Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Narrative Narrative (Part 1)

Narrative seems to be one of those words that’s really caught on in recent years. No opinion on politics or society seems complete without at least some comment on the “narrative” that we/them have built/are building/will build.
This thought actually struck me as I sat at the Lahore Literary Festival held in the city in February (yes, this is the average time it takes me to get a thought down on metaphorical paper).  So, as I sat through my third session where speakers spoke at length about the issue of the narrative in Pakistan, I found myself somewhat irritated by the fact that the conversations seemed stuck well within the confines of “the narrative”.
To be fair, this third talk was titled “National Narrative” so I don’t know what I was expecting. A small disclaimer, perhaps, that while we discuss these things, listeners should bear in mind other socio-economics factors that may have contributed to the events we are discussing. Besides, talks before and after that did not contain the word narrative in their title, and seemed equally fixated with the idea.
“But, you idiot,” I hear you exclaim, “it was a literary festival, of course they were going to focus on narratives”. And quite right you are, imaginary reader, and here exactly, is where one of the several problems lies. Bear with me.
Of course, since then, I kept a look out for the appearance of narratives and their explanations. Sure enough, from the mainlands of English newspapers to the coastal regions of Twitter, everybody and their uncle was going off about narrative this and narrative that.
I think there are several reasons for this trend, mostly driven by the explosive growth in the independent media in the country and a lack of trained specialists. Allow me to take you through them one by one.
Let’s take the Literary Festival example to begin with. Let me get into my bullet-proof tank, drive to a safe distance, pull out my megaphone, and humbly suggest that there is some level of personal ego-massaging and self-aggrandisement going on here. After all, who are these people who treat narratives like atomic energy; beneficial in the right hands, devastating in the wrong ones? These Op-Ed writers and “social commentators” are exactly the same people involved in the framing of said narratives. So, it comes as no surprise that they think and suggest that this is the most crucial job in the world. It’s sort of like, if the guy who cleaned the Apollo 11 rocket before launch, told you that had the windshield not been cleaned properly, there would have been no moon-landing! That may be true, but it’s far from the whole story. Furthermore, the importance of the narrative does lie somewhat with how much importance society gives it. So simply by saying it’s important, it becomes important!
The second reason narratives are in vogue is also fairly closely related to the one given above. The sheer convenience for lazy pseudo-intellectuals, such as me (specifically the ones who write about unquantifiable, vague topics such as narratives) is immense. Had I been writing about more earthy topics, such as, say, scientific developments or economics, I might have had to actually go through troves of literature and data to be able to back up my opinions with solid report-based facts. I would be open to attack by anyone who understood the subject, and would run the risk of being objectively proved wrong. For example, if I were to say that people were growing poorer in the 70s, I would either have to quote some figures, or run the risk of someone else doing so and proving me wrong.
On the other hand, if I were to say, people grew more intolerant in the 70s, I need not bother with any of that. Opinion, and even better, opinion dressed up as history, has the dual advantage of sounding profound, and being fairly unchallengeable. It serves, therefore, as a benign hobby-horse that will neither buck nor rear.
In fact, the simplistic arguments involved in discussing narratives means that everybody can have a good time throwing around terms like “leftist” or “right-wing ideology” or “democratic principles” or any other such term without the inconvenience of having to actually define or understand them. In the eyes of the narrative, we are all equal!
Moving on, another major reason discussions on narratives are doing the rounds is that they are easy to digest. Without offending the sensibilities of the reader, these writers are able to provide a nicely packaged, one-stop explanation for everything that has gone wrong with the country. The fault lies with everyone who propagated the narrative and everyone who follows it. It is unlikely that you are responsible for propagating the narrative. Furthermore, by reading said article/blog/tweet you have proved that you are a shrewd, intellectual, tolerant, humane, politically savvy Man-of-the-world. You, dear reader, are A-OK! You're on the inside track. It’s all these other morons around you who keep buying into this nonsense; they have let us all down. We must either fight them or rescue them from their own stupidity.
This feeds quite well off the fact that media outlets are also incentivised not to hire experts or worry about their aptitude in their specific fields. All they need are people who have the skill of holding an opinion (any opinion, really), and the ability to dress up said opinions and present them.
By the way, a glaring result of this was the whole Agha Waqar water-car story. For once, news channels were faced with a story where their masterly powers of storytelling were of no use. The science was either solid or it wasn't! Finding out which required some basic understanding of science coupled with a bit of reading up on the specific issues at hand. Not being equipped with the faculties required for either, news channels decided to treat the story in their traditional manner. They decided to call everyone on television and “talk it out” until they reached a conclusion. The result, of course, was that a story that should not have made it past a preliminary vetting phase became a national phenomenon. Week after week, scientists such as Dr. Atta-ur-Rehman spluttered in disbelief as they sat across Agha Waqar (science’s answer to the “social commentator”) who sat convincingly spouting nonsensical terms, while anchors cluelessly nodded at both with equal reverence. The one thing that kept Agha Waqar going was the fact that news media turned him into a narrative story as well – the poor untrained science genius who was going to solve everyone’s energy problems by sticking it to the oil companies!
Right about now, even I am growing tired of this topic. I can only imagine the amount of blood oozing out of your eyes. So let me leave the conclusions for my next post, while all one of you who made it thus far digest what I am trying to say.
I picked up this topic because of the harm I think this over-emphasis on the narrative does (notice that I don’t need to back up either this or the coming assessment).  Part deux will deal with exactly what harm I am referring to.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Post Election

