational, all bright future and glorious past. Faiz is dark, weary, sardonic, and jaded. But hopeful despite all that.

Take, for example, his poem titled ‘Dua’, which begins “aiye haath uthayen, hum bhi, hum jinhain rasme dua yaad nahin.” (“Let us raise our hands, even those of us who have forgotten the rituals of prayer”). In ten short couplets, it encompasses a world of tenderness and empathy.

The whole thing is, of course, pure genius. But there is one line which haunts me: “Aiye arz guzaren ke nigaar e hasti zahar e imroz main shirin e farda bhar de.” (Let us ask the Almighty to overwhelm the poison of today with the sweetness of tomorrow).

And so I say to you, come, let us raise our hands. We have much to be grateful for.

This column was printed in The News on 27 December 2015

Those who must be named

In Uncategorized on January 5, 2016 at 7:32 am

It is now a year since 144 children and teachers of APS Peshawar were gunned down. One year later, we are now familiar with their faces. There are billboards up which feature row upon row of ID card pictures. We are also familiar somewhat with their lives. Their grieving parents have been repeatedly interviewed, and lengthy tributes have been penned.

All of this is necessary. It is our obligation to honour the dead, to mourn for those who gave their lives, to bow our heads in remembrance. But it is not enough.

One year later, we do not really know much of the people who attacked our children. Who were they? Where did they come from? Why did they hate us so?

The identity of the attackers is important because our children did not die from an act of God. They did not perish in an earthquake or an inexplicable accident. The earth did not open up and swallow them. Instead, they were killed by men with hate in their hearts, people who planned mass murder in cold blood and who then executed that plan professionally. But nobody talks about the killers.

Let’s summarise what we do know about them. According to one report, the leader of the six was a Chechen called Abu Shamil. The remaining five included two Afghans, a Moroccan, an Egyptian and what Wikipedia calls “an Arab of unknown nationality”. These six were sent on their mission by Maulana Fazlullah, the leader of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. He has publicly boasted of the mission and taken full responsibility for ordering it.

In the last one year, how much have we been told about Fazlullah and the TTP? The answer: not very much. Nobody discusses the fact that Fazlullah has been leading a revolt against the state since 2002. Nobody discusses the fact that the state of Pakistan once handed over Swat to Fazlullah and his father-in-law. Nobody discusses the fact that the TTP is a direct offshoot of the Afghan Taliban which we helped to create.

Part of the reason we ignore the antecedents of Maulana Fazlullah comes from an April 2015 interview of former DG ISI, Lt-Gen (r) Asad Durrani with Al Jazeera. That interview became notorious because Gen Durrani stated that it was more probable than not that the ISI had actually known of Osama bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad. General Durrani was also asked in that interview about the APS Massacre. His response was to dismiss it as “collateral damage”, the price that one pays for national security. Or to use his exact words: “There is a price to be paid for this game. It is a high-stakes game.”

In his famous class on the law of torts, Guido Calabresi used to pose a hypothetical to his students. Imagine, he would say, an evil deity. That deity offers you a bargain. On the one hand, the deity offers you a revolution, a technology which will radically change your society, which will allow you to travel easily from place to place and which will make people’s lives healthier, safer, and more vibrant. On the other hand, the deity says it wants blood. It will take, at random, the lives of thousands.

Invariably, the students would denounce the bargain. None of them would parley on such terms. After all, every life is sacred. Who could make such a trade-off?

At this point, Dean Calabresi would spring his surprise and reveal the identity of the evil deity as the motorcar – a revolutionary technology for sure, but also a killer of thousands. And now the students would stumble. How do you live without cars? And yet, how do you justify the toll taken by cars, the thousands killed in accidents every year?

The pursuit of regional influence through fanatic proxies has been our evil deity. On December 16, 2014, we sacrificed 144 lives to this evil deity. This fact needs to be acknowledged because we cannot simultaneously shout “never again” while continuing to worship at the same altar of the same evil deity. We need to either accept that we erred in our calculations. Or we need to accept that our own people will continue to die as an unfortunate consequence of our policy choices. I may not agree with Gen Durrani’s analysis. But at least that analysis is intellectually and historically coherent.

