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Dawn Columns: 15.07.2019

A vision for the future

July 15, 2019

IT is difficult to support any political party in Pakistan for an obvious reason. They are so full of corrupt, uncaring and incompetent leaders that associating with them comes across either as opportunism or stupidity. Those who manipulate political leaders are even less to be admired.

The kings and kingmakers have now led the country into very dangerous territory. It is a fact that Pakistan entered a moral decline early on when its value system was buffeted [beat again and again] by Partition. Only one dimension of this decline need be mentioned to make the point — the land grab. It ensued at the outset, initiated by bureaucrats entrusted with the trust of abandoned properties, was followed by the rampaging [بھگدڑ] era of land mafias, and continued by the legalised involvement of state institutions. This created a worldview in which the only way to get ahead was the manipulation of rules in one way or another.

This rout [شکست] of moral values seeped into other walks of life including sports, the arts and academia. Once the generation fired by the emotion of creating a new country faded out, it was not replaced by talent of an equal stature — there are no modern Abdus Salams.

This decline was unsurprising since organisations that nurtured talent became the playground of patronage. Once again, a single example suffices. Consider the appointments to the various sports federations in Pakistan. As performance dropped precipitously[سیدھی نیچے یا سیدھی اوپر] across the board — in hockey, squash, athletics — there was no accountability. Changes, if they occurred, were part of the rotation of favourites coinciding with the change of political regimes.

Such a steep decline in moral values combined with the dominance of patronage in the allocation of resources could not leave the economy untouched. What can be a better indicator of the decline than the number of rupees required to purchase one US dollar — from Rs3.25 in 1950 to Rs158 today. Granted salaries have increased but are nowhere commensurate with the decline of the buying power of the rupee. One way to imagine the change in real income would be to compare the kilograms of flour purchasable with the daily wage of an unskilled worker in 1950 and today. The difference would be marginal. The comparison would be stark with a country like South Korea that has progressed economically over this period.  

The nature of declines is such that they can remain gradual for long periods before reaching a tipping point at which a free fall begins. Pakistan might well be entering such a period where a randomly thrown match could ignite a forest fire. The political dynamics of such periods are quite distinct. It is no longer the case of political parties leading the people to force a change; rather it is mobs whom political parties can decide to rally behind if they choose. Such dynamics can be triggered by a policeman slapping a pushcart vendor or a doctor refusing to treat an indigent [محتاج] woman.

We are no longer living in times when a collapse of governance could be arrested by the intervention of a more competent external power like Britain, which ended the anarchy of the decaying Mughal Empire. In today’s world, anarchy could linger unchecked with various players jockeying for advantage from the chaos without putting an end to the misery.

In such a situation, with tragedy staring one in the face, it is an academic exercise to imagine what a political party would be like that one could support in good faith and with some hope for the future. For one, it would not choose the path of victimisation. Not for nothing is the ‘Reign of Terror’ that followed the most celebrated revolution in modern history recalled with horror. No number of people sent to the guillotine or confined to the Bastille succeeded in achieving the high-sounding goals of purification. 

It is self-defeating to create an environment in which every person, not just the guilty, begins to feel insecure for fear that some excuse would be found to prosecute those who do not fall in line. It is a self-defeating obsession to nab the last crook if the cost is to jeopardise the morale of millions of innocent people. A responsible political party would build the trust that no honest person need fear in its reign and extend the benefit of the doubt with the larger objective in view. 

A responsible political party would adjust to the dire situation by repairing relations with its neighbours even if that necessitated difficult compromises. With a vulnerable economy, each passing day weakens the bargaining position. People need to be taken into confidence instead of being misled by self-serving narratives. This adjustment would allow the reallocation of scarce resources to the stagnant economy.

A responsible political party would craft an indigenous[مقامی، لوکل], people-oriented economic policy instead of dreaming of recovering looted wealth or chasing external funds on terms not disclosed to citizens. Such a policy would focus on raising the incomes of the bottom half of the population with initiatives focused on supply-constrained sectors like low-cost housing and agro-processing, which are less vulnerable to foreign competition. Along with boosting incomes, the policies would have the twin objective of creating the maximum number of jobs. This would trigger a virtuous cycle for products of industrial sectors running below capacity because of stagnant demand. 

A policy of this type would shift away from the la-la land of cutting-edge research, high-tech innovation, and cities as engines of growth and be grounded in the realities of where most people live (rural areas and secondary cities) and work (the informal sector) and of sectors where demand outstrips supply.

A responsible political party would also entirely revamp the education, health, environmental sanitation and contract labour systems, all broken at the moment. These revamps would enable people to realise their potential and be healthy and skilled for the needs of the economy. 

