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July 15, 2018

What do we stand for?


July 15, 2018

Forget personal integrity or charges of corruption and incompetence against the leaders: the Panama havens and the forgotten Swiss accounts. Forget the economy – the hiking prices, the diving rupee, the basic amenities of life which play hide and seek in a country clinging to the last scraps of its dying natural resources.

Forget geopolitics: snarling neighbours at daggers drawn, and the eerie ultimatums of a passive-aggressive ‘city on a hill’ from afar. Forget governance: its sheer dysfunction, the dance of power between the khakis and waistcoats, the cyclical perpetuity of last-names and dynasties, the enduring curse of rent-seeking, the devastating ubiquity of patronage-politics, and the predictable voting patterns of a disenchanted electorate.

Forget ethics and morals: a morality of do’s and don’ts with minimum regard for nuance, the inhuman treatment of the less privileged, the sectarian hatred of the ‘other’, the outsized emphasis on doctrinal conformity versus intuitive value judgments, and the privileging of black/white thinking over contextual thinking. Forget even motivation: the love for one’s country which surges around cricket season before collapsing to its steady state of settled insouciance.

Yes, forget all the above, for a few moments, because to forget about something does not mean you don’t care about it. Sometimes forgetting makes way for something more important, more exigent. As the national elections draw closer, the one issue that should be pre-occupying every voter’s mind is: what does Pakistan stand for?

The pat response is easy and predictable, and can be discovered from under the detritus of events which occurred 70 years ago. Pakistan was the realised vision for a separate homeland for the Muslim minorities in a united India. Very well. But that was then. What of today? We have a homeland and we have Muslims – a lot of them in fact. What is the vision for the country now? Indefinitely secure this homeland for all its Muslims? Keep multiplying the Muslim population till every inch of its habitable land is serving its perennial purpose to house Muslims? What about first principles? Do we have any? Where is our version of ‘liberte’, ‘egalite’, ‘fraternite’? (What are our variants of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?)

Apart from religious traditions, what do we stand for? What is the single most compelling axiom upon which our society aspires to stand on? Do we believe in the sovereignty of the individual, or are we a collectivist society? Do we believe in the infinite elasticity of individual choice and speech (so long as it doesn’t violate or pose the threat of violence against human life), or do we believe unlimited freedom births its own tyranny? Do we believe in the separation of powers, or do we believe some powers are more equal than others? Do we believe in a welfare state or a fully capitalist one? Do we believe in equality of outcome, or do we prefer equality of opportunity? Do we believe in retributive justice, or are we invested in restorative justice?

How do we define the social contract between a citizen and the state? If a law-abiding citizen lives his life by the state’s dictates, works hard and plays by the rules, is he then guaranteed a secure, rewarding existence? How empowered is he? If the government, or those in power, fail him or his community, are there any avenues for him to appeal for speedy comeuppance? Is he even aware of his own rights? A social contract would seem to work best between an accountable government and an enlightened electorate. But what if the government is accountable to none, and the electorate so weak that it sways at the flimsiest of promises, or bought wholesale by the drop of a dime?

Let’s be clear: these questions are more relevant today than ever before. Because as times change, so does our understanding of the world. We now live in a world far more complex along every conceivable dimension of human existence than ever before. Marriage is increasingly no longer defined by the bonding of a male and female only, belief-systems/religions are giving way to more secular forms of spirituality, nationalism is gradually losing to humanism, fiat currency is being replaced by digital currency, job security in workplaces is ceding space to meaningful work, university campuses are being replaced by virtual classrooms and automation is replacing human labour as we know it.

Against this backdrop, smart people around the world are thinking about terraforming Mars, capturing asteroids for mining key minerals, re-writing the human genome to live longer and cure disease, contemplating universal basic income in a fully automated world and building man-machine interfaces to up the level of our cognitive capacity by several orders of magnitude.

To lead a country in this rapidly changing world requires contact with all these modern developments which are disrupting our sociological landscape as we know it. But how does one necessarily go about formulating a response to such changes when they have no prior frame of reference? How does one even stake a position in a vacuum?

So, before we cast our votes, let’s judge aspiring candidates on their stated or demonstrated positions against the fundamental questions that define us as a people. And here is the bitter truth: the quality of our political discourse as it stands today, and our standards for electing people to positions of leadership, are, unfortunately, abysmal. What we have today are a bunch of anachronistic men, the same faces we have beheld for decades, who seem minimally equipped to deal with a complex world.

Forget being knowledgeable on world affairs or having a high IQ, these men seem to be lacking in the norms of basic social awareness. From crass cricketing analogies thrown around during rallies to physically slapping your opponent on live television, we have witnessed it all.

Let’s ask ourselves: people who lack basic emotional regulation, who lack the ability to actively learn and listen, who seem to exhibit almost zero curiosity, who can’t hold forth on a simple argument without recourse to coarse ad-hominem attacks, and who can’t seem to respond intelligently to or simply seem disinterested in the great issues of our time, are they fit to lead a nation of 200 million plus people in a world as complex as ours? This in a country – to borrow from Anatol Lieven – as ‘hard’ as Pakistan? Let’s hold ourselves in higher esteem than this. We deserve better.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

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