What we cannot do is to muddle along, to regard the APS massacre with horror, and yet not acknowledge our role in the creation of the people who murdered our children.

Why not, you may ask? After all, much has changed since December 16, 2014. Operation Zarb-e-Azb is being pursued with vigour. Every few days, the ISPR gives an update telling us how many militants have been killed or how many have been hanged. And every few days, we learn from social media that yet another young man has laid down his life for this country. Why then is it necessary to delve into the past? Is it not good enough that the military has seen the error of its ways?

Obviously, nobody wants to humiliate the armed forces. Lest we forget, it is ultimately the blood of our jawans that prevents maniacs like Maulana Fazlullah from running rampant. But the point here is not to humiliate anyone. The point is to avoid repetition of our mistakes.

Rewriting our history to suggest the TTP emerged fully formed in Swat, like Athena from the head of Zeus, does not do us any favours. Our ISI helped create these monsters. Our state nourished these monsters. Our politicians grovelled before these monsters. It was not just the army that helped to create the TTP: it was the entire country.

More importantly, Pakistanis are not stupid. We remember the times when the Taliban were our buddies. We remember the times when Imran Khan wanted to embrace them. If we ignore those facts, nobody will protest if some budding Napoleon decides again that it would be wonderful to use the TTP for purposes of strategic depth. You cannot learn from your mistakes if you do not first accept them as mistakes.

Perhaps you think I’m exaggerating. I say look around you. Barely a week ago, Imran Khan’s media advisor was wondering on Twitter as to what was really that bad about negotiating with the TTP. As I write this, today’s newspaper carries a report about how the wife of Maulana Abdul Aziz stood before the Supreme Court and demanded blood money for the people who died in the Lal Masjid operation. Note, not the soldiers who died in that operation but the ones who killed those soldiers. This is the same lady whose students recently posted a video of themselves swearing allegiance to Daesh and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This is the same Maulana Abdul Aziz who originally refused to condemn the Peshawar massacre.

At present, our leaders are like the characters of a Harry Potter novel who can only refer to their opponent as “He-who-must-not-be-named”. But to quote from those books themselves, “fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself.” And if there is any one thing that we owe to the memory of the 144 martyrs, it is to have the courage to name and shame their killers.

This column was printed in The News on 20 December 2015

Of Mice and Men and Elephants

In Uncategorized on January 5, 2016 at 7:31 am

Have you ever wondered why we don’t have mice the size of an elephant? Or to put it another way, why don’t elephants look like giant mice?

The short answer is that different parts of the body scale differently. If you triple the mass of an animal, its bones will only be twice as strong. This means that as animals get bigger and bigger, their supporting structure (ie their bones) take up more and more of their body.

To put it in simple terms, if you had a magic spell which could make a mouse as big as an elephant, that mouse would not be able to walk because its bones would not be strong enough. In order to walk, the giant mouse would need legs like an elephant. Which is why elephants have massive legs and move slowly while mice have skinny legs and run very fast.

The point that I’m trying to make is that scale matters. Things that work at a small scale don’t often work at a larger scale. Not in animals. Not in human societies.

I have been pondering this point (much of which is cribbed directly from a wonderful post on the website, Farnam Street) for two reasons: first, the importance of local bodies elections; and second, the very strange mass letter sent out by former CJ Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.

Let me begin with the former CJ. Last week, he sent out a mass letter to all Pakistanis which can be summarised as follows: Pakistan is in terrible shape. Nothing good has happened since the Quaid died. We should have a presidential system. (Not so hidden subtext: I’m the greatest man since the Quaid. Make me president. I will fix everything.)

In logical terms, the ex-CJ’s letter is a complete non sequitur. You can replace the final point in the letter (we should have a presidential system) with a completely different assertion (we should grow more tomatoes) and the two would be equally well supported.

But let’s leave aside the letter. There are many people who believe in a presidential system and who think that Pakistan would do better if such a system was introduced here. Why do they want such a system? And what is wrong with their demand?