In short, a responsible political party would focus on the majority, not the minority; on rewarding, not punishing; on reality, not delusions[خوش فہمیاں]; and on the future, not the past. 

The writer was dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Lums.

Published in Dawn, July 15th, 2019


Unrooted politics

July 15, 2019

 RECENT events concerning an accountability court judge and the trial of Nawaz Sharif have thrown a couple of aspects of Pakistan’s political sphere into sharp focus. The first is that it confirms a headline lesson learnt from a particular brand of anti-corruption interventions in other parts of the world: mainly that if ‘exemplary punishment’ is the major pillar on which anti-corruption reform is going to rest (rather than changes in law and shutting off of loopholes), then the entire edifice [the whole structure of a building, system of beliefs] is going to be deeply politicised and will result in unintended political consequences.

The second aspect of Maryam Nawaz’s press conference shows another long-standing feature of Pakistani politics: the overwhelming impact of elite factional intrigue [سازش] and murky [دھندلی، غیر شفاف] happenings on the political sphere. This is not to suggest that Pakistan is somehow unique in this manner. Shadowy transactions and tussles tend to shape legislation, decision-making, and who controls state power and who doesn’t the world over. What makes it particularly pronounced in Pakistan is the continued regularity and centrality with which these patterns emerge and play themselves out.

Let’s take recent events as an example. An allegedly compromised accountability judge was apparently being coerced to give out a decision that impacted not only the fate of a former three-time prime minister, but ultimately the contours of political/electoral contestation in the country. Regardless of whatever version of the coercion story you buy, it’s hard to shake the fact that those in power, responsible for governing the fate of over 200 million people, would be facing different circumstances if some alleged video hadn’t been leaked or some blackmailing hadn’t been done, or speaking historically, if a set of uniformed officers hadn’t decided they wanted to ‘fix’ the country in a way they alone deemed fit.

Ultimately, what we’re left with is a situation in which control of the state is being determined by hidden transactions.

Ultimately, what we’re left with is a situation in which control of the state (from who gets to call the shots over economic policy, the actual content of policymaking, and who gets to stand for office) is being determined by hidden transactions, chicken-games, media deflections and so on. To borrow a word used to describe contemporary politics in countries like Egypt, all of it feels entirely unrooted. Unrooted from the constitutional design, which lays out a fairly straightforward form of republican parliamentary-democratic government. And unrooted, in a sociological sense, from the people upon which this state and its politics exercises power over. 

Even the exercise of voting, perhaps the most direct way people can exercise opinion, is conditioned by all the shadowy intrigue that goes before and after it, which ultimately decides who gets to stand for office and who goes to jail, as well as whose persona gets extra coverage in the media and whose interviews get shut off.

To give an even more acute example that illustrates this unrooted-ness, at a time of heavy taxation and rising inflationary pressures, of a contracting economy and the threat of heightened unemployment, our politics (and accompanying political discourse) is not being determined by public pressure or perceptions, but instead, overwhelmingly, by who all has a copy of some video of an allegedly crooked judge.

There’s one obvious and one less-obvious explanation for this unrooted-ness, for why murky, conspiracy-laden intrigue between different sets of elites dominates Pakistan’s political happenings, outcomes and discourse. The obvious one is the power of unelected institutions, primarily the army, but, since 2007, the judiciary as well. These two institutions are not directly answerable to the people in any procedural or constitutional form. As much as they like to claim that they are serving (some vague definition of) the people, and both have done so vociferously [شدت کے ساتھ] over much of recent history, they are seen as more often serving to expand the political and policy space they possess.

The less-obvious explanation centres around the weakness of the political parties themselves. This is something that is (understandably) ignored in the primary way of looking at things from a civil-military imbalance perspective. Pakistan’s mainstream political parties are categorically unrooted. They have no organised ties to any social group. Yes, they claim to speak for some demographic or the other — the PML-N for the Punjabi middling sorts, the PTI for the youth and the educated middle class, the PPP for the Sindhi rural populace, etc. But none of this is borne out in the way these parties are organised, how they compete during elections, or how they interact with their voters.

When Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) says it speaks for the conservative Anatolian marginalised by years of chauvinistic[ شدت کا رویہ وطن کی محبت میں] republicanism, it is able to count on (and demonstrate) the support of thousands of community groups, hundreds of religious neighbourhood associations, the Muslim businessmen forum MUSIAD, conservative trade unions and so on. These groups, in part, have been organised by the AKP, and in part, they have helped raise the AKP to its current position. Despite the country’s praetorian past and increasingly authoritarian turn, the success and longevity of the Turkish ruling party now rests primarily on its ability to keep its constituents and its coalition of supporters satisfied. Failing to do so will change its political fortunes. In other words, politics is firmly rooted within society.

