Published 8th May 2013 in The Express Tribune (shorter e-paper version here)
President Mirza might have been wrong.
A lifetime ago, a gentleman called Iskander Mirza threw democracy out of Pakistan. Speaking in 1958, Mirza felt free choice unfit for a nation ‘only 15% literate’, and vowed to draw up a new constitution ‘more suited to the genius’ of the Pakistani people. It’s an argument shared by today’s elite: we’re a jahil people, too petty to know how to run our lives, and certainly too backward to choose the right candidate. But President Mirza, the first in a line of executive tragedies, had it wrong. Democracy is exactly suited to the genius of the people of Pakistan.
There’s reason this idea took hold as late as it did. For much of our history, the state tried everything to prove the late major general right. It heaved and heaved against a torrent headed in the opposite direction. It denied Mujib-ur-Rehman in 1970, with heartbreaking results. It reduced the polls to a joke in 1977, and watched people die. It held party-less elections in 1985, ensuring our lawmakers would talk less of world prestige and more about the Jat baradri. It rigged the elections for the same waistcoat-wearing uncles in 2002 that it bribed in 1990.
But nothing unnatural can last forever. After upending 50 years of due process, all it took really, was five years. Five years without smoke and mirrors. This was a stint of genuine civilian rule the 1990s never was – with its Kargils and IJIs and repulsive Aslam Begs. In just five years, less than that even, the traditional parties were considered untenable, and a third option was born. Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf rose to the occasion, bringing an entire generation out of apathy.
Signs of a thinking electorate have been around us a while, not that our elite pays much heed. The urban middle-class is mocked as either cute or clichéd – the conceit felt toward our poor runs even deeper. Rural electorates, it’s always presumed, don’t want big ideas. They want basic facilities, or protection from local thugs, or a job for a nephew. Essentially, patronage.
But that had never been the extent of people’s aspirations. Since nothing else was offered, the discourse was never allowed to improve. It’s been evident, even before PTI begun promising a Naya Pakistan, that people aspired to greater things. If the average voter sought only the politics of patronage, of thana-katcheri, of better roads and cleaner pipes, the Chaudhrys of Gujrat would still be in Islamabad. The Chaudhrys had a knack for deep-fried Punjabi constituency politics. On a federal level, they were close to the generals and adored by the bureaucrats, the opposition was reeling, and they led a legion of heavies yet to lose even once. But in 2008, against all odds, popular opinion didn’t take personalities into account. It voted against party platform, and blew Q-League away.
Not that relevant quarters noticed. As the only blocs that mattered, the PPP and PML-N were able to define what governance was meant to achieve between themselves, and restrict its length and breadth accordingly. Ideology died. The PPP did what it had done twice before: watch Asif Zardari drop the country through the floor. By contrast, the Sharifs were kinder, following the model of bygone Mughal princes: a free laptop here, a Danish school there. Shahbaz combated dengue, Nawaz remained beloved of the people, and peacocks strutted across Raiwind. And that was the sum total of what democracy was likened to be.
But as the military found out thrice over, unnatural systems do not last. 180 million people aren’t meant to be dumbed down. Governance isn’t limited to Bhuttos or buses. It’s dreaming about a better life. And it’s about ideas and manifestoes, about economics and justice and civil freedoms. But Nawaz League didn’t campaign much by way of transformational change, or institution-building, or structural reform. It spoke little of electoral message, or of the country their children would inherit. They pledged a bullet train instead, the Class of ’85 right to the end. The People’s Party didn’t even do that much.
That’s when Imran became the solution; a man easy to caricature, and impossible to explain. A man who waded into the muck of our political arena and spoke of reforming the economy, education, and industry, and detailed how he’d do it. A newcomer that promoted what veterans had yet to touch: women’s participation, the environment, rights for the disabled. His Pakistan is friendly with India, Saudi Arabia and Iran in simultaneity, but shoots down every last child-murdering drone. It is an idealism Pakistan is starved for.
