New Age Islam Edit Bureau
28 August 2018
The New York Times Is an Excellent
American Newspaper and a Tribute to Journalistic Failure
By Saad Khan
Pakistan’s Culture of Cruelty
By Ammar Ali Jan
Criticism of the Military Is Not
By Ailia Zehra
By Hajrah Mumtaz
Relief from ‘Mian’ Musharraf
By Jawed Naqvi
By Dr Niaz Murtaza
By Moeed Yusuf
The Austerity Merry-Go-Round
By Arifa Noor
Compiled By New Age Islam Edit Bureau
August 28, 2018
The writer is a creative director at a
digital studio. He tweets @thehouseofsaad
Chances are you feel strongly about Imran
Khan one way or the other. In the event you do not have an opinion on the man,
many are provided for you. From clear-cut disparagement to open fan boy-ism,
Khan draws intense reactions. Pakistani media is guilty of picking sides and
lifting convenient narratives. But there is still nowhere better to strangle
the nuance in Pakistan’s current affairs than in that confused collection of
car crash personalities that is Western and Indian media.
Are you a highly polarising figure with
complicated views, ideas and perspectives? ‘The Wild West’ has ‘The Solution’:
Soundbites. That’s right. Who among us does not wish to be compactly reduced to
a label that is readymade for Western consumption? Taliban sympathiser. Get a
few dozen clicks out of that. Womaniser cricket-star. Journalism is not dead!
Hard-right heart-throb. Cronkite weeps tears of joy.
The New York Times is an excellent American
newspaper and a tribute to journalistic failure. When it is not publishing
heartwarming editorials of how to understand your local disenfranchised white
nationalist, it is publishing headlines like this: “Cricket Star. Sex Symbol.
PM? It May Be Imran Khan’s Time.” The New York Post and Buzzfeed are on edge. A
new contender for clickbait vapidity has emerged. To be fair, this is still
better than when they let Judith Miller write about Iraqi Weapons of Mass
Destruction (WMDs) of which, as we all know, a great many were found.
Meanwhile, British media finally tries of
telling the story of Imran Khan through the well-worn lens of Jemima Goldsmith.
The Independent analysed the alarming parallels between Khan and French
President Emmanuel Macron because he too has… “Glamour” and “Charisma”. You
must contend with the notion, dear reader, that leaders rarely have these two
Think about it. Macron, the globalist,
ex-investment banker, is pushing France towards an individualism that rolls
back social spending. Khan, the protectionist cricketer, is demanding an
Islamic welfare state. These things are complete opposites, but in a much more
real way they are exactly the same.
Western journalism has won again. Cronkite
thumps his desk in celebration.
CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and other 24/7
networks found they could thrive around the 9/11 news cycle. They needed big,
breaking news items in order to grab up millions of viewers. Sensationalism and
partisanship became the name of the game thanks to the genius of tyrants like
Roger Ailes, funded by tyrants like Rupert Murdoch (the fathers of Fox News). A
small but persistent challenge these channels faced was the satirical news
genre. Jon Stewart acted as one of American comedy’s more influential Super
bosses (coming a close second to SNL creator Lorne Michaels) by bringing a
hilarious contrast to TV: An authentic fake newsman. With sincere diatribes and
real anger in his voice, Stewart found a massive audience thanks to his talent
for skewering the mainstream media’s gaffes and biases on the Daily Show. Early
on, David Foster Wallace correctly identified television’s unrelenting capacity
to ironically castigate itself. Post-modern irony is not particularly difficult
to achieve on TV. After all, there is no shortage of targets to choose from.
The beauty and skill in Stewart’s the Daily Show lay in there being a point
behind the satire since, on its own, satire is a tool for dismantlement that
provides no innate solutions.
But Stewart has retired. In his place is a
cavalcade of ex-disciples who now run shows with grim purpose. They are the
Resistance. Their cause is Noble. Cronkite is weeping. The Daily Show’s own
successor, Trevor Noah, provides a stark contrast to Stewart’s substance and
An empty grin runs across Noah’s face as
uninspired impressions and stranger in a strange land schtick repeat themselves
night after night. Most recently he compiled an uninspired comparison between
Imran Khan and Donald Trump. Khan offers up no short supply of items to
critique but with painfully weak comparisons and a manic made-for-YouTube
delivery that would not be amiss on Fox News itself, the circle is now
complete. What do you do when the antidote to reductive, clickbait Western
journalism begins to act… Well, like reductive, clickbait Western journalism?
