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October 19, 2016

On our public discourse


October 19, 2016


The writer is a poet and author based in Islamabad.

I acknowledge that what I have wanted to say today, after being away for a couple of weeks, has already been said in this newspaper over the last three days by Dr Mohammed Waseem on Sunday, Talat Hussain on Monday and Mosharraf Zaidi on Tuesday – three brilliant, analytical columns that appeared one after the other and touched upon all that defines the public political discourse in today’s Pakistan.

Among the three of them they have covered the origin and evolution of the politics of Imran Khan and the PTI, the deep internal tensions and mounting external pressures that we face as a country, the impending crisis of the Islamabad blockade by Khan that may also lead to the packing up of our current political system, the overreaction to a newspaper story and scapegoating of a professional journalist, Cyril Almeida, and a prestigious newspaper, Dawn, and the thinking in binaries that all of us suffer from when it comes to understanding what we are going through and how should we chart the future course. Finally, I endorse the call for sanity and the avoidance of what Talat Hussain calls ‘self-immolation’.

So what are the chief concerns articulated by different influential quarters in the public political discourse of today’s Pakistan? There are four things, if I am allowed to sum up. The first is corruption, second is terrorism, third is civil-military relations and the fourth is dealing with India. They may all be intrinsically linked according to many but let us deal with each separately for some clarity.

Corruption, undoubtedly, is a major issue which contributes to unequal access to resources and services for the majority, patronage of a few to expand their business interests, undeserved incomes for a small class of people while others are kept disadvantaged and manipulation of the functions of the state in one’s favour. No one can hold a brief for not curbing financial corruption. But, however undesired by the educated and conscious citizens of the country, it can only be curbed and not eliminated. Why? Because financial corruption is a function of capitalism, particularly monopolistic capitalism.

I am qualifying ‘corruption’ with ‘financial’ because that is what a set of Pakistani politicians, media anchors, press commentators and affluent middle-class individuals mean when they speak of corruption. Intellectual dishonesty, abrogation of the constitution from time to time, other forms of unethical behaviour in public life and uttering complete falsehoods for political expediency by political leaders are still completely overlooked and forgiven by the supporters of different parties and platforms. Even the understanding of financial corruption is limited in our case because some major parts of it have been given legal cover in our country as well as across the capitalist world in favour of the rich and powerful.

If I paraphrase what Karl Marx mentions in the second volume of his seminal work ‘Capital’, the fundamental issues posed by capitalism which it cannot resolve are ‘alienation’ and ‘wastage’. Meaning thereby that capitalism can provide for basic sustenance for all if managed properly. This may well be true, and is true in some cases, in advanced capitalist countries where commerce, industry, services and financial markets perform and there is a regulatory framework provided by the state.

In case of third world developing countries this does not hold true. There is primitive accumulation of wealth and resources by the powerful classes through unbridled pursuit for profit and lack of any effective regulation. Monopolies in different economic sectors come about and flourish even if there is lip service through institutions formed in the name of encouraging competition for breaking the monopolies. There may be safety nets – also created through international donations or soft loan financing – but no dividends of any wealth generation are shared with those who are poor and weak and economically and socially marginalised in the third world. They struggle to survive and live off the crumbs of the wealthy class.

Therefore, if our politicians and commentators are serious about bringing an end to or seriously curbing corruption, they should bring an end to monopolistic capitalism. In ideal terms I would have said capitalism but that cannot happen in one single country in isolation given how the global economic order operates. But will any popular politician in Pakistan rallying people around in the name of fighting corruption ever do that? The answer is no. Why? Because all political parties are financed and run by major businessmen, by those with big landholdings, by real-estate developers and by rich transporters. Until there is an end to the way our economic order is fundamentally organised, the fight against corruption will remain rhetorical and only be good to be used for political expediency. It would eventually mean replacing Mian Mansha with Jahangir Tareen, Malik Riaz with Aleem Khan and Yousaf Raza Gllani with Shah Mahmood Qureshi.

The second issue in our discourse is that of terrorism. For me, like many others, it should have been the first issue. But it comes after ‘corruption’ in the imagination of a large part of our affluent middle class these days. They have an awareness of the issue but still do not fathom the depth and severity of the issue. If we look at the country’s resolve to fight terrorism, the physical war by the military continues with recognised gains. The intellectual narrative is being attempted to be selectively changed and, therefore, questioned but stays largely the same. Social divisions on sectarian, sub-sectarian and inter-religious lines remain even if the state is not seen to be partisan towards one sect or faith. However, one must acknowledge that efforts have been and are being made in all these areas of concern by powers that be.

What is needed to make these efforts truly purposeful and fruitful is a complete, uncompromised, non-discriminatory cleansing of all extremism in its physical and intellectual forms. Drying up of economic resources for any and all of such outfits, demilitarisation with an unequivocal belief and practice that only the state has hegemony over the use of physical power and that a change has to be brought without any compromise about in the way curriculum, public messaging and proselytising of faith is organised and allowed to happen.

As far as civil-military relations are concerned, the cleavage has seemed to be widened. Some of it is traditional mistrust between the politicians and the military institutions rooted in our chequered political history where the military has ruled directly for almost half of the time of our existence as a country and then intervened now and then to remove political governments. Some of the tension between the two is new. Much has been said on the issue but there is something that our ruling politicians and the military have to appreciate. What they both call ‘national interest’ in their parlance and keep reminding the ordinary citizens like us that it should be kept supreme, is compromised the most when the two are seen to be divergent in their interests, priorities, strategies and actions. None of them singularly define the national interest but there has to be a singular articulation of the national interest. For the citizens as well as those who look from outside it has to be one government and military has to be seen as a part of that government. Military is a part of the executive unlike the judiciary and parliament.

Last but not the least is the issue with India. At the cost of repeating myself and repeating those who share my views, the only solution is an uninterrupted and uninterruptible dialogue on all issues including that of Kashmir. With eighty million Pakistanis living below the poverty line and four hundred million Indians living below the poverty line, those in power do not seem to have any compassion or understanding of the issues faced by the common women, men and children of South Asia.

Modi has experienced for himself just recently in Goa and so should we understand here in Pakistan that neither the US nor the UK and neither China nor Russia will make one of us overpower the other. Jingoism will lead us nowhere.

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