Intellectual Hartal

By Mahmood Adeel

Ghazi Salahuddin’s column in The News last weekend has caused something of a stir among drawing room politicos and the intellectual left. But Ghazi’s fantasy that Nawaz Sharif would challenge the PPP from the left is a symptom of a larger problem that has infected the intellectual left: They have become so out of touch that they have forgotten how to be politically productive, instead knowing only how to be politically destructive. This is not intellectual honesty, it is intellectual hartal.

The AC Bus

When I was a boy, I hated the long journey from Lahore to Liaqatpur to visit my father’s ancestral home. The sweltering heat and the rocking of the bus always made me ill. I had a boyhood friend, however, whose family each year visited Multan and he always looked forward to the trip and talked excitedly about it. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that not all transport was equal. Unlike my bus, there were some buses and transports with AC. My boyhood friend and I lived in the same town and went to the same school and played cricket on the same pitch – but we lived in completely different worlds.

Similarly, too many intellectuals have been living so long in their ‘Ivory Towers’ that they simply do not realize that the rest of us are traveling through life on a rickety¬† old bus with no AC. We do what we have to so that we can get where we need to be. It’s not always comfortable, but we get there.

These leftist intellectuals have been removed from the real world since their university debates in the 1960s. Spending decades in drawing rooms and newspaper pages, they have kept the ability to be critical, but they have lost the knowledge of how to be constructive; they can tear down any political pragmatist, but they cannot provide productive answers themselves.

Genie Wish

It is fine to watch Amitabh play a magical genie on the Silver Screen, but we must know that when we leave the theatre, we return to the real world and Amitabh is not going to be there to do a song and dance routine to fulfill our fantasies.

And yet, Ghazi seems to have forgotten this fact of reality. Rather than look at reality, he wants to “imagine the possibility of Nawaz Sharif changing his political stripes and, lo and behold, becoming a modern, progressive and even a secular leader to challenge the Pakistan People’s Party not from the right but from the left”.

I like to sometimes imagine myself with millions of Rupees and never having to go to work or worry about any money problems again. But I do not plan my finances under such an illusion. I do not quit my job because I can imagine being wealthy. Rather it is something to laugh about over a cup of tea and then get back to work so that my bills are paid on time.

Ghazi, though, confuses his imagination with reality.

My flight of fancy, though I fervently wish it is not entirely wishful, is rooted in the realisation that Pakistan’s existence may be threatened if it does not readily change its course and, in a sense, make a new beginning. For that – for anything, for that matter – we need inspired and visionary leadership. Where will it come from if not from the available, though seemingly awful lot?Yes, Nawaz Sharif is seen as a rightist reactionary. There were those early hints of wanting to become an Amir-ul-Momineen.

But, as Shakespeare said, there is a tide in the affairs of men – and in the affairs of nations, in our context. If it is taken at the flood, it leads on to fortune. “Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and miseries”. The point is that the rising challenge of religious extremism and intolerance is also an opportunity for a courageous and creative politician. There is dire need for a sweeping rejection of the kind of ideology that has brought us to our present state of desperation. And it is for Nawaz Sharif to “take the current when it serves”.

Ghazi Salahuddin sees hope in Nawaz Sharif’s statement that Ahmadis are “brothers and sisters”. Isn’t this setting the bar quite low? Is it enough simply to recognize the humanity of someone? But even Ghazi admits that Nawaz in his moment of leftist triumph “did not have the courage to visit the site of the tragedy and condole the elders of the community”. He admits that Nawaz wanted to become an Amir-ul-Momineen, so why does he look to him, among all of the ‘awful lot’ as his saviour?

When I play bridge, I am dealt a certain hand that I must play as best as possible. I can ignore the reality of my hand and wish that I have all trumps, but if I play my wishes instead of my actual cards, I will surely lose. Putting all your hopes on Nawaz Sharif transforming into a leftist is a losing strategy.

Pragmatism, Not Defeatism

The intellectual left needs to face reality, and – whether we like it or not – reality requires pragmatism. When Bill Clinton was President of the USA, he was roundly criticised by the left in his country for what was called ‘triangulation’ – taking ideas from the left and the right and creating a middle course that appealed to the center. President Obama has been criticised also by the American left who believe that winning the elections in 2008 would make it easy for them to pass whatever laws they want. Actually, though, governing is more complicated than that.

We have no shortage of issues that need to be addressed. Each of them requires not only good solutions, but bringing together all the people necessary to pass the laws and enforce them also. It is no good to simply make speeches and write newspaper columns. Ministers and MNAs have to work together – even with people they don’t agree with – to get things done. And then there is the public, which can change its mind depending on the weather.

Is patronage politics really the biggest problem in the nation? Certainly not. So why do we waste our time worrying about the curtains when the house is on fire? In a perfect fantasy Pakistan, there would be no patronage. But we don’t live in fantasy Pakistan, we live in real Pakistan.

When Benazir Bhutto was PM, here was an example of democracy battling dictatorship in a war for the soul of Pakistan. And yet still the intellectual left would not give her a break! Today, rather than try to work with liberal political leaders, the intellectual left is trying to recruit Nawaz Sharif to their cause? Wouldn’t it be more realistic to support liberal politicians and welcome Nawaz Sharif to move towards the center, rather than abandoning natural allies and trying to convince a tiger to change his stripes?

Nawaz Sharif is nobody’s fool. He knows that these intellectual leftists do not have the popular support or the political base to provide the votes necessary to win elections. But he also knows that they have enough media influence to be what Lenin described as ‘useful idiots’.

One has to wonder if the intellectual left would rather lose so that they can complain which is easier than making the difficult choices necessary to govern. This may be possible from the comfort of their Ivory Towers, but for the rest of us it is not an option. In the real world, someone must actually do the hard work of governing. Do we want that to be a political party on the right or the left? Do we want democrats in office or do we want an Amir-ul-Momineen?

Patience, not Pessimism

Raghuram G. Rajan, distinguished Professor of Finance at the University of Chicago, wrote in his new book Fault Lines that what we call the ‘developed’ democracies of the West did not become wealthy nations overnight. Just as it took hundreds of years for these nations to build their economies, also the political systems of these nations took hundreds of years (and many wars) to evolve from feudalism in which only white, land-owning men could participate to the more liberal democracies that we see today.

Even the United States that is used as a model for democratic culture has a long history of feudalism and patronage politics. It was American Supreme Court Justice John Jay who said in the 18th Century that ‘The people who own the country ought to govern it’. The Democratic Party had an organization called “Tammany Hall” that operated with patronage and corruption until the 20th century. Even in today’s America under the rule of President Barack Obama there is patronage.

None of this is an excuse for corruption, feudalism, patronage, or cronyism. But it is to say that we must keep a sense of perspective and an eye to the future.

We have to make a choice

Ghazi Salahuddin writes that, “When I daydream about Nawaz Sharif’s political makeover, I am also conscious of the grim reality.” Let’s stop talking about daydreams and talk about reality.

This is our choice: We can do what we need to do – holding our collective nose if we have to – to make incremental progress and move our nation forward, keeping our eye firmly on the goal of a future Pakistan that is free, democratic, peaceful and prosperous; or we can daydream and complain about everything while the nation burns to the ground.

These are your options. What is your choice?


Adeel is the Group Editor of and he can be reached at

One thought on “Intellectual Hartal

  1. It is clear that the right wing has not failed to learn the lesson of pragmatism. They have been making compromises and accepting short term losses to make long term gains. When will the liberals wake up and realize that if we do not stand together we will be out run in this race?

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