No one is asking the international media to
contain complex multitudes. That would be like asking the Indian media to stop
merrily frothing at the very mention of the BJP. But the courtesy of explaining
the world leader of a nuclear power in terms that are not black and white
labels is not a lot to ask. The man has a great number of faults and severely
ugly missteps. He also has achieved extraordinary successes. Avoiding messiah
or demagogue terminology would make for a good start. Judging a leader’s
capacity, good or bad, to govern once they actually begin their tenure would be
downright fantastic. But maybe this is a lot to ask. After all, is the purpose
of a news network or national paper to inform its audience?
No, said Fox News’ Ailes. It is to have
them feel informed.
No, says the Indian media. It is to promote
PM Modi and to never ask him to apologise for the 2002 Gujarat Muslim massacre
and present-day Kashmiri horrors.
No, says Breitbart. It is to try to get the
N-word into the American lexicon without fear of consequence.
No, says Noah. It is to fall victim to
empty post-modern irony and to fail to follow the one principle Stewart embodied:
Punch up. Don’t kick down.
Perceptions of Pakistan matter. They define
your economy, thanks to the IMF and CPEC. They define your national security
thanks to the perceived instability relentlessly commented on by blowhards and
pundits around the world. And on the strength of those items alone, they move
and shake the foundations of the nation. Pakistan itself should work hard to
develop its journalistic integrity and competence so that it may have sway with
international outlets so as to be able to better represent itself. Till then,
it will remain at the mercy of foreign media forces.
The recent mob-led attack on an Ahmadi
place of worship, in which at least half a dozen individuals were injured, once
again shows how spectacular acts of violence have become a central feature of
The tacit support provided to mobs by the
state through legal injunctions and lack of purposeful action by the police
gives immense confidence to groups that indulge in such gory public spectacles.
But, rather than solely focusing on calls for protection from the state (which
are no doubt essential), we must also pause to ask just what anxieties within
our social body are causing such repeated and unapologetic episodes of public
Before examining the reasons in detail, it
is pertinent to mention that there is remarkable scholarship from academics in
India on riots and mob violence. For example, Aijaz Ahmad, a prominent Marxist
scholar from India, argues that mob violence in India, led by Hindu extremists
and directed at Muslims, Christians and Dalits, stems from a “revivalist” form
of nationalism. This form of nationalism was a response to the social
dislocations produced by colonial modernity, and dreamt of a restorative
process through which a pristine past, including its rigid hierarchies, could
be re-established. Now the problem with such notion of a pre-modern, pristine
and homogenous pre-colonial past is that it never existed and was simply an
invention of the imagination of the revivalists.
Positing the nation as a closed entity
meant that there was perpetual fear of the contamination of the national body
through foreign elements – from cultural practices to political views and
entire communities that threatened this imagined unity. Public displays of
violence enter to soothe such anxiety by apparently subduing threatening
elements in order to “restore” the imagined past, by relegating vulnerable
groups back to their supposedly assigned place in the natural order. But since
there never was a pristine past that matches the imagination of the
revivalists, the result is a perpetual proliferation of enemies in the form of
Muslims, women and Dalits, leading to an endless spiral of violence and cruelty
toward these groups and across society.
It would be fair to say that we in Pakistan
are also undergoing one of our worst phases in revivalism for a pure Muslim
identity that simply cannot be reproduced in the contemporary world, leading to
increased anxiety among our puritans as a response to socio-cultural changes.
Much has been written about the desire to
locate our past away from the Subcontinent to an imagined origin in the Arab world.
Such displacement leads to embarrassing debates on frivolous issues such as
whether one should say ‘Khuda Hafiz’ or ‘Allah Hafiz’ to whether celebrating
Basant or Mehndi is ‘Islamic’, demonstrating how puritans are fixated merely on
finding religious authenticity. This constitutes remarkable intellectual
degeneration, considering the creative relationship Muslims in the Subcontinent
have had with religious texts, from Sufism to engagements with questions of
constitutionalism, the nation-state and even socialism.
Unfortunately, today the pursuit of
religion has been reduced to an infinite process of purging – purging culture,
purging history and, if need be, purging human beings, all in the name of
securing religious/national identity. And the victims are predictably those who
allegedly threaten this identity, including minorities, assertive women,
politically active ethnic groups, and anybody who extends solidarity to them.
This hysterical behaviour, which is
utilised by right-wing groups and sections of the state to eliminate
opposition, is supplemented by a haunting absence within our political milieu.
This absence is the lack of a collective sense of belonging, either provided by
the state or by progressive socio-political forces that can actively work to
overcome the anxiety stemming from social dislocations by fighting for social
justice. The lack of a collective cement has a strong impact on our social
consciousness, as it allows fear and hate to trump notions of empathy and
solidarity for others.