The road to the elections were a truly phenomenal experience, and regardless of the outcome I must express my immense gratitude to Imran Khan for making me part of it. The days leading up to it were perhaps the greatest learning experience of my life.
In light of this, I feel I must share some observations.
To start off, all you urban middle-class, educated, mineral water drinking, Facebook warriors, well done! Pat yourselves on the back. You have managed to send a resounding ‘Fuck you!’ to the hordes of pragmatic ‘intellectuals’ on both sides of the class divide; all those who first taunted you for not having what it takes to participate in political rallies, those who accused you of not having the strength to back your convictions, those who essentially thought you would be busy tweeting pictures of your dinner while the polls went on outside. You showed up to the polls. You flew in from outside the country in droves, you drove to your villages and when the system tried to discourage you with cheap tricks and strong-arm tactics, you stood your ground. For the first time in my life, and I’m sure in most of your lifetimes, you invested in the system and you should be proud.
I still have a childhood memory of Imran Khan’s first election. Everybody we knew trusted him and wanted him in power. However, halfway through the polls, as it probably became apparent that he was on course for a crashing defeat, a hastily prepared ad started appearing on TV. It was the great man himself, standing alone, desperately pleading for people to get out and vote. I don’t think anyone moved. Our generation can, at least, be proud of learning from the mistakes of our parents.
Having said this, there is no denying that the results initially came as a disappointment. Though everyone knew practically that 20-30 seats would be a good showing for PTI, and though we could probably guess that Imran Khan was indulging in psychological warfare when he made tall claims, deep down somewhere, there was hope that the tsunami just might come. The no show definitely hurt, but it highlights just how much work remains to be done by the party. This brings me to my second and most important point. Unfortunately, there is a huge social class divide in our country. Canvassing for votes during this election reaffirmed my growing realisation that the middle/upper-middle class is heavily isolated from the rest of the country.
There has been a long held, and oft-stated belief among the educated middle classes that democracy is not a good model for an illiterate population. In recent times, intellectual proponents of the democratic system have been viciously attacking this perception, denouncing it as elitist and intolerant. They go even further to criticise the middle class’s understanding of the situation, firmly attesting to the inherent wisdom and maturity of the average voter. To this day, I had usually fallen silent at this argument. Far be it from me to be a bigot!
However, today, after weeks of speaking to voters, I would like to loudly and unequivocally call “Bullshit!” on these intellectual assessments. The fact of the matter is, most voters are uneducated and isolated, and they are totally exploited by the Pakistani democratic system. Politicians operate through a careful manipulation of disillusionment, fears and misperceptions. Most voters are brow-beaten to the point where cash is good alternative to ideology. Many are fed lies and conspiracy theories to keep them on board. Some are threatened, some are bribed. All these analysts who talk about illiteracy not hampering decision making are essentially pulling facts out of their backsides.
But here is where the crucial question arises. What next? Well, in Purana Pakistan, these urban educated middle class voters would have thrown up their hands in despair and cursed themselves for being associated with such a state. They are, after all, vastly outnumbered (and one suspects, not by accident!). When it comes to democracy they can easily be overwhelmed and disillusioned. A broken bureaucratic system used to, and benefitting from, this state of affairs will also not up and vanish overnight. To be honest, as I write this, it occurs to me for the first time that Khan’s political rhetoric was not just rhetoric – this really was an attempt at shaking up the status quo. So, the deck is stacked firmly against our educated middle class heroes.
On the other hand, I hope in the Naya Pakistan (or the repaired Pakistan, as many are calling it), things will be different. After all, Imran Khan is nothing if not inspirational. He is renowned for his dogged refusal to accept things as they are. That was what Naya Pakistan was all about, a resolve to change the country to better serve its citizens.
Fortunately, illiteracy and ignorance are neither genetic nor incurable. Even without a PTI government at the helm of affairs, we can still declare an education emergency. We may not all be able to get involved in formal education, but we can certainly start by engaging more with those around us; by leaving our cocooned lifestyles, by adopted greater civic and political sense and by imparting it at every given opportunity. It has now become essential that we take on this cause, not for the betterment of other peoples’ lives, but for the sake of your own. In other words, procreation isn’t the only way to swell your ranks!
Finally, as I write this, there are reports of a protest going on against Saad Rafique’s now famous hooliganism at NA125. This is another good sign. As more people get invested in the political system, there is increasing awareness about rights and responsibilities. Thus far, the educated middle class have been hamstrung by their inability to take the final step of actually stepping on to the street. Many will try to dissuade you, many will tell you that this is just about being a sore loser, many will tell you it wouldn’t have made much of a difference anyway. They are wrong! This is about sending a message to parliamentarians that such actions are intolerable. Ideally, the police would have arrested him and he would be facing charges. However, when the state machinery fails, it falls to citizens to enforce their rights.
Too long have we been dictated by people ‘who know better’. They don’t! If anything, they only know how the system works. They have no idea about how it should. It’s high time we took charge and started spending more time and energy into bettering our surroundings.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Crunch Time for PTI