Now contrast this with Pakistan where even the supposedly new-age PTI is unable to organise its support in any meaningful form and where political discourse around a government’s health remains fixated not on public opinion of its performance, but on whether it’s kept the military happy or not.

The long shadow cast by powerful unelected institutions is undoubtedly overwhelming. But simultaneously what political elites have been unable to appreciate so far is that the country’s political fortunes will remain tied to factional intrigue and murky conspiracies unless a more robust relationship, ie one based on organisation and mass contact, with the electorate can be forged. 

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.


Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, July 15th, 2019

Murky spaces

Updated July 15, 2019

 THE UK Foreign Office last week hosted a global conference on press freedom, which saw 60 ministers from around the world and hundreds of journalists gather to champion independent journalism and reiterate its criticality for democracy. 

The conference caused a buzz in Pakistan because of videos on social media showing Shah Mehmood Qureshi addressing a large hall of empty chairs, perceived as an international critique of the state’s crackdown on free media. 

It also made headlines in the UK for exposing the government’s hypocrisy: on the same day that the conference kicked off, Britain was defending itself in a case brought by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism along with other human rights organisations over UK intelligence agencies’ mass surveillance of citizens, including journalists’ communications. 

Nothing about leaks is clear-cut.

These events unfolded alongside the political storm stirred by the publication of the former UK ambassador to the US’s leaked diplomatic correspondence. The ambassador, who described the Trump administration as ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘inept’, became the focal point of both growing UK-US tensions and toxic Brexit politics within the UK. And while participants in the Foreign Office conference defended media freedom, the Metropolitan police threatened to prosecute journalists who publish leaked information. 

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, political dynamics were thrown further asunder [apart] with a different kind of leak: that of videos allegedly showing accountability court judge Arshad Malik claiming he was pressurised to convict Nawaz Sharif. While not a leak in the classic sense — there was no leak of classified government information — the videos raise the same questions as more typical news leaks, with similarly vital political implications. 

Leaks lie in the murkiest space within the intersections of democracy, state sovereignty and press freedom. In the UK, the leak of the diplomatic correspondence has pitted civil servants’ ability to safely share candid assessments against journalists’ imperative to publish leaked information in service of accountability and the public’s right to know. 

Nothing about leaks is clear-cut. Most countries have laws explaining when leaks are illegal, usually when the classified documents could undermine national security. But much legislation is vaguely worded; for example, the Official Secrets Act, under which the source of the leaked diplomatic correspondence could be prosecuted, talks of “damaging disclosure” that could “endanger the interest of the United Kingdom abroad”. In many cases, however, the accountability argument trumps other considerations. Consider the outrage that followed the police raid last month of the Australian national broadcaster after it broadcast leaked information about the military’s potential involvement in war crimes in Afghanistan. 

The low prosecution rate of leaks in mature democracies such as the UK and US points to the complexities around this kind of information flow. Sources are difficult to identify, prosecution would often entail the release of additional sensitive information and, more relevantly, governments prefer to remain lenient on leaks because they are a tactic purposefully used by officials as a strategy to share information and test ideas with the opposition and wider public. 

In a post-WikiLeaks, digital world, news leaks are an integral part of the information landscape. And they throw up serious challenges for journalists. Reporters who receive leaks have to weigh the legality of publishing information, its implications for national security, its reliability and verifiability, and its newsworthiness in light of the public interest. 

But increasingly, journalists must weigh whether the leak is in service of an explicit political agenda. In the cases of both Kim Darroch, the UK ambassador to the US, and Malik the answer is yes. Darroch is known to be in favour of the UK remaining within the EU, and the journalist who published the leaked information is well connected with hard-line Brexiteers. There is much speculation [guessing] within the UK media that the leaked diplomatic correspondence is a warning to pro-EU civil servants not to jeopardise Brexit. In Malik’s case, the leaked videos’ role in tussles between the PML-N and the PTI government as well as the establishment more broadly is obvious. 

The increasing political bias of news leaks is a dimension that needs greater focus. Leaks increase when states and governments function poorly; when politicians and government officials are unable — owing to political dynamics, fear, or expediency — to openly debate critical policies. Leaks become the recourse when other dynamics, such as political polarisation and creeping authoritarianism, begin to undermine the workings of democracy. It seems we should focus less on the leaks and the journalists who publish them, and more on the underlying political drivers for them. 

The writer is a freelance journalist.


Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, July 15th, 2019

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