Friday September 29, 2023

Wishing for deserted streets

July 22, 2019

Hujra Shah Muqeem, a small town in the Okara district, is known for the tomb of a 16th century saint and a poem associated with him. This poem, that almost everyone in Punjab can narrate to some degree, is the story of a woman who has come to the saint with a wish. She desires everyone in her town to die so that she and her lover (Mirza Yaar) could roam free in the deserted streets without any human or canine interference. The saint listens patiently and then comments on why she herself should not die instead. The story ends as the woman falls downs and dies, then and there.

Millions of people have recounted this poem to each other for many centuries as a reminder that a curse follows those who want the streets empty of their rivals. In many cases, a similar curse follows those governments that want -- and sometimes achieve -- a deserted political arena. Poisoning the well is a very short-sighted, self-defeating strategy. What's worse, a whole nation may suffer when a government's energies are consumed by the relentless effort to consolidate its power, ignoring the long-term destiny of its people.

Five years ago, behavioural economist Sendhil Mullainathan and cognitive psychologist Eldar Shafir joined hands to write 'Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much'. This excellent book is an intriguing account of how we experience scarcity in our minds. Their definition of scarcity is simple: it is having less than you feel you need.

They offer a hypothesis: scarcity captures the mind. They argue that we interpret the world differently when operating from a scarcity mindset. Our single-mindedness can cause us to neglect things that might matter most to us. Sendhil and Mullainathan propose that scarcity imposes a kind of bandwidth tax on us. The poor, for example, are not just short on cash; they are often short on bandwidth. Faced with pressures to take care of basic human needs, there may be reduced cognitive capacities for the demands of work, parenting and self-care.

Just as no wealthy person feels that he is rich enough, no person in power thinks he is powerful enough. Power, in fact, is a far stronger motive of human actions than greed for wealth. The worst atrocities in the five thousand years of human history have been caused by the all-consuming search for power, rather than search for gold.

A government may feel that it has less power than it should have and it has less control over state and society than it should enjoy "to function effectively". This may create a scarcity mindset, making a government -- the executive -- attack other pillars of state or its political rivals. This attitude may result in excesses, violation of rights and a crisis of legitimacy.

In some cases, governments may succeed in establishing long-lasting authoritarian regime. In most cases, such efforts lead to self-defeating political instability. Such a strategy may badly backfire as the fragmented opposition and the sections of society that lose their voice gang up and turn into a ferocious political entity.

It is hard to imagine today why Z A Bhutto went after his weak political opposition and humiliated his political rivals. Why on earth did he rig an election that he was clearly going to win? Why was he so desperate to win his constituency uncontested rather than beating an incognisant contender with a huge margin. We know that his efforts did not result in deserted streets where he could roam free with the goddess of power. His humiliated opponents turned themselves into a vengeful mob and chased him to the graveyard.

Bhutto was neither the first nor the last Pakistani leader to make such an effort. His example is relevant because he was the most charismatic leader after Jinnah and perhaps the most intelligent and qualified leader we have ever had.

A PML-N leader told me recently how Nawaz Sharif spurned any suggestions for reforming the accountability system because he believed that the system of ehtesab he had himself founded in the 1990s would only ensnare his political opponents.

Many factors limit the policy bandwidth of our governments. Geo-strategic crises, real or imagined, always cry for attention. A naughty neighbourhood, where wars and insurgencies have become a rule rather than an exception, throws a new challenge every day. As institutional boundaries have not been defined, other institutions constantly encroach upon the space of political governments. Cyclical economic crises put every government into a fire-fighting mode for a good part of their tenures, crippling their capacity to think and plan long term.

Anyone can see how the greater cause of the national development has been ignored due to the tunnel vision of successive governments. While our policymaking remained trapped in the mindset of the cold-war era, we have missed the whole age of globalization. In the last two decades, developing nations grew their economies exponentially due to the opportunities provided by the free movement of goods and services. While China and India are cited as great success stories of globalisation, even Bangladesh stole a march on Pakistan and many African countries, once considered basket cases, made tremendous achievements.

We are marching into the twenty-first century with a bizarre theory that everything is linked to corruption and we are the most corrupt country on earth. Miracles haven't happened after we put the twenty-first century's cleanest lot at the top. We know that almost every single claim that Imran Khan made before getting elected has proved untrue. Two-hundred billion dollars do not exist; seven billion dollars are not laundered to foreign lands every year and investors are not rushing to Pakistan with camel loads of dollars just because we have a clean government.

The government appears intent on making some long overdue structural changes because we have hit the limits of solving our problems through begging and borrowing. The government's excellent taxation drive has pitched it against the powerful forces of the bazaar. As an importing, consuming nation, the powerful trader class has dictated its terms upon every government since the Zia era, and has thwarted every effort aimed at documentation and taxation. If the PTI succeeds in documenting the economy, there should be no doubt that the bazaar will have its revenge when it gets the opportunity.

The religious lobby is warming up as Maulana Fazlur Rehman has sounded the bugle of war. Only fool would take the Maulana non-seriously. He is head of Pakistan's Deoband madressahs. Millions of students and hundreds of thousands of religious scholars look to him as their leader. Other religious forces can also gather behind him. The combined forces of the bazaar and the madressah had proved the undoing of Bhutto at a time when they were far less powerful.

Even in the best-case scenario, the combined forces of the opposition can create enough instability to keep foreign investors scared of setting shop in the country. We know that there is no way that Pakistan could overcome its number one crisis of current account deficit without attracting foreign investors in its export sector.

The curse of Hujra Shah Muqeem is upon us -- once again. Twenty-five million out-of-school children will have to wait till the streets are completely deserted.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.


Twitter: @zaighamkhan