In the build-up of the 23rd March jalsa by the PTI, the euphoria on the social media was palpable. The event itself heightened the frenzy. And then, the very next day, Imran Khan dropped the J-bomb!
The twitterati went into hyperdrive. All critics and a great many supporters roundly denounced Imran Khan’s announcement of a possible seat adjustment with the Jamaat-e-Islami. All of a sudden, a political party that had theretofore been just another dubious player in the dirty politics of Pakistan came to embody everything wrong with the country. A considerable laundry list of charges, starting pre-partition, going via East-Pakistani atrocities, up to and including Dr. Munawar Hasan’s dubious and frankly scary understanding of rape laws, was hammered out again and again. By association, not only was the JI answerable for these charges, so too was the PTI.
For several critics this was the moment Imran Khan exposed himself as the closet mullah that he was. His supporters were also at a loss to reconcile these charges with their own consciences and floundered about trying to make sense of it all. Some made valiant efforts to try and explain the move as a tactical one rather than an ideological one, but with negligible success. Suddenly, the PTI was JI and the JI was PTI! The charges against the JI were all accurate and the questions being put to the PTI were awkward. This is a very positive development.
In fact, herein lies the difference between the PTI and its following, and the rest of the political parties in the country. The vital question is this: would there have been such a furore if the Jamaat-e-Islami had allied itself with any other mainstream party in the country? Would anyone have batted an eyelid or raised an eyebrow at news of a possible seat adjustment between the JI and the PMLN (as is happening now) or even a JI-PPP alliance?
That fact of the matter is that the PTI is selling itself as the ethical party that will change politics in the country forever. In doing so, it has raised the bar for itself much higher than everyone else. This is only natural, as the smallest player on the block, it has had to make tall claims to be noticed and taken seriously. The fact that the electorate, too, is now responding by taking them to task over these claims even before the elections means that their movement has now reached the point where followers are also invested in their cause. The movement is now bigger than Imran Khan.
The next step is going to be ticket allotment. Already, rumours of some ‘electables’ possibly not being granted party tickets due to a less than stellar financial record are being met with jubilant approval. In such a situation the PTI parliamentary board will be under immense pressure to select and field candidates that cannot later embarrass them. Bad PR for a few candidates could very easily jeopardise their entire campaign.
Having said all this, the electorate and the various political analysts also need to keep ground realities in mind. They need to understand that the PTI may have the election locked down on Facebook but, as critics are keen to point out, the election is not going to be contested in cyberspace. The actual battleground are the villages, streets, and mohallas of Pakistan. In this non-virtual world, while having undergone rapid growth, the PTI is still a nascent player. The lumbering PMLN, uninhibited by qualms of ethicality is absorbing everything in its path. Similarly, the well-established PPP has been fairly unabashedly using its position as the incumbent to facilitate a return. Given these factors, the PTI leadership will have to play a delicate balancing game where is does not lose its core message, but does not also end up fighting with one hand tied behind its back.
Frankly, if corruption alone had been a vote getter, the PTI would not have received the thrashings it previously has. There is, after all, a reason that most “decent, clean people” have either enjoyed limited success or steered well clear of the political arena in Pakistan for a considerable amount of time – it requires one to get their hands dirty.
Furthermore, people also need to realise that while it’s a good thing to hold PTI to its tall claims, it is also worthwhile to bear in mind that the bar for the PTI is higher than the PMLN and the PPP. If they are unable to meet their own standards, they still need to be compared to these parties rather than being dismissed outright.
Critics seem to forget that at the end of the day, the PTI is still a political party, and like all political parties it relies heavily on rhetoric. It is surprising how often intellectuals seem unable to glean the overall message and get lost, instead, arguing with rhetorical statements. Most notably, PTI’s radical terminology (tsunami, change etc.) are repeatedly used against them. That the PTI has had at least minor positive effects on the political landscape of Pakistan is undeniable. The politicisation of the urban middle classes, the campaign, specifically the fund raising techniques and the rabid obsession with financial propriety among the political classes are strong achievements for the PTI. Unfortunately, for many critics, these are not radical enough. They should, however, be appreciated as steps in the right direction.
Too many people make the argument that if the PTI is going to compromise, then it need not exist. This approach makes the broad assumption that all compromises are the same, hence, since existing parties are quite adept at this task there is no need for the PTI. Most of the time, these people acknowledge that such an approach would most likely result in abject defeat, but insist that in some cosmic way this virgin sacrifice will serve a higher purpose.
Upon democracy’s much celebrated return to our land in 2008, article upon article was written about how the uninterrupted democratic process would result in the gradual cleansing of the political pool. Well, this is it. Round one of the sifting is here. Does the Pakistani public want to back the relatively cleaner of the parties and push the political spectrum towards more accountable governments, or does it want to wait around a few more years in hope of a better option to come along? This is crunch time!
Finally, for a long time the PMLN made the argument that a vote for PTI would divide the electorate, leaving people at the mercy of the PPP. Let me put a new spin on this very argument. Another disastrous election for the PTI may well result in its annihilation, leaving people at the mercy of the PMLN and the PPP. How well would these two perform if there was no PTI around? How long would it take before a population, their resolve emaciated by misgovernance and corruption, once again welcomed a military takeover?