We remember the horror we all felt when
some allegedly PTI supporters callously attacked a donkey to death after
writing ‘Nawaz Sharif’ on it, followed by QWP supporters shooting a dog wrapped
in a PTI flag. As shocking as it was, many would testify that they have
witnessed children, particularly in poorer neighbourhoods, pursuing stray dogs
and cats (and at times the mentally ill) with stones on the streets. This
shocking form of cruelty clearly has to be condemned; but can the blame be
placed squarely with the children? Children are just children, and they will
only respond to the world that they have come to inhabit.
And what is it about this world that
evacuates all sense of empathy for a suffering animal, or worse still, turns it
into a spectacle worth enjoying? It is the pervasive sense of abandonment felt
by these children in a world where they do not receive quality education, where
they do not have the sense of protection accorded to bourgeois children, and
where their innocent desires are frustrated on a daily basis owing to their
family’s position in the class hierarchy. In other words, it’s a world where
they exist but do not seem to belong.
The cruelty exhibited towards animals
occurs in temporary moments in which the perpetrators appear in control, albeit
at the cost of the immense suffering of another living being. Recognising the
sense of being out of place as being a primary factor in the abuses perpetrated
of course does not absolve anyone of their guilt, but it does raise questions
about the ruling elites who have failed to invest in the infrastructure of care
that give a sense of collective belonging, with all the rights and
responsibilities it entails, to the nation’s children.
When the historically sedimented fears
around identity intersect with an abandoned and indifferent citizenry, the
possibility of hate, division and violence increase exponentially. We have to
accept the uncomfortable truth that the instances of violence – such as the
recent attacks on Ahmadis – are not exceptional moments, but are part of a
pervasive culture of cruelty, marked by anxieties, rage and indifference to the
suffering of others. There is, however, an alternative vision of nationalism
stemming from the French Revolution that is steeped in the ideals of social justice,
and where entitlement to citizenship is permitted through a shared set of
values in the present, rather than an affinity to a mythical past.
Perhaps the way out of this horror is to
revive such a collective vision of citizenship premised on solidarity and
social justice, and geared towards building a new world where today’s
vulnerable feel they fully belong. Otherwise, we might enter an era where the
only response to the suffering of others (if one is not the agent of that
suffering) involves taking measures for individual safety to shield oneself
from the suffering on display. We must do better for the sake of our future
Criticism of the Military Is Not Treason
AUGUST 28, 2018
The dawn of “Naya Pakistan” has set in, but
some things in this country remain unchanged. Censorship on media and crushing
of dissent is in full swing and there does not seem to be an end to it (not
anytime soon at least) because the new government appears to be close to the
usual suspects i.e. the establishment. Last week, three family members of
Sindhi human rights activist Sanaullah Aman were abducted from their house by
“unidentified” men. Aman is a leading voice against enforced disappearances in
Sindh and has been campaigning for the release of Sindh’s missing persons. In June this year, I
interviewed him about the state of human rights in Sindh particularly the issue
of enforced disappearances. It was shocking to learn that police officials
refuse to file FIRs in cases involving enforced disappearances saying that the
abductors are “more powerful” than them. When activists raise their voices
against an abduction, the abductee is immediately declared criminal or
“fugitive” by local police, allegedly on orders of agencies. In instances where
the missing persons have returned home, they discontinued their activism out of
fear (and understandably so).
After a missing person is recovered there
is no accountability for those who picked them up in the first place, and the
vicious cycle continues.
While we celebrate the democratic
transition of power, it is important to be reminded that freedom of speech is
one of the cornerstones of democracy — without which — the democratic system is
Mysterious abductions are currently taking
place across the country and a significant number of the recent victims of
enforced disappearances were progressive activists. In a report issued in May,
the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances claimed to have received
5,177 cases of alleged enforced disappearances since its inception in 2011.
Enforced disappearances were previously limited to conflict-ridden areas such
as Balochistan and the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), but
the practice has recently expanded to target dissenting voices across the
The purpose of enforced disappearances is
clear: silencing of dissent. With such hostility and intolerance for criticism
being the norm, the space for alternative views has considerably shrunk over
the past few years. Therefore, it is tough being an activist in Pakistan,
especially if you are critical of the military’s policies. Because thanks to
the propaganda fed to the nation, an average Pakistani thinks those questioning
the army’s handling of affairs are enemy agents or “anti-state”, ignoring the
fact that there is nothing wrong — legally or constitutionally — with criticism
of the armed forces.
