Thursday June 13, 2024

Chefs in the kitchen

By Mosharraf Zaidi
March 29, 2022

Spoilt children are good at making messes, bad at cleaning up. If there ever was a parable for the Pakistani elite, it is this. But there are others.

If you order a cheese and mushroom omelette, and you get scrambled eggs, do you blame the eggs or do you blame the chef? Being angry at Imran Khan for being Imran Khan is like shouting at a plate of scrambled eggs for not being a cheese and mushroom omelette. But now, close your eyes, and imagine a world in which the eggs pretend to have agency as to how they are cooked. Imagine that in this world, you have no choice but to eat what is given to you, because you are not allowed to ask the chefs any questions about what the hell was going on in that kitchen. Not that hard to imagine, if you really try.

Pakistanis, it seems, are about to be served another plate of eggs. It won’t be the cheese and mushroom omelette that we drool for. It will be a plate of fried eggs – sunny side up. The chefs have been hard at work, whipping up a frenzy in that crazy kitchen. The new plate of eggs is supposed to miraculously satiate Pakistani hunger. It won’t. And in a few months, we will be back at it. Shouting at the fried eggs for not being better at what we really want, what we really need. But what do we want? The chefs claim we are very Spice Girls. They say we “wanna, we wanna, we wanna, we wanna zig a zig aaah”. In short, we don’t know what we want. And this, at its very heart, is the dilemma. Of course, we don’t.

‘We’ is very complicated. And our chefs, and their simple, pure hearts and souls, are trained to adequately follow recipes. A spoonful of sugar, a cup of flour, a few drops of kalonji, and ta da! We get daal chawal. They keep trying to conjure up recipes that work – copy and pasting recipes frantically: Chinese noodles, or Turkish delights, or even Bangladeshi ilish bhaaja. In the end, it always ends up tasting like a poor man’s scrambled eggs. The chefs think they are common folk that are just looking out for their common sisters and brothers. But ‘we’ is very complicated. We are large. We contain multitudes.

In 1992, there were roughly 110 million of us. Today, there are 110 million of us that are below the age of 23. And another 110 million of us that are above 23. Sometime in the next quarter century or so – let’s say in the year 2047 – every Pakistani that is below 23 will be a fully grown adult (even if they act like their elders online – like teenagers). Even children being born this week will be grown women and men by the time our great country turns 100 years old. In the interim, we will make a lot of babies. Some UN estimates suggest there will be nearly 400 million Pakistanis by then. The lowest, most optimistic (or pessimistic, depending on how hung up you are about demography) estimate for the total population of Pakistan is roughly 350 million.

If you think as a country, as a ‘we’, our primary frame of reference should not be Pakistan as it exists today, in static form, but rather Pakistan as it exists today, in dynamic form. Since there are already 110 million Pakistanis below the age of 23 for whom many male dinosaurs are making decisions, we need to think about their Pakistan – now and for their foreseeable future. In short, what kind of kitchen should we set up to feed 350 million Pakistanis; eggs or no eggs is really a very lower order question in this conversation.

To betterunderstand the country, let’s break down what this 350 million might look like. The median age in 2047 will be around 30. That is a full seven years older than the median age today. Even to a middle-aged man like me, seven years seems like a LOT. I can only imagine what it means for the 23-year-old Pakistan: it is an eternity. The transition of Pakistan to being an urban majority country began four decades ago. It will pick up pace significantly in two ways. One, technology and infrastructure will transform a lot of peri urban and even rural areas into “urban”. And two, the existing urban cores are going to grow, or metastasize. Parties like the MQM, the PTM, and the TLP are going to get bigger – not smaller. Extremist ideology will grow, not shrink. Anger in the discourse, on the streets, in our conversations will get more intense. Pakistan could grow at 10 percent GDP growth every year from now until 2047, and all those things will remain true. Of course, Pakistan is not going to grow at 10 percent per annum any time soon. Why?

The answer to this is intimately connected to the wider theme that the country is grappling with today. The chefs that decide on what we eat do not have the capacity to reimagine the kitchen, or the menu. It is always, ‘oh but look at China’, ‘oh but look at Turkey’ and now, more recently, ‘wow—look at Bangladesh”. Pakistanis, especially young Pakistanis are crying for attention: ‘but, uncle… please: look at us’.

Pakhtun nationalism via the PTM, urban educated angst via the PTI or the PML-N, Barelvi aggression via the TLP are all manifestations of more profound shifts in society. So too is the growing women’s movement in Pakistan. Aurat March or no Aurat March, Pakistani women are more expressive, more assertive and enjoy more voice and agency today than they ever have before. All this identity matrix driven associations and affiliations and expressions are not the positive, feel-good story that they should be. A lot of this is being fuelled by a sense of being wronged. These groupings indicate a fast-changing society in which the new rules are unwritten, the old rules don’t apply, and no one quite knows very much for sure. Uncertainty is driving micro and macro behaviour at the social and political planes – and it is madness to assume that a foundationally weak economy can miraculously evade this uncertainty and deliver a high-functioning, high growth economy.

No matter what recipe our pure-as-the-angels chefs use, the kitchen runs on money. Without money, there are no eggs, and without eggs there can be neither omelette, nor scrambled eggs, nor sunny side up fried anda. Pakistan miraculously evaded a much worse version of the Covid-19 crisis than the one it endured. But a lot of work went into the miracle – the NCOC is a case study in governance, a lot good, some not so great – but the results it delivered are unassailable. To come out on the other side of this miracle now, in the spring of 2022, with only an economic and political abyss facing whoever is the prime minister is tragic. But it is farce to hold Imran Khan solely responsible for the prevailing fiasco. And it is certainly not the fault of Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, or Nawaz Sharif, or Raja Parvez Ashraf, or even Yousaf Raza Gilani.

Those that are angry at Imran Khan today should keep some of their powder dry. If he is removed legitimately, through a vote of no confidence in our parliament, the next prime minister will be in a similar position as the one PM Khan finds himself in today: high inflation, low prospects for sudden economic turnaround, complicated international political economy, and a media that relentlessly hounds her or him. When this next prime minister is at his/her weakest, we will need to all gang up on him/her too – just like we did with PM Sharif in 2017, and just like we are doing now.

When the chefs are above questioning, all we can shout at are the eggs. Let’s keep shouting at them. But conserve some energy. We’re going to need it for the next plate.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.