Where Are The Ideas?

We need to put together a foreign aid package for President Obama as a thank you for the billions his government has sent us. Our aid package can contain the political strategies of Zardari that help him, even while unpopular with the intelligentsia, win by polls. Even the PML guys can throw in their own help with some memos on the latest coalition building. And in exchange, we can ask Obama not to send anymore billions, but just a few people with actual policy ideas.

If there’s one thing that our politicians and intellectuals understand too well, it’s politics. My god, everyone in the country not only has an opinion, they are also experts on the subject. If politics was a natural resource that could be exported, we would be the wealthiest nation in the world.

Cyril Almeida makes this point perfectly in Dawn yesterday.

Unfortunately, we’re also one of the poorest nations when it actually comes to some policies for our politicians to enact once we elect them. This is also reflected in Cyril’s column – not by what he says, but what he doesn’t say. For all his exposition on the political strategies in Islamabad, there’s not one single sentence about the policies that might actually do some good for the people who don’t lust to have ‘Mian’, ‘Amir’, ‘MNA’ or ‘Minister’ before their name.

Ayaz Amir says as much in his piece for The News. I do think that he is much to sour in his writing – how can not come away with a stomach ache after reading it? But he does make one or two important points which I would like to draw to your attention.

First, he makes the observation that the media is not actually helping anything. Recently I was watching Shahid Masood’s show and a young woman commented that these TV anchors simply invite people on who they can prod into loud arguments and at the end of the show there is no solution proposed, no recommendations for action – just more yelling.  Here’s how Ayaz Amir characterizes it:

The crisis we face is more serious than we think. It is not just about fuel prices, sugar, inflation in general, or the breakdown of law and order. If it was only this there would still be hope. What we are facing is a bankruptcy of ideas, a governing class – covering the political and military spectrum – that can’t ask the right questions and therefore is in no position to get the right answers.

President Obama has had his comeuppance in the midterm congressional elections. He looks chastened and a bit beaten. The American electorate had a choice and it has exercised it. But what if there was such a moment in Pakistan? What choice would we have? What would be the alternatives on offer? None, because there would be none to begin with. Just more of the same, the past recycled to represent the future. This is a greater crisis than anything on the economic horizon.

Every wakeup call in the morning, when you scan the newspapers, is an invitation to cynicism.

And it is not just TV shows, either. The media gets criticised (though, let me tell you, it doesn’t seem to be getting through their thick skulls) but in a sense why should we expect from our journalists what our own intellectuals can’t even handle?

The spirit of Gen Zia lives on. In a nation that could never claim a shortage of false piety, he raised an entire temple complex to the spirit of hypocrisy. His legacy endures. The Pakistan of today is not cast in the image of Jinnah or Iqbal. The veneer of democracy notwithstanding, it is a tribute to the spirit of Zia. The supremacy of form over substance of which he was the master engineer continues to blight what, without a trace of irony, we call an Islamic Republic.

What should be our charter of economic renewal? Have any books been written on the subject? Are we even seriously debating this issue? Foreigners, and an increasing number of them, come and give us lectures on governance and economic policy and we accept what they say because we have little of our own to add to the narrative or the debate.

I have said before that I am sick to death of all these people clamoring from their TV studios and computer keyboard for some ‘revolution’ without even thinking about what they means or to what end they are revolting. But I will say that this country is desperate for a revolution of ideas.

I think we throw the label ‘intellectual’ around too easily. We have set the bar too low. All you need is some degree and in a county where everything has its price, it is well known that even an impressive sounding degree can be purchased.

But too many of our so-called intellectuals are not thinkers, they are simply parrots who learn to repeat certain catch phrases about hegemony or sovereignty or corruption. They give everyone a headache with their constant squawking until the people are ready to do whatever they say if they will simply shut up!

But this is no way to move a country forward. Jinnah had ideas. Iqbal had ideas. These were men who did not yell at each other about problems, they thought seriously about how to solve them. Where are our ideas now? They cannot have perished with these men. We need thoughtful people to step up to the task and begin a discussion not about politics and personalities, but about ideas.