Moreover, there is little understanding
among the ‘patriot’ types about what the criticism of military entails because
instead of understanding the argument put forth by the critics, the
hyper-patriots are quick to doll out certificates of treason. For starters,
when progressive activists (who are on the receiving end of abuse as well as
violence these days) criticise the military, soldiers of Pakistan army who risk
their lives for the country are not to whom they are referring. Flawed policies
of generals who consider themselves above the law are the focal point of the
aforementioned criticism directed at the military. If it weren’t for these
wrong choices, our soldiers wouldn’t have needed to sacrifice their lives while
fighting a home-grown enemy in their own country. Therefore, it is important to
keep reminding the deep state to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
Furthermore, institutional overreaches and infringement of public liberties
including freedom of speech are among the reasons why the deep state is
criticised by democrats.
Pakistan recently saw second successful
transition of power from one democratically-elected government to another.
While we celebrate this progress, it is important to be reminded that freedom
of speech is one of the cornerstones of democracy, without which, the
democratic system is in jeopardy. As things stand, civilians who dare to
disagree with the military are being sidelined or silenced. What is worse is
that there is little to no defiance in the face of the aforementioned attempts
to clampdown on free speech. In the months leading up to the general elections,
electronic and print media was under pressure from the powers-that-be to give
limited coverage to political parties that are on the wrong side of the
establishment. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s media talks prior to his
arrest in July, for instance, were heavily censored on electronic media. This
censorship on media continues till date. News of a protest sit-in against
security forces in Miranshah, Waziristan was blacked out by mainstream media.
The new Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry
has lifted “political censorship” from state-owned media and vowed to give
editorial independence to Pakistan Television (PTV) and Radio Pakistan, which
is a step in the right direction. But it is about time something is done to
bring an end to censorship on private media as well. All democratic forces
including senior journalists should raise their voice against the ongoing
attacks on free speech, because a fully-controlled system is anything but
August 27, 2018
EVERY generation has a way of thinking of
the young one coming after it is dangerously finding new ways in which to mess
with the way nature intended things to be.
So it was that the celebrated British poet
Edwin Brock (1927 to 1997) found himself musing on the death of man. The age
through which he lived and that preceding was characterised by war, violence
and want: large-scale industrialisation, shifts in the global order, the World
Wars — to say nothing of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the early
’70s, he found himself driven to write Five Ways to Kill a Man (the anthology
by the same name was published much later) in which he dilates on the ways humanity
has found to murder and maim through the ages.
The poor Pakistani is exposed to all sorts
of lethal dangers.
“There are many cumbersome ways to kills a
man,” he begins, describing crucifixion as requiring: “[...] a crowd of people
/ wearing sandals, a cock that crows, a cloak / to dissect, a sponge, some
vinegar and one / man to hammer the nails home.” He goes on through the list of
sword (involving white horses, English trees, flags, a prince and “a castle to
hold your banquet in”); “blow gas” and “a mile of mud sliced through with
ditches” (referencing the Great Wars) and the age of aeroplanes (referencing
the atomic bomb).
“These are, as I began, cumbersome ways” he
concludes. “[…] Simpler, direct, and much more neat / is to see that he is
living somewhere in the middle / of the twentieth century, and leave him
I am reminded of this poem as corresponding
to Pakistan every time news comes up regarding how many ways there are of
killing a person in this country — so much so that it would appear that merely
being here may well be enough. The rates of maternal and child mortality do not
bear repeating, and if a child is tenacious enough to survive birth, many
challenges await him.
The issue of children’s malnourishment and
stunting are so well known as to have the new Prime Minister Imran Khan refer
to them in his inaugural speech. Having lived through this — albeit having got
a start in life that will haunt him for the rest of his life seeing the effects
on the brain and body of these two factors, particularly during the first five
years of life — what awaits the poor Pakistani is all sorts of lethal dangers
that run the gamut from road accidents to serious illnesses that are
preventable but are often not because of abysmal healthcare standards and access
And if we — you and I — can make it even
through this, too, there’s always the threat of violence or illnesses such as
naegleria fowleri (brain-eating amoeba) or dengue or simply cholera and
dysentery and pneumonia that lurk threateningly and are the demonstrable
effects of the country’s realities such as poverty, poor hygiene and
sanitation, over-crowding, and so on.
Such a long preamble is to provide context
to the news that came up recently. Titled An Experimental Study of Arsenic and
Lead Concentration in Common Food Sources, carried out by the Department of
Community Health Sciences of the Aga Khan University in collaboration with
Jichi Medical University in Japan, the study finds high likelihood that
Pakistanis are consuming edibles contaminated by lead and arsenic. The
researchers picked up chicken meat, lentils and potatoes from the open market
in Karachi. These were washed and cooked for 20 minutes in tap water, in
utensils made of aluminium, iron, stainless steel, and non-stick cookware.