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Tsunami weathers the storm

The day had been pretty much the same as the Jalsa in 2011 when Imran Khan came up to speak. There had been sporadic bursts of chanting, singing, the occasional dancing accompanied as well as wisecracks at the more lacklustre speeches. Then, the heavens opened up and everything changed! 
Before the storm arrived Khan told his audience not to leave when it did; he needn’t have bothered. The weather merely served to enhance the electric atmosphere. An already charged up crowd stood on their chairs to wholeheartedly embrace the elements. As the winds gained momentum, so did the enthusiasm of the PTI supporters, and when conditions eventually took their toll on Khans audibility the crowd knew exactly how to respond. For an immeasurable amount of time, they stood, arms raised, facing the heavy downpour, the wind, and in the backdrop of thunder and lightening wildly going through various chants. They shifted several times through “We Want Change” to the somewhat appropriate “Aik Tsunami aik Toofan, Imran Khan Imran Khan”. 
Eventually, as some of the lights gave out, it became apparent that continuing would be impossible and people from the stage could be seen signalling for the crowd to leave, some of the more enthusiastic had even moved on to “Doob Jaaenge Mar Jaaenge, Nahi Jaaenge Nahi Jaeenge!”. Finally, however, the tide slowly began to recede, bringing to end one of the most spectacular experiences ever. 
Somebody had pointed me to the weather report before the day began. I knew the thunderstorm was on the cards and was worried it might ruin everything. Rain had come and gone once during the day, not nearly as severe as what followed at night, and people had taken it in their stride. However, when the storm hit, it magnified the magnitude of the experience. It gave the crowd the opportunity to show they were serious. This was not some rent-a-crowd going through the motions, nor were these picnic-makers on a fun day out. These were people out to make a point, and they meant business.
Those minutes where nature and the crowd got together to put up their spectacular show perfectly symbolised everything the PTI has been trying to achieve. If the analysts and the media are able to properly capture the essence of that moment (which I think they have failed to do so thus far), it should be enough to cause the other parties some serious sleepless night. As it stands, they deny these scenes at their own peril. Keep watching, this Tsunami may well hit Pakistani shores against all odds – not bad for a party that started out as the butt of “garmi mein kharaab” jokes.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The New Religion