Lathi Politics

A visitor from another planet would be forgiven if he dropped in today and believed that Iftikhar Chaudhry and Babar Awan are the national pop stars. It seems like they spend more time on TV and on the front page of the newspapers than anyone else in the country. Which is really quite strange if you stop to consider it for a moment. As everyone knows, the story is the ongoing feud between the executive and the judiciary. But again this seems strange. For all the predictions about the court overreaching and throwing out Zardari or the executive overreaching and withdrawing judicial reinstatements – nothing ever happens. So what’s all the yelling about?

Cyril Almeida has an interesting perspective. He sees the behavior of the executive and the court as a type of political jockeying that can be explained largely as a leftover from the past.

The government’s strategy is quite obvious: stall. Buy time, somehow, anyhow, and let the clock wind down on the government’s term as far as possible. The why isn’t hard to figure out. Zardari & co are convinced the robes are getting their cues from Raiwind and/or Rawalpindi. Which means they fear the ultimate goal may be the government’s ouster, or of Zardari and his circle.

If there is a judicial trend that is discernible, it is this: carve out and fiercely protect an institutional space for a judiciary that has historically been trampled by the other institutions and powers-that-be.

The biggest fight to date — not in terms of fireworks, but in substance — has been over the appointment of superior court judges, first over the fate of justices Ramday, Saqib Nisar and Khwaja Sharif and now over the 18th Amendment appointment process. That’s not very surprising. The goal of a hermetically sealed judiciary, wherein the judges dictate who can become a member of their fraternity, is perhaps the single biggest step towards a judiciary which can assert itself as the constitutional framework aspired for it to do.

Remember, the judges are fighting the weight of history, not legal theory. If they err on the side of excess — pushing back on the appointment issue even when there are genuine concerns of jurisprudential overreach — they can justify it as necessary to throw off the executive’s yoke. In a deterministic sense, they are probably right.

Now slot the NRO saga into this framework. Keeping the government on the defensive, keeping it mired in controversy and muck works to the court’s advantage. If the government tries to create fissures and divisions in the superior judiciary, as the judges must surely suspect some in the government would love to do, the court can cry foul — activating the media, public and opposition combine of true believers and opportunists waving the flag of the heroic Court of CJ Iftikhar against the villainy of the rule of Zardari.

So the NRO/NAB stick is looking less and less like a knife meant to be plunged into the heart of the government and more and more like a blunt object to rap the government’s knuckles and thwart any clever ideas about undermining or dominating the judiciary.

Unlike most of the conspiracy theories and rumours being peddled on TV, this actually does make some sense.

Pakistan does not have a power vacuum, we have a power stalemate. Everyone is paralyzed because everyone is suspecting the other of some subterfuge. Zardari cannot trust the judiciary because he has already served so many years in jail without ever being convicted, and now he continues to see judges holding threats over his head. The CJ cannot trust Zardari because he has already been treated badly in the past by Musharraf who threw him out and had him detained on house arrest.

We have a real problem with trust in this country. Jis ki lathi, us ki bhens. It’s a lesson that has been too deeply ingrained in our national psyche. But this is no way to live, in constant suspicion and fear. If we are going to save this country, we must being learning to trust one another.

There are two sad ironies in this case. The first is that these two men could probably be a most powerful force for moving the country forward if only they could learn to trust one another.

The second sad irony is that, even though the men who held the lathis have been gone for some years, they are still wielding this awful power of fear over the country.

Our problem is not Kalashnikov politics, it is lathi politics. It’s time to put an end to the power of Zia, of Musharraf, of the corrupt judges of the past and all the other lathi wielders that have left scars on our nation. It’s time to unclench our fists and join hands. It’s time to heal.

Divided, we are doomed. Together, anything is possible.

Rethinking India

Cyril Almeida’s column today is worth reading and thinking about for a while. This passage in particular struck me as something to read more than once…

To anyone who hasn’t lived and breathed the feinbild of India as the enemy for decades, as all generals have, the problem is straightforward: the conception of India as an incorrigible, recidivist foe who can never be trusted in matters big and small has hurt us in the past, and, given the present trajectories of the two countries, will hurt us even more in the future.

To give but a simple example: at present, as we have done before, we are looking to faraway America and its proxies, the international financial institutions, to keep the economy on life support; yet, right next door we have a country obsessed with economic growth and still we keep shut the door to trade (Indian non-tariff barriers notwithstanding) — a door that could lead to other, strategic benefits.

If we continue this culture of suspicion and distrust, constant tension and harsh words with our neighbor to the East – what are the benefits…and what are the costs?