Many people want a presidential system because they believe in the ‘great man’ theory of history. They believe that all it takes is one leader of genius, one man of vision, one paragon of integrity and somehow, everything will become better. Pir saaen aavaan tay mithay chaawal khawaan.

Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. One person can – and often does – make a difference. But making a difference is not the same as ensuring a lasting change. Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry was the chief justice of Pakistan for more than eight years. Yes, he made a difference. But he didn’t really change anything. As I wrote last week, the quality of justice afforded to the common man was abysmal before the Judicial Revolution. And it remains abysmal today.

If you want to ensure lasting change, you need to change the underlying dynamics of society. Love them or hate them, but both Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and General Ziaul Haq changed Pakistan in lasting ways. Benazir Bhutto? Not so much.

Let’s leave aside the imponderables and come to the point: would a presidential system result in better governance for Pakistanis? The short answer is no. And for the same reason that you don’t have elephant-sized mice: the one-man show leadership style doesn’t scale well.

A charismatic captain of a cricket team can inspire his teammates to new heights of achievement. He can make them run faster or train harder or field with more intensity. But the impact of that charisma doesn’t extend much beyond the other ten men in the team.

Take a different example. Suppose there are four people on a desert island. They don’t really need much of a government. Everybody takes care of themselves and if somebody thinks about not working hard the consequences are obvious enough to discourage them.

Now imagine that the population of the island goes from four to four hundred or even four thousand. Suddenly, you’re going to have disputes. You’re not going to be able to trust people in the same way as before. You’re going to need decision-makers and enforcers. In short, you’re going to need bureaucracy.

Think of bureaucracy as the bones of an animal: they provide the structure and the support. And just like increasing the size of an animal means that you need to massively (and not just proportionally) increase the size of the bones, increasing the size of the governing unit means a massive increase in the size of the bureaucracy.

To return to my point, a pure presidential system means that you would have one man trying to run an entire country. That would in turn require a leviathan of a bureaucracy. Think of an elephant the size of Godzilla. Think of the support structure required. And think how slow and ponderous that animal would be.

If you want a responsive government, your best bet is a small government – a mouse that can move fast rather than an elephant that can only lumber slowly from place to place. Obviously, there are a lot of things for which you still need a big government (like having an army). But equally obviously, there are a lot of things for which you don’t need a national government. Like building schools or clinics or sewers. Like regulating sabzi mandis. Like collecting garbage.

To repeat, local governments and presidential systems are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, the countries that I know of with presidential systems also have very robust local governments. Instead, my point is not just that a country needs a mix of government systems (some national, some local) but that unless there is a good reason to the contrary, decision-making should be as decentralised as possible.

In Pakistan, we have often taken the opposite of this approach, in large part because we have had so many would-be saviours – some military, some civilian – all of whom believed very firmly in not sharing power with anyone. Till recently, we had not reached the stage where federal governments were willing to coexist with provincial governments (let alone provincial governments with local governments).

If we have some degree of local governance today, it is because since 2008 the leaders of our major national parties (ex-cricketers excepted) appear to have finally learnt that power need not be an all or nothing affair, that one can disagree with a political opponent and yet concede their right to rule, that tomorrow is another day, and that the pie is big enough for all to share. Note, and I repeat, ex-cricketers excluded.

What then of the former chief justice and his embryonic movement for a presidential system? Well, I’m not particularly worried about that eventuality. Before we start worrying about the pros and cons of a presidential system, his Lordship will have to form a party, he will have to get people to join his party and he will have to get his party members elected in sufficient numbers to the provincial and national assemblies to rewrite the constitution.

Even if he gets that far, his Lordship’s brainwave will still have to survive judicial scrutiny given that: (i) the Supreme Court has recently announced that it is the guardian of our “basic structure”; and (ii) the said ‘basic structure’ apparently also includes a “parliamentary form of democracy.” As Ghalib once put it, “kaun jeeta hai teri zulf kay sar honay tak.”

This column was printed in The News on 13 December 2015