The result — as one has unfortunately
become used to expecting — was that food contamination is fairly high. Chicken,
it was found, was uniformly contaminated in both raw and cooked form, most
likely because of the feed given to broiler chickens. Aluminium and steel
utensils turned out to particularly interact with lentils, causing the leaching
of lead during cooking. The study recommends more research to be carried out.
There’s no need to panic just yet. The
problem is not that of contamination of the food chain in Karachi alone — to
take just one of so many examples, food adulteration levels are also high, as
are disease-causing hygiene standards. And the issue is not limited to Pakistan
either — again, of so many examples, even developed countries are increasingly
considering measures such as fat and salt taxes to try and reverse the
insidious health consequences of junk and processed food.
But the worrying point is that such
contamination are just one of so, so many health challenges faced by the citizenry.
Which one would kill a man? Any, or all together? Or is there some comfort to
be found in the most basic fact of life, which is that it will end — perhaps is
it better to not delve too deeply into it, and work with increased effort on
IN my experience leftists and rightists are
both good in relief work. Their motives, like their vision for the future, may
differ entirely, but their methods are often similar, and derive from
When they are in a duel, as they often are,
it is a fight to the finish. Without the resolve and sacrifice of the partisans
of Leningrad, Hitler would never have been defeated. Minus the fired-up Muslim
zealots in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union would still be around. The battle
continues. Fidel Castro was asked why he stuck around when others in the
communist world had given up. He said: “I appear more leftist as the world has
shifted to the right, leaving me standing where I have always stood.”
The speed with which Cuba delivers aid,
particularly medical aid without strings, scrupulously selflessly, across the
world, must seriously worry Americans. Communists in India are similarly
gifted at providing help in a calamity. I was on a mission with them as a
student in the ’70s, delivering food and medicine on boats when large parts of
Delhi were submerged, including Najafgarh where Virender Sehwag comes from. The
comrades are excellent with mobilising resources. Above all, they care.
Cuba helped Pakistan when disaster struck,
ironically winning love and affection where the communist party was banned
almost as soon after the country came about. (From Indonesia to Algeria, via
Pakistan and Iran, wherever communists were crushed, Muslim extremism has become
an intractable challenge.)
Pro-Hindutva groups are campaigning to
foment a Hindu-Muslim divide in Kerala — having failed, they look desperate.
Recall the speed with which Muslim groups
rushed aid to remote parts of Azad Jammu and Kashmir. Even the army
struggled to reach Pakistan’s inaccessible disaster zones, the Muslim groups
The regressive Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh
(RSS) and Shiv Sena are good with relief in dire situations. I’ve watched them
at work in Latur, after a devastating earthquake hit Maharashtra in the
mid-90s. Shiv Sena volunteers with bare hands and only a mask each would lift
rotting bodies, sometimes the skin peeling off from the corpses. Their
ambulances delivered food and medicine at breakneck speed. It is another matter
that the rightwing by definition is selective in its missionary objective.
Affected Muslims, Dalits or Christians hit by calamity are less likely to
benefit from Hindutva generosity. This cannot be said of communists. It’s
because everyone makes a potential team player in their worldview. Communists
can be sectarian but that is usually with fellow communists!
A survey of trolls indicates that this
rivalry is at the heart of the grudging help given to Kerala by the Indian
government. This is one state where the RSS is desperate to get a toehold. And
a strange but robust alternation of Communist and Congress governments has
thwarted the quest resoundingly.
Expectedly, pro-Hindutva groups are
campaigning to foment a Hindu-Muslim divide. They just don’t want the
communists coming out looking good. Having tried to sow discord by pitting
Kerala’s communities against each other and failing, they look desperate.
Where do the liberals stand in this battle
between the left and the right? Allow me to offer a lighter anecdote from
Aligarh Muslim University. Volunteers from the revivalist Tablighi Jamaat could
be recognised from a distance from their pyjamas worn way above the ankle and
Kurta going below the knee. Unimpressed students in the Marris Hostel had other
things to do than to hear daily lectures on how to be a good member of the
community. But the Tablighi Jamaat volunteers would get up before dawn in
winter to bathe with freezing water. Their irritating discipline stirred a few
friends to encourage a sitar-playing cousin to prove that they were not all
They marched down the guinea pig with pomp
and ceremony on a dreary morning to the common bathroom. The man flung his
clothes on top of the shower, which allowed an icy drop to come hard on his
exposed back. The guinea pig collapsed on the ground, wiped the filth from his
knees, let off a few curse words and declared it was not the purpose of his
life to compete with the misplaced discipline of the rightwing. I’ve seen
middle of the road, ordinary folks, of course, being spontaneously helpful when
required. They can be the good Samaritans often enough. But they lack the cadre
and the drive to deliver in a calamity.
