Imagine a largely unlettered man that carries a loaded weapon has maxed out his credit cards, lost more than half his assets in a messy divorce, and now dances about the streets celebrating the murder of unarmed people. Then imagine this man stopping for a moment every few minutes to ask for help. “Help me”, the man says. “Help me pay my bills”. The man then closes his eyes momentarily. Scratches his head, and suddenly reaches for his weapon. “I have a gun you know”. “Stop trying to take it from me”. “I know you all hate me”. And then, just as suddenly, he remembers his unpaid credit card bills. “Spare some change, will you?”
Could you take this man seriously? I am sure we would all be scared of this man. But could we possibly take this man seriously? Could we be real friends with this guy? I suspect, perhaps we’d shake hands nervously, half in fear, and half in awe. We’d even try to help the guy out, at least a little bit.
After some time perhaps we would get to know this man, and understand why he acts so strangely. We’d really come to appreciate that the divorce really screwed up how this guy thinks about others. We’d try to offer solace, and a little bit of advice too. “Stop spending so much money,” and “put in some extra hours of work, to earn a little more”. “Also, please stop intoxicating yourself,” we would say to him.
It sounds like a dialogue between sane people and an insane person. Surely, there’s only one party with whom we can relate. This is just a fictional account. No one is as irrational and unapologetic about failure as the caricature I’ve described here. The point however is important. Given the description, there’s only one possible side you can take.
How we define the debate is critical to our chances of winning. This is a theme that I don’t think any serious Pakistani can tire of in the near future. Fiscal insolvency and Salmaan Taseer’s assassination have both conspired to highlight the depth and potency of the crisis facing Pakistan. This crisis can be solved. But it can’t be solved the way the debate is currently framed. Most of the debate in Pakistan should be between the sane option, and the insane option, a debate between reasonable people and the unreasonable. Anytime we get away from this formula, we will lose.
On fiscal insolvency, we are miles from this formula. The national political consensus is that more revenue is not required, less expenditure is not required, but somehow more money shall be spent. In short, insane. This is not an over-simplification. It represents exactly the stated positions of the PPP and the MQM, the two lead partners in the coalition government. The PPP has withdrawn an attempt to increase revenue. The MQM has forced the PPP to do this. Neither party has spoken about or addressed the need for alternative measures to reduce the gap between the money earned by government, and the money spent by it. This is not an episode of the Twilight Zone. It is the Islamic Republic. The only pity is that sane voices are either too scared, or too ill-informed to speak boldly in the face of this insanity.
On the Salmaan Taseer assassination, there is an opportunity for reasonable Pakistanis to wrest the initiative from the unreasonable and dangerous people that comprise this country’s radical right (indeed, since the 1970s is there any part of the right wing that isn’t radical and unreasonable?). Yet for too many reasonable Pakistanis, the allure of an ideological debate is too much to resist. Liberals versus mullahs. Secularists versus traditionalists. This is a losing proposition. It will, as always, transform into “Islam versus laadeeniyat”. This plays directly to the advantage of the unreasonable people that have already stacked the deck in their favour. Here the pity will be if sane voices are goaded into a culture and class war that they’ve no chance of winning on ideological grounds. To stick to the formula, and to win the debate, reasonable Pakistanis need to keep their eye on the prize. The argument has to be framed around reason. Murder is unreasonable, and unacceptable. Celebrating murder is unreasonable and unacceptable. Anything to the contrary is insane.
Perhaps one day, Pakistan will evolve into a country where a diverse array of ideas and ideologies can co-exist. That may even be something to aspire to. But these have to be couched in the current reality. Right now, the objective has to be to a spot in the time and space continuum where attempts to engage in a rational discourse do not end up in graves, victimised by 27 bullets having exploded into a human body.
The big issues in Pakistan are debated on the basis of ideology (liberal vs mullah) or on the basis of broken conventional wisdom (the solution to fiscal problems is to borrow more money). Both reflect a fundamental absence of reason. The debate that needs to happen in Pakistan is a debate between unreasonable positions, and reasonable ones.
It is unreasonable to accept murder – no ifs, ands or buts about it. If most condemnations of the Taseer assassination are followed by a long, drawn-out “but”, then the immediate place we are looking to go is the removal of this morally equivocating “but” from Pakistan’s mainstream opinion.
Of course, this is a knife that cuts in all directions. More than 2,000 people are estimated to have been killed in drone attacks. The number of civilian casualties is unknown, but no one denies that they exist. Countless Pakistanis who have been programmed to morally equivocate around issues of perceived blasphemy have asked me, “Where is the conversation about drones and legal recourse and compensation for the people of FATA?” It is a legitimate question. Only unreasonable people would deny its rightfulness.
More urgent than talk of death of course, is talk of taxes.
It is unreasonable to spend more money than you earn. It is really unreasonable to spend more money than you earn, when you’ve already fully exhausted the patience and wallets of lenders. It is really, really unreasonable to spend more money than you earn, when you’ve exhausted lenders, on items that are unnecessary and meant only to address one’s sense of vanity.
Right now, with one of the world’s lowest tax to GDP ratios, Pakistan is buying F-16 planes and testing long-range missiles. It is approving roads and buildings that seem to serve little purpose other than to keep contractors at work. It is subsidising businesses like Pakistan Railways and PIA that have been sucking the lifeblood of its finances for decades.
This is unreasonable and to continue to do so is insane. Pakistani society and the economy are being rend asunder by a lack of reason. This insanity has to stop. It will stop as soon as reason comes to be employed as the primary instrument of addressing the country’s most immediate concerns.
The writer advises governments, donors and NGOs on public policy.