Anybody who remembers the scene from PTV’s Taleem-e-Balighaan about the three gharray (clay pots) titled Ittehad, Tanzeem and Yaqeen-e-Mohkam (Unity, Discipline and Faith) may remember that students had already destroyed Ittehad and Tanzeem, and only Yaqeen-e-Mohkam survived. Maulvi Sahab reported in his letter to the inspector “Le de ke aik Yaqeen-e-Mohkam reh gaya hai, jiss par kaam chaloo hai. Agar ab bhi ittehad aur tanzeem se sabaq na liya gaya, tou ye qaum yaqeen-e-mohqam ka bhi wohi hashar kar degi”. (In the end, only Faith is left, which allows us to function. If we still do not learn from Unity and Discipline, these people will ensure Faith meets the same fate).
*Reference video below will work if Youtube ever does.

These words, prophetic as they were, did not predict the next step we are about to embark upon.
Certain facts have now been firmly established. The constitution is sacred, and, like all sacred scripture, it is now to be selectively quoted and interpreted as the situation demands. We also now ‘believe’ in democracy, a belief dangerously edging towards faith.
Like all faiths, it has priests and shamans. These are the people who have a special understanding of Democracy. Some even claim they have a special relationship with it, being able to communicate directly with, and interpret the will of Democracy. These are the people who have, in all humility, accepted the burden of acting as Democracy’s representatives in Pakistan.
The overall aim and philosophy of Democracy seems not to make themselves apparent to its staunchest adherents. Most ardent followers restrict themselves to belief in the power of the cyclical ritual of elections. They believe them to have the dual effect of cleansing both their own souls and those of their sectarian leaders. Many conservative believers, having a strong fundamentalist belief in the omnipotence of Democracy see any attempts to regulate or check its will as both innovation and blasphemy. This belief is further strengthened by certain high-priests who not only espouse this view, but have also decreed their own infallibility. As a result, an affront to these priests is an affront to Democracy itself.
There have been more than one pioneer who brought the word of Democracy to the common people. Most of them died for our sins. Even today, Democracy demands sacrifices, though now they are mostly financial. These financial sacrifices are mostly borne by the state the year round, however there is increased fervor around the festival of the election. 
The measure of a good believer is, not surprisingly, his ability to believe. The most pious of these are the ones who accepted Democracy early on, and have never since allowed any sort of doubt to enter their hearts or minds. These are the ones who shall be held in highest esteem upon the establishment of the glorious kingdom of Democracy.
Less pious, and consequently less fortunate, are those who believe, but occasionally falter. Their failure to appreciate that Democracy works in mysterious ways is what often leads them to sin by despair. They sin by doubting the omnipotence of Democracy or by allowing themselves to be tempted into the new-fangled ways of false democracies.
The unbelievers are to be pitied. Their constricted hearts will never truly allow them to understand the magic of the invisible hand of Democracy. They will never see enlightenment or the golden hereafter. In fact, if it was up to them, no one would see it.
Sectarianism in the new faith is somewhat worrying. Since the establishment of Democracy, its adherents have, over time, been divided into several factions. Each accuses the others of straying from the true path and misleading followers in the process. Many hard line followers believe this to be the result of mischief by the unbelievers, meant to divide the true following.
Though conversion rates for Democracy have historically fluctuated in the country, true, hard-line adherents have only recently found a strong base in Pakistan. Whether this upswing continues or whether it will make its way back remains to be seen. One result of this somewhat limited strength is the absence of preaching and crusading. Pakistani believers, unlike some of their first-world counterparts, at the moment simply lack the strength and the resources to bring the good word of Democracy to the heathen parts of the world!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Political Performances

Five years of democracy and the free media have had their ups and downs. There was lots of drama, and occasionally some substance. Politicians had returned from the wilderness into a completely changed world and had to adapt quickly. New phrases, techniques and protocols had to be developed and adopted. On most occasions the result, apart from tragedy, was hilarity! Here are a few of the best trends that caught on in the Pakistani media.