Most hopefully, his party is devoid of the ethnic mess that plagues us. It is PTI that steams into Quetta and raises the Pakistani flag, rather than Akhtar Mengal flying in from Dubai to be crowned the latest saint of Baloch nationalism. Unlike Asif Zardari, it plays no Sindh card. And unlike Nawaz League, its leader doesn’t upset party members when he says, ‘I take your name, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi…and there is no worse enemy of Islam than you.’
Imran Khan’s past record has kept him in the nation’s consciousness. Though the press can’t keep itself from hyphenating ‘cricketer-turned-politician’, his most indelible mark, even as he lies hurt, is on the part of Pakistan he restored to health. Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital captures the spirit of all that Pakistan can be. Yes, building hospitals has little bearing on running government; his party may not win come 11th May, and may not deliver even if it does. But we owe him for advancing the national conversation, and, with his party becoming a vibrant third force on our political landscape, truly vindicating the genius of the Pakistani people.
That it took this long for us to believe it is also a commentary on the awfulness of the political class, and how accustomed we are to reveling in that awfulness. It took a while for us to realize, hearts hardened with each disappointment, that it may yet be possible our heroes and leaders could be one and the same.
Published 30th April 2013 in The Express Tribune (shorter e-paper version here)
Reading, rather than lawn fashion lines, should be made the priority as a national pastime.
Depending on the Pakistani press is a risky business. At times, it seems the media can’t get enough of fluffy human interest stories even as the world explodes around them. And in a country where election season is marked by religious extremists killing the leaders of secular parties, and secular terrorists bombing the convoys of conservative ones, we are subject to rivers of ink attacking Articles 62 and 63.
Sure it’s an issue; poor Musarrat Shaheen has had her character questioned enough. The criteria for candidates are pointless, but have succeeded in giving returning officers the biggest power trip of their lives. It needs to be fixed, but that’s really all there is to it. The thousand and one op-eds dedicated to the issue say otherwise.
Which is why it’s always more exciting when Pakistanis put pen to paper in ways more rewarding. In times when banalities make the headlines (with our real problems too scary to think about), the Pakistani novel is the safest place to take refuge. The rise of Pakistani fiction in English is one of the most exciting things happening in the country, besides beginning to command the wider world’s attention as well.
Published 24th March 2013 in The Express Tribune (shorter e-paper version here)
Ten years after the crime, Iraq has become synonymous with misery. Bomb blasts echo across Baghdad, birth defects have reached wrenching highs, and sectarian death squads refuel and offload. Zealots whose veins once popped for Iraqi blood now speak of it the way ordinary people discuss nightmares: uncontrollable and best forgotten. Newspapers that favored invasion sanctimoniously ask how it could have all gone so wrong. And the monsters that made it this wrong have all gone to ground. Jack Kennedy once said defeat was an orphan – the Iraq war’s errant fathers left behind a nation of 800,000 literal orphans. One can only pray they are held to account.
Not that anyone couldn’t see it coming. For the past ten years, and the thirty years before that, Babylon’s fate was in the hands of two co-dependants. Saddam Hussein and America’s neocons were made for one another long before 2003, in an all-consuming embrace that ultimately left millions of Iraqis in their graves.
Published 26th February 2013 in The Express Tribune (shorter e-paper version here)
At few points in our history has the need for critical thought been felt so acutely, but afforded this little space.
Because he understood the importance of thinking deep things, Niazi topped the world. Chaval pose pictured.
Pakistan has problems, but the one that has proven best at cutting off its oxygen is one we don’t talk about. Ironically, it’s about talking about things. At few points in our history has the need for critical thought been felt so acutely, but afforded this little space. There is a domino effect that comes from discouraging intellectual engagement, and it helps paralyze the country in all spheres: economics and politics, religion and culture.
This is most manifest in the way we teach our history. Pakistan Studies has institutionalized chest-pounding to generations of Pakistanis. And it’s not been much good at it either. Other countries have performed far better at regimenting their story. The birth of Kim Jong-il, it is said, caused winter to turn to spring. He grew up to be a talented man as well, landing eleven holes-in-one during his first golf game. The very purpose of education is to make it beneath the dignity of people to believe such things.