Back in Kerala, we are told India doesn’t
accept foreign aid. The UAE is a foreign country, the suffering people of
Kerala are reminded. They cite a recent rule against taking help from
Remember Munna Bhai roughing up the
insensitive doctor who told a desperate mother to fill out a tedious form
before her dying son could be admitted to the hospital? That is just about what
Modi’s Hindutva government is doing to the left-ruled Kerala.
His Bharatiya Janata Party accepted three
planeloads of earthquake relief in 2001 from the head of Pakistan whom he
derisively called “Mian Musharraf”. Three C-130 transport planes, carrying
tents and thousands of most-needed blankets, landed in Ahmedabad from
Rawalpindi. Pakistan was among a number of nations that stepped forward to
provide money, supplies or teams of experts to help India cope with the
“I have been saddened at the tragic loss of
life and property in the earthquake,”’ Gen Musharraf said, and his phone call
to then prime minister Vajpayee did indeed help break the ice between the
mutually mistrusting leaders. That’s what Prime Minister Imran Khan has tried
to do in his message of solidarity for Kerala. Remember, the same government
that accepted aid from Pakistan was generous in giving it. Vajpayee did send
millions of dollars in relief material to Katrina-hit Americans, which they
graciously accepted. Leave alone the grudging help. Can we at least be
gracious, as even enemies are when the chips are down for an opponent?
THE PTI promises a new Pakistan. But can
one measure change easily? Its manifesto, 100-day plan and PM Khan’s TV speech
contain so many promises it’s tough to even list them cogently. But the five
broad areas of basic needs, institutional reform, economy, domestic politics
and foreign policy capture them all well.
Basic needs include income, food, health,
education, housing, sanitation, water, energy, human rights, security (from
terrorism and crime) and transport. We have massive needs in all these areas.
Population, climate change and environment link closely with them. The prime
focus must be on those marginalised by ethnicity, gender, faith, etc. Since the
state must meet many basic needs directly, the PTI must reform institutions:
parliament, the justice system (accountability bodies, lower courts and
police), taxation and local bodies, and loss-making state entities. Creating a
dynamic economy that helps meet basic needs is crucial too. That produces many
sub-aims: immediately rebuilding foreign reserves; CPEC issues; cutting fiscal
and external deficits and debt by increasing tax and dollar revenues; helping
industry and agriculture increase jobs and exports; cutting inflation, interest
and unemployment rates; and increasing savings and investment. Each of these
sub-aims produces many sub-issues.
But PTI’s focus on these three could be
diverted by domestic politics and foreign affairs. Domestic politics will
involve deft handling: i) party and coalition fissures; ii) the big opposition
and its credible rigging charges; and iii) civil-military and, more broadly
now, elected-non-elected institutional fissures. The key foreign policy issues
are regional peace, Gulf politics, US tensions; and FATF issues.
All five are linked. Basic needs are the
primary aim but the economy, domestic politics and foreign policy may consume
the most time. One must measure outcomes on all five, despite poor data and the
many outcomes. But outcomes emerge slowly from state action, ie, legislation,
policies and projects. Other factors affect them too. So, one must analyse
outcomes, quality of actions and the role of other factors. Since such analysis
will challenge voters and even individual experts, parliament or civil society
must establish a neutral and competent body to track change and present
findings lucidly to voters. This will help educate them to focus on issues, and
not catchy slogans and dodgy reports by TV and social media.
Outcomes will depend on the quality of PTI
actions, and that on the quality of its team.
Outcomes will depend on the quality of PTI
actions, and that on the quality of its team. It’s too early to judge outcomes
or actions but not the team. There, one sees problems. The PTI co-opted many
‘electables’ to win and looks as stale as PML-N and PPP now. There are the
cabinet (dis)appointments, with mostly old faces taken on political grounds and
not merit. How will old faces produce new Pakistan? Fans say PM Khan is the
difference. How do we know he has such huge abilities? Fans point to his cricket
heroics. But running a complex state is much tougher than running its cricket
team. And even in cricket did he win with a weak team selected on political
grounds? Ignoring pressure, he selected the best team. He had this magic to
spot hidden talent. We don’t see that magic in selecting his cabinet.
One can also judge early populist orders to
cut costs, all in areas where managerial orders alone move mountains. But
unluckily the complex issues listed above don’t budge much before managerial
orders. Such populism will save some money. It is thus a minor plus but not a
substitute or even predictive of real change soon, which requires long effort
and very different skills. There’s much moralising happening too. So he will
live in a modest state house. Good. But cynics tired of moralising demand the
same in his private life to set an example in a place where most live in huts.