“Dekhein ghaltian tou sab se hui hein” (We’ve all made mistakes)

The best of the trends came right at the start. Several politicians were stepping out of the darkness and back into the light under the protection of the NRO. As they emerged, blinking, trying to adjust to this fresh new world, they pledged their support to this new reconciliation. Whatever had happened, had happened. It was time to start over. And when the issue of corruption came up, they said, “Well, we all make mistakes”.
I never quite got over this phrase (as you can see!) to describe the act of corruption. I, too, have made several mistakes in my life. I can say to a certainty that none of them resulted in my bank balance being pushed up a few million rupees. In fact, most of my mistakes have been detrimental to me. There was the time I failed to estimate the speed of an oncoming car when driving into a busy intersection - that cost me a pretty penny and an earful from my father. There was the time I accidentally converted bytes to bits by multiplying by a thousand (rather than eight, if you don’t know!) in an exam - no million rupees there. There was the time I missed a miscalculation on an Excel sheet at work – the company still did not hand over the million rupees.
These politicians have to be the luckiest bastards alive! They make a mistake, and as luck would have it, they turn out richer for it. The Lord really does work in mysterious ways. You’ve got to love the image of a politician sitting in front of an illegal deal with a pen, signing it, and going “O dammit, I’ve done it again! I really should be more careful next time.” Or maybe just stuffing his pockets with bank notes, “What am I like?! Here I’ve done it again, o well!” In the background, a cash register goes ka-ching! Alas, like the NRO, this line was not to last.

“Mein inn ki bohot izzat karta hoon” (I have great respect for him/her)

This is another brilliant phrase that caught like wildfire, and is alive and well today. Somehow, protocol of the Pakistani talk show now requires participants to assure each other, the host, and the audience of their great respect for, and maybe even reverence to, their opposition. This little bit of etiquette might have been effective, if this line wasn’t usually sandwiched on both sides by streams of accusations and abuse. As it stands, all participants come out looking like complete idiots!
Here’s how it goes, Politician A accuses Politician B and his party of rampant corruption, mismanagement, theft, coupled with whatever is the soup of the day (be it the Asghar Khan case or the Baloch situation). Politician A then goes on to say “Ye mere bhai/meri behn hein, mein inn ki bohot izzat karta hoon”. The effect, of course, is that a simple-minded viewer such as myself is left wondering exactly which he respects; Politician B’s presumably advanced techniques of corruption, mismanagement or theft. The whole scenario gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “honour among thieves”.

“Waqt aane pe bayaan karoonga” (I shall reveal it when the time comes)

We have all been assured a climactic moment, when the nation shall be gathered in the old library, and in the dim lights, all shall be revealed. Presumably, this moment will have to last a good number of weeks because the revealing will have to be done by so many people and on so many diverse topics. Hercule Zardari will probably get the ball rolling with the revelation on who actually killed his wife. Then perhaps Lt. Rehman Columbo will get up in his crumpled raincoat, cigar in hand complete his predecessors story, before moving on the encyclopaedia of juicy titbits he’s been storing up. (These will include, but by no means be limited to, the case of the disgruntled WAGs of Karachi surreptitiously financed by foreign hands to carry out target killing through the medium of internet videos).
Of course, once the politicians got started with this tantalising phrase, everyone joined in. Even the ex-wicket-keeper Zulqarnain Haider got into the act with his “conclusive evidence” against Kamran Akmal. The TTP also decided to show some statesmanship when they stated they weren’t exactly sure about how they regarded Imran Khan. They, too, would only reveal their stance on him “when the time comes”. So now, anyone and everyone gets up, makes a statement and promises evidence to be delivered “when the time comes”.
I for one, can’t wait to find out if I am right. Was it actually Colonel Mustard in the Billiard Room with a Candlestick? Any day now, we’ll find out. Actually, come to think of it, we might even find out what really did happen at Tashkent!


The talking over everyone else part is, of course, old hat and not very interesting. The occasional name-calling or ‘gaali-galoch’ is interesting, but not where the real entertainment lies. The fun parts are the politicians’ somewhat vain attempts to appear respectable and cultured. These involve excessively peppering their sentences with phrases like “guzarish ye hai” and “ghaliban”, they also involve accusing other participants of having worse manners. These tactics seem spectacularly out of place in the political royal rumble that is the Pakistani talk show, and make their users come across like the inmate at the asylum who insists on wearing a top-hat with his tattered vest.
Special mention here for the woman who has epitomised the adaption to television, Miss Sharmila Farooqi. She couples these last two techniques with the deftness of an Olympic gymnast and the subtlety of a wrecking ball. After she’s done talking over everyone else, if anyone manages to get a word in, she immediately switches gears and accuses him of lacking the required etiquette when addressing a “lady”. She then proceeds to ignore his point on that account! Brilliant!

