A crowd, not a nation

The times call for persuasion, not coercion

This moment of adversity has proved to the hilt that we are a crowd, yet far from being a nation. Even to ward off the evil effects of coronavirus, we prefer not to agree on a consensual mechanism; there are cacophonies galore and very few voices articulating sanity or sense of any sort.

People having a claim to being called a civilisation, community or a nation, have a ring of unanimity in their response to adversity. Empathy, not point-scoring or petty politics acquires salience. The feeling emanating from a sense of tragedy has a gluing effect but a precondition for such a feeling to pullulate is a mutuality of empathy that is markedly lacking among us.

Even though I have been a full-throated advocate for individual rights and have always held that their preservation holds the key to civilised existence, I also realize that in times of national or trans-national crises opposition for the sake of opposition marks a people as a crowd incapable of collective vision. They are no more than incongruently varied souls and characters who listen only to the command of their inflated egos.

Countries where people are so totally deficient in concord fail to come up with an appropriate response to challenging situations. One may argue that such asininity and the false sense of self-importance widely prevalent among our commentators (I wouldn’t call them intellectuals as not many of them qualify as one) are responsible for the ongoing fracas.

Remember the response of our people when our northern areas were hit by a severe earthquake in 2005? We clearly acted like a nation. Sadly, that spirit seems to have been lost. So far, nobody has come forward with a significant donation. The affluent among us could have emulated Ambani and Azim Ji Premi Ji, the Indian business tycoons who have given huge amounts in charity. They have done that despite the Modi government having messed things up in a big way. Why is our response in Pakistan so apathetic and polarized while the whole country is in a state of distress? What can one call this: social evolution in reverse? The phenomenon calls for an in-depth analysis.

It is lamentable to have to listen to a coterie of self-styled commentators arguing in favour of a curfew to be clamped on the entire country. What a facile and superficial prescription it is! It is as if a creative solution has gone past them at quite a distance.

Effective persuasion is daunting for another reason. Unluckily, the current government doesn’t enjoy the goodwill of the media houses. Media provides the most effective instrument of persuasion.

The unequivocal conviction that their long-winded garrulity was saturated with astonished me for the naivety that had overtaken them. They probably didn’t know what they were talking about. It only dawned on me while watching them how oblivious to the demographic composition of Pakistan they remained.

How would a curfew work in the rural areas and in the far-flung tribal areas and Balochistan where it has never been imposed previously? Even asking for a complete lockdown didn’t make sense. The impulsive decision by Sindh government to order a complete lockdown was eulogised without any consideration to its horrendous impact on slum-dwellers or those living in one-room houses.

As was obvious from the beginning, the decision could not be implemented fully. It had a severe blowback. A curfew or a complete lockdown can at best be imposed in urban areas where the law and order situation has deteriorated. Nowhere has a curfew (or a complete lockdown) ever been imposed on villages or small towns. It is just not practical.

Our state machinery has glaring inadequacies. The fact has been highlighted in the case of Sindh government. The promise to deliver food at the homes of the poor has remained a distant possibility. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Murad Ali Shah stand completely discredited because they announced post-haste what their government didn’t have the capacity to deliver. Seeking political mileage from face masks provided by Jack Ma has exposed their stature as political leaders.

A curfew or a complete lockdown has a coercive ring to it. People are forcibly kept indoors for political reasons. Our law enforcement agencies, including the police and rangers, are trained in quelling political protests and curfew is one way of doing it. It is for political reasons that such coercive means are deployed no matter what fallout they would entail.

Such harsh measures will have grave consequences. Those suggesting such actions might have ulterior motives which don’t correspond with national interests. Given the circumstances, the right course of action for the state is to take the route of persuading people to act in accordance with the exigencies of the prevailing situation.

That obviously is not so simple, particularly where violation of law and regulation has become a societal norm. In a society 68 percent of whose population consists of people below the age of 30, enforcing any regulation becomes extremely difficult. Young people have a tendency to not take such measures seriously. It makes perfect sense when there is a disconnect between the civic obligation and the education system.

Effective persuasion is also daunting for another reason. Unluckily, the current government doesn’t enjoy the goodwill of the media. Media provides the most effective instrument of persuasion. It is rather anomalous that the incumbent rulers find it so difficult to spread the word around in order to canvass about the necessary precautions to be observed by the people in times of a pandemic.

I am somehow reminded of the iconic Abdul Sattar Edhi. As it happens in post-colonial states and societies like Pakistan, great people perform amazing feats but ironically, they don’t leave behind a legacy. Their successors are often not even a pale shadow of them. That, indeed, makes it a doomsday scenario. Hope, unluckily, has gone extinct.

Coronavirus: The times call for persuasion, not coercion