One must also judge the growing recent
violence of allegedly PTI supporters: on people by a minister in ’Pindi and an
MPA in Karachi; on opponents and anchors on TV by a leader; and on their own
offices, TV vans and even reportedly a donkey by workers. For a party saying it
is different from others, this is bad. Will PTI become like BJP, with an honest
and populist top leader who ignores rank violence and even sleaze?
I predict slow change (as before) as a
social scientist and surely no new Pakistan. Hope is good but not wild hope.
What if I am wrong? Well, I will just tweak my prediction models a bit and
continue predicting merrily. What if I am right? Even if he fails wild hope may
live on for those seeing a messiah in Imran given his cricket heroics. Our best
ex-captain is actually Misbah and not Imran. So, wild hope may soon turn to
him. Messiah Misbah — it even rhymes better!
FOR now, the mention of Prime Minister
Imran Khan seems synonymous with hope. Even those opposed to him seem willing
to go with the argument that it’s worth testing someone new.
Of course, he isn’t the first leader to
espouse such massive hope. Many statesmen around the world have. But only a few
have lived up to the expectations.
So what should the new prime minister do to
end up on the winning side? Since the elections, newspaper columns have been
filled with solid advice for him. Still, I find one missing link: how should he
conduct himself to avoid falling prey to the perverse political culture that
pervades our system? At the heart of this perversion lies the curse of
Sycophancy is the brain-eating amoeba of
Pakistani politics. It affects everyone — the upright and the compromised.
Sycophants are simply rational actors who recognise that sucking up to the boss
offers greater benefit than objective critique in cultures with weak integrity
and an absence of meritocracy.
Khan should rule Pakistan as a last-term
To be sure, different leaders have
different levels of susceptibility to sycophancy. But no one comes into office
believing that they’ll fall for it. Yet, most end up addicted. Leaders tend to
get surrounded by a group of people who act as gatekeepers. The leader’s
reality begins to be shaped; they gradually lose touch with the view on the
street. This problem tends to be acuter in contexts like Pakistan’s where there
is no end to bad news; praise, genuine or not, offers leaders welcome relief
from the constant stress and anguish of dealing with the country’s myriad
Talk to people who worked for Benazir,
Musharraf, or Nawaz and they’ll tell you how each one’s inner circle changed
from the candid and objective to the sycophants over time; how this was
perfectly correlated with these leaders’ transformation from being patient
listeners to imposers of their will and dismissive of anything unflattering.
Khan won’t be immune to these pressures.
And no matter how different he may be from his predecessors, sycophancy will
begin to affect his outlook unless he consciously acts to nip it in the bud
First, he will need to deal with his
immediate surroundings. Four steps are in order: one, explicitly tell the
cabinet that they are barred from praising Imran Khan, the individual; make an
example of the ones who think he’s bluffing. Two, appoint one or two
individuals to attend cabinet meetings specifically to play devil’s advocate in
every policy conversation — in military terms, ‘red team’ it. Three, regularly
meet different opinion-makers (policy experts, journalists, business elite) who
are critical of you; let them speak their mind and absorb what makes sense —
appreciate them and force your team to act upon their constructive suggestions.
Four, keep the gatekeepers — formal ones like your principal secretary or
military secretary or self-anointed ones pretending to protect you from the
riffraff — in check.
Second, Khan should rule Pakistan as a
last-term prime minister. As the political realities of an in-power party hit
home, so will the inherent tradeoffs between populist, vote-solidifying moves
and decisions that are in the country’s long-term interests but could hurt a
government’s support-base. As this begins to become apparent, sycophants will
pounce. They’ll convince the boss that visionary decisions with only long-term
gains will force them out of power. Often, this argument becomes potent as a
leader gets into the second half of his or her term in office. In the PTI’s
case, Khan’s populist promises and the sky-high expectations associated with
him could make it attractive much earlier. To forestall this, Khan needs to shun
any conversation that pleads populism for re-election over merit-based
Third, the prime minister should devolve
important decision-making in ways that make it unattractive for sycophants to
target him. Khan should consider his job to be a recruiter-at-large and resist
any and every urge to micromanage things. Pakistan’s problems are too vast and
complex for a hands-on leadership approach to work. Instead, the prime
minister’s time should be spent recruiting the best talent for the key public-sector
political and technocratic positions around the country and empowering them to
deliver results. The sycophants would then find more value in flocking to these
decision-makers. This is a far less damaging prospect as long as the prime
minister can set up a mechanism to evaluate the performance of these
individuals on a regular basis and penalise those unable to perform — because
the sycophants have got the better of them or otherwise.