The Maulvi's Dilemma

I almost forgot one of the most amusing things we see on TV, the holy man's catch 22. This one has nothing to do with poltics. I think the most famous example of this was Veena Malik. Ever so often a "religious scholar" of some sort will entangle himself in a battle against obscenity. Some show will be denounced for its supposed low moral standards and the scholar and the defender of the show will lock horns. The arguments will fly back and forth, covering Islam, piety, social responsibility, until suddenly, the defender of said offending show will drop the bomb. He/she will innocently ask, "Kya aap ne show dekha hai?" (Have you seen the show?). Mr. Maulvi is now well and truly ensnared; thereon it's mate in two! He has two possible answers, "Yes, I am a despicable lech who enjoys the same things he is denouncing!" or "No, I have no idea what I'm talking about and have just come to rail on about things I know nothing about." Poor Mr. Maulvi will struggle against the current, trying to create a third possibility, "I have heard about it from other people." but all such efforts are rendered useless when this new possibility is quickly lumped into option 2 by both the host and the defender. "Ah, so you haven't seen it yourself, you have been shamefully misguided. Please come back when you know what you're talking about."

The past five years have in fact thrown up much more than this. The media ensured that we saw and heard every single absurdity that took place in the corridors of power, and, to be fair, in every remote corner of the country. I suspect they also ensured that we were too engrossed in the show to actually take things seriously; no mean feat! The performances have been truly exquisite and all involved should take this time to come in front of the curtain and take a well-deserved bow. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Making the Case

