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June 13, 2019

Morality as state policy


June 13, 2019

An elementary rule of life is that things can be kept simple or rendered complex, depending on whether you pay attention to detail or not. When the French decided to honour Mozart, they glorified a road by naming it ‘Avenue Mozart’. They went a little further in naming a street ‘Rue Lord Byron’.

In contrast, we were so respectful to the Shah of Iran that Rawalpindi’s Murree Road was solemnly baptized as ‘Muhammad Reza Shah Pehlavi Avenue’. A tongue twister, but the Iranians took care of that by overthrowing the Shah in 1979, and the road reverted to its original name.

In Islamabad, the 9th Avenue was renamed ‘Agha Shahi Avenue’ and the name caught on without any hiccups. However, more recently, the 7th Avenue was renamed ‘Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi Avenue’; people find it easier to stick to the original name. It is still unclear whether the decision-makers chose the full name to avoid any confusion with another literary figure, Attaul Haq Qasmi.

Islooites may continue to have difficulties in using the 7th Avenue’s new name but that should not detract them from Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi’s sublime verses. Some weeks ago, a kindred spirit posted a video on social media, which shows the late Qasmi Sahib reciting his famous poem that reads:

“Zindagi ke jitney darwazay hein mujh par band hein…/Kiyun bhi kehna jurm hai kaisay bhi kehna jurm hai…/Zindagi ke naam par bas ik inayat chahyie/Mujh ko inn saray jaraim ki ijazat chahyie”.

That was then. Only if Qasmi’s spirit could see the horrors going on in this information age, as freedoms are openly derided and rolled back, and truth replaced by alternate facts. A tycoon-president is bent upon creating new international realities summed up in two words: America first. A prime minister insists on bringing back some redundant iron-age glory and declares a territory to be an integral part of India (which is historically incorrect). But who cares when you can fabricate new facts? Worse, both these leaders propagate exclusionary ideologies and appear to be getting away with subdividing their nations, thus far acknowledged as the greatest democracies.

No surprise then that democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms, proudly owned by the once ascendant West, are now facing existential threats. The once-triumphant globalization is now under attack due to one man’s whims about creating industrial jobs in an economy that thrived by manufacturing cheaply in poorer countries and selling with trillions of profits in the developed world.

It is not possible to stay aloof from our own miseries as Pakistan failed to benefit from the bonanza of manufacturing because of inadequacies all around. We are a society mired in outdated modes of governance and production. Instead of modernizing the systems, we are digging in furiously to retain all that is passe, and seek protection in superstitions. Iqbal’s famous couplet should be slightly amended to read:

“Na samjho ge tau mit jao gai ay Pakistan walo/Tumhari dastan tak bhi na ho gi dastanon mein”.

The elites which have benefited most from the built-in perks, privileges, exemptions and rebates refuse to part with their wealth – not realizing that the pie is shrinking as the time passes. This situation has forced the prime minister to issue them a dramatic warning in a nationwide message on Monday to declare their hidden wealth. The question is whether the defenders of the status quo will shed some of their acquis or wait while hoping that this too will pass.

Pakistan was seen as a failing state on several occasions but as a German scholar remarked, it did not fail. It may not fail but the elites know too well that Pakistan is a chronically weak state. They will resist any pressure as long as they can. Will PM Khan keep the pressure and prove for once that he will not compromise like others before him? The outcome of the confrontation with the export sector should tell us if the government can stick to its stance. The danger is that if the government goes ahead as demanded by the IMF, it is likely to turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory as the exports may slide down further, worsening the balance of payments situation.

The Shaikh of Lal Haveli, who has worked with successive rulers, once claimed that the country is run by the mafias irrespective of who is in power. The two big parties understood that well and so did Gen Musharraf. Part of the present difficulties may be coming from the self-righteous attitude of the PTI government which is nearing the completion of its first year in office. The state has had little success in fixing what was broken but in the process, it may have damaged what wasn’t broken on the economic front.

If a government cannot promote economic activities, it must refrain from inhibiting them by remaining discreet and avoiding hyperbole. Sadly, some kind of fear is dominating the scene, either in the name of accountability, or recovering illegitimate money or as of late for payment of income and business related taxes. The state has also managed to scare export-oriented industries by threatening to withdraw tax relief. The government may be sincere in its approach to fix the economy but its handling is producing the opposite effect.

But then nobody promised that governance would be easy. Let’s not complicate it by moralizing excessively because statecraft is more about reaching goals than scoring moral

In conclusion, the government is fully justified in pursuing the accountability of those accused of stealing national wealth but it does not have to make it a declaratory policy to be shouted from the rooftop – and risk it being seen as a lot of scare-mongering. It should support the accountability process without beating the drums that are inhibiting business and investment.

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