All this is easier said than done. But
evidence is unflinching: you fall for it and you become delusional — no matter
who you are.
THE Khan promises to be frugal with the
government’s entertainment and transport budget and his critics are up in arms.
It’s a sham. It’s not enough. It was promised before in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but
Austerity plays an odd role in Pakistani
politics, different from the West.
In the West, austerity measures generally
relate to state spending on welfare measures, such as health. But at home, it’s
all about how frugal our rulers can be with the expenses on government houses
and the cars they are allowed.
So, while PTI critics are making snarky
remarks about Ziaul Haq to draw unflattering parallels between the current
government and what the military dictator once promised, the truth is that our
governments always harp on austerity — except for the PPP wallahs who rarely
bother with such gimmicks.
There was a sense of déjà vu to the
promises of simpler governance.
The PML-N too had a similar austere
beginning in 2013 when it promised not to take any journalists for free on its
official tours — this was just one such measure it announced, which followed a
Supreme Court action in the PPP days about the discretionary funds of the
information ministry. The step was greeted with applause and some perplexity,
and in the beginning, there was much discussion about the air tickets and hotel
stays being paid for by media organisations.
Then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had also
promised to reduce the expenses of the government by keeping the cabinet small
(unlike the PPP which had by the end created new ministries to accommodate its
allies). There were, also, suggestions of not moving into the prime minister’s
Back in the 1997 term as well, there were
similar promises of tightening the belt and living frugally. In his earliest
speeches, Nawaz Sharif had promised to reduce government expenses drastically.
There was even talk of using the governor houses and other such grand state
buildings to earn money — a suggestion that set off as much controversy as the
Khan’s promises have now, even though there was no social media back then.
No wonder then that when Khan took over,
there was a sense of déjà vu to his promises of simpler governance. Though of
course, this continuity is rarely acknowledged as the PTI tends to blindly
believe that every announcement by its government is a clean break from the
past; equally unfortunate is the behaviour of its critics who too are so busy
poking holes in the austerity campaign that they have forgotten history.
But politics in Pakistan is inextricably
intertwined with notions of austerity. No wonder then that even the PPP has
jumped on the bandwagon, with stories of how when they first came into power,
they decided to forego first class and travel only in business class (an
announcement that has now been made by the new foreign minister)! This is an
austerity measure exclusive to our part of the world. But that is another
This obsession with austerity is partly
because of the gap between the lifestyles of our rulers and those they govern.
The reportedly lavish lifestyles, the
palatial residences, the roads that are blocked for ‘VIP movement’ help create
the image of a wasteful government whose officials live like monarchs, while
the ordinary people struggle with making ends meet. The contrasting images of
officials and their retinues in sprawling buildings with the poverty people
struggle with are always visible. It adds to the sense of a government which
rules, rather than serves.
Social media has multiplied the problems by
allowing ready access to images of the down-to-earth European officials, who
are pictured riding their bikes to work or mopping up their spilt coffee.
All this adds urgency to the middle-class
clamour in the press about rulers being more ‘like us’ — more like the middle
This too is far from an accurate portrayal
of society because the ‘us’ is far from the entire country; those living in
poverty cannot even add a voice to this and point out that ‘us’, which is
essentially the middle class, is in itself a social class that excludes many.
Nonetheless, the ‘us’ sells as does the notion that the ruling classes need to
appear more ‘normal’ and less privileged; this pressure is tangible enough to
force the governments to announce austerity measures.
Perhaps the constant sense that governments
are unable to deliver all that is now deemed necessary — roads, health, education,
security, water — compels the governments to focus on the idea of austerity.
It’s a quick way to show that something is being done, even though it may not
mean much in the larger, economic scheme of things.
It’s also an easier way to address the
complex economic issues linked to our eternal efforts to control expenditures —
austerity is easier to sell than explain debt-interest repayments, defence
spending and the miserly export earning (which always will now remind us of Dar
and his idea of economics). Even Margaret Thatcher couldn’t resist comparing
running a country to managing a household budget.
All of this compels society to romanticise
the idea of austerity and link it to good governance.
But despite the romanticism, the idea of
austerity as our governments practice it is rarely worthwhile. It’s no solution
to our economic problems and neither can it turn those who ‘rule’ us into those
who ‘serve’ us without major reforms in the system of governance. Which is
perhaps why, the austerity measures and the debate over them is forgotten
within days and weeks of a new government taking over.
The PTI would do well to remember this.
It’s time to govern and reform, rather than waste our time in spelling out its
austerity measures and debating the number of cars being used and the kind of
biscuits being served at the government’s expense. Let’s get down to the real