Two successive Pakistani governments in the past eleven years have been unable to sell the War on Terror to their people. These included one ‘enlightened moderate’ semi-military dictatorship and one ‘liberal’ democratic one. These governments aren’t the only ones. Op-Eds in English newspapers have been awash recently with people calling for a Military operation into North Waziristan, with little success.
Ever since the war started in Afghanistan, the term ‘trust deficit’ has been thrown around a lot as a hindrance to the success of the war. Mostly it has referred to the relationship between the Pakistan and US armies but, perhaps, it also needs to be applied to the relationship between the people of Pakistan and its government. The War on Terror, much like any other military operation, suffers from a severe lack of information coming out of the actual war zone. In such situations, governments generally take much stricter control of media reports and the information being disseminated to the public. As a result, the populace is generally almost solely reliant on the version of events being presented through the official channels. This, I feel, is where the Pakistani government fails repeatedly to make the case for military intervention.
The simple and sad fact is people just don’t trust the officials telling them to go to war. Our people are often derided for their propensity to believe in conspiracy theories, but isn’t their paranoia justified? Ours is a history of government lies, exploitation and manipulation. If the people were not wary of the government’s intentions, you would have to seriously question their learning abilities. Add to that the actual credibility of the government and political figures looking to establish ‘the rule of law’. Is it really surprising that the people of this country don’t willingly swallow the narrative of a well-meaning government trying to help the poor by establishing its writ? As a prime example, the man entrusted with the internal security of the country, the Interior Minister, is a man, who apart from his regular public bungling was actually sprung from jail by a Presidential pardon, has since lied about his dual nationality, accepted his lie and resigned from the Senate, only to unrepentantly and unabashedly walk right back into his vacated seat. The government has not seen fit to replace him!
Add further to this, the duplicity of the government over the issue of drones. It is now very much an open secret that the government, while putting up a facade of disapproval for the consumption of the Pakistani public, has privately pretty much given the US carte blanche on the affair. Is this the action of a government trying to bring its people on-board for a battle critical to the survival of the country? Quite obviously, the government seems unconcerned by the hit its credibility takes through such blatant dishonesty and therefore has no foundation on which to complain about being undermined by other political forces.
The pro-war government spokespeople exhaustively cite the disruption to basic government functions such as law and order and education in the area. While these are genuine issues, one again, the veracity of the government’s concern becomes dubious when one looks at the state of affairs in places where it isn’t hindered by the Tehrik-e-Taliban. Since this government was elected, up until last year, education standards seem to have been slipping throughout the country. Law and order (other than terrorism) hasn’t seen much improvement either, with many suspecting partners within this very government of complicity in the deteriorating situation in Karachi. So tomorrow, if the government is unable to find support for its program to ‘establish the writ of the state’ in Waziristan, should we really be surprised?
Of course, conspiracy theories don’t just begin and end with our own government; they involve a good many others. Again, can the population of a third world country, with low literacy, a colonial history, a corrupt government and uncomfortably close dealings with a super-power really be accused of irrational distrust on that account? I am no expert on history but I don’t really think I need to be one to know that the history of the CIA in the past sixty years is not one of honesty and fair-play. It is a history of supporting mercenary forces, causing civil wars and military coups, bribing, threatening and sometimes overthrowing governments, and on the whole being a general nuisance. The US government has, on more than one occasion lied about events in order to use them as pretexts for wars with devastating consequences. If there’s one thing the CIA hasn’t being accused of it’s being too scrupulous!
The situation is further harmed by examples of military adventurism in the recent past by the US, as well as a feeling of being sold short by our own representatives. Pakistani leaders throughout history have been perceived as being all too willing to serve foreign interests at the cost of the local population. In recent history, the stories of arrests and extraditions for bounties by the Musharraf regime served greatly to undermine his credibility in selling the war. The more recent disaster to emerge for this government was the cache of diplomatic cables brought out by Wikileaks. These went a long way in confirming suspicions people have long held about the level of involvement of the US in the running of the country. These included offers by aforementioned Rehman Malik to provide access to the NADRA database, as well as almost all major political players regularly turning to the US Ambassador for mediation in internal politics. I say again, if the government now tries to “own” this war, how will the people know whose interest is actually being served?
But perhaps the biggest failure of the government and non-government advocates of the war is their failure to identify and effectively articulate the TTP phenomenon. While representatives such as Faisal Raza Abidi can eloquently quote statistics and shower their descriptions of the TTP with examples of their barbarity, they are unable to present a lucid, logical thought process for their enemies and are therefore (as described in my previous post) heavily reliant on the Crazy Terrorist theory for support. This theory (as also described in my previous post) has more trouble finding roots in Pakistan than it may do so in other parts of the world.
There are many attempts at colouring this theory, the current shade referring regularly to an ‘ideological war’. But what is an ideological war? Arent all wars simultaneously ideological and non-ideological? A good example may be the Afghan war against the Soviets, where there was no dearth of ideologies running around. Among these were the international Jihad to rid a Muslim country of foreign invaders, there was a Capitalist fight against Communist domination, there was Communist resistance to Capitalist infiltration, a rural Afghan uprising against foreign occupation, ethnic and tribal attempts at dominance, and possibly much more. And yet, at its simplest, it was a battle for influence over Afghanistan by the two opposing superpowers.
This time around, the ideological backing from the US hit a new low when, post- 9/11, George W. seemed to consider it too much of an effort to come up with a complex political, economic or religious framework (though some may refer to his ‘crusade’ comment), and started talking simply in terms of good and evil. Perhaps someone in the White House decided not to befuddle the President with intricate ideas and to let him deal on a plane he could manage. The result, of course, was perhaps the biggest ideological claim of all times – the US was out to rid the world of evildoers!
This heavy reliance on the Ideological War theory greatly hinders possible support for any action against the TTP because it takes away material aims and leaves a void in terms of explaining their motivation. Excessively referring to the TTP as zealous nutjobs takes away the public’s ability to assess the situation and leaves them with a need to rationalise the behaviour of the TTP in other ways – enter foreign backing theory.
The Pakistani public also appears much more circumspect about the prospects of such an operation than the experts. This is also because arguments calling for military action seem to end just there, with a military operation, and no explanation of time-frame, fallout and long-term solutions. Carrying out an all-out military offensive in those regions would appear to be a gargantuan task, especially with an enemy identified, supposedly, only by his belief. Making such an operation worthwhile in the long run would appear even more difficult. This is a real concern with no apparent answers forthcoming.
What is needed is a much more scientific and rational approach to the assessment of the situation and its possible solutions. Unless proponents of the war are able to successfully and plausibly articulate the motivation of the TTP, to unemotionally calculate the costs and benefits of a military operation and explain them to the population, and perhaps most importantly, establish their own credentials as being driven solely by the interests of the state, they face an uphill task of trying to convince the Pakistani people that a military operation is absolutely necessary.
So far, most of the effort is in the form of emotional outbursts and in trying to present the operation as a movement to establish the rule of law in the northern areas; basically doing the right thing. This narrative no longer sells in the justifiably cynical land of Pakistan. The people of Pakistan no longer trust that their leaders, or opinion formers, act simply to do the right thing, they need more in terms of explanation!