Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Are we heading toward a failed state?

Bankruptcy of ideas

by Ayaz Amir

The crisis we face is more serious than we think. It is not just about fuel prices, sugar, inflation in general, or the breakdown of law and order. If it was only this there would still be hope. What we are facing is a bankruptcy of ideas, a governing class – covering the political and military spectrum – that can't ask the right questions and therefore is in no position to get the right answers.

President Obama has had his comeuppance in the midterm congressional elections. He looks chastened and a bit beaten. The American electorate had a choice and it has exercised it. But what if there was such a moment in Pakistan? What choice would we have? What would be the alternatives on offer? None, because there would be none to begin with. Just more of the same, the past recycled to represent the future. This is a greater crisis than anything on the economic horizon.

Every wakeup call in the morning, when you scan the newspapers, is an invitation to cynicism. The president is who he is. There's no point in wasting one's breath on a quantity not just known but so familiar as to have passed beyond the frontiers of contempt. About the prime minister the less said the better. The historian of the future will wonder at our unerring eye for mediocrity in the matter of our higher appointments. What more is there to say? The army chief meets too many ambassadors and has a waistline in danger of becoming an embarrassment if he is not careful. Some things don't look good in uniform.

As a rule, stout commanders-in-chief are a product of the complacency setting in as a result of merited or unmerited extensions. The later Zia and the later Musharraf, squeezing uneasily into their uniforms: horror stories in their own way. The only commanding general who wore his waistline well was Yahya Khan – there was something about the man – but then his problems were different. Or rather his problems were too big for him. He did not sow the circumstances of East Pakistani separatism. But Providence decreed that he should be around when the whirlwind struck.

Our foremost prayer to the Lord should be to make our problems commensurate with our talents. Let no one be beset by problems too big for him. Pakistan's tragedy is the mismatching of problems and solutions: puny heroes expected to perform the labours of Hercules.

How would Stalin have dealt with the sugar crisis? By the expropriation of the sugar barons. Beria, head of the feared KGB, would have known how to deal with them. Bhutto's nationalisation policies were a disaster because they were misconceived – not enough thought going into them – and because they were implemented by bureaucrats. But if anything calls for a fresh round of nationalisation it is the shortage created by the robber barons of the sugar industry. That's the only language they will understand.

But is anyone expecting a rush to the barricades? Let us be under no such illusion. What we are seeing is not just the bankruptcy of ideas but the whittling down of authority – government unable to perform its basic functions.

Eliminating the plastic shopping bag devastating our water courses and our landscape is beyond our national capacity. We can't control the wall-chalking which disfigures our towns and cities, proclaiming instant cures for such unmentionable maladies as haemorrhoids and sexual inadequacy. Should the Pope or the Mufti of Palestine educate us about such things?

And if we can't get these things right, how on earth do we go on to bigger problems? If we can't deal with the plastic shopping bag, how do we tackle the sugar barons? How do we clean up the administration? How do we tackle corruption? How do we make government more effective?

More than politics this is a problem of culture and aesthetics. City fathers and administrators can't keep our cities clean. The picking and disposal of garbage tax their best abilities. But they will affix the 99 names of God on tree trunks, and do this in every city, and think nothing of the contradiction between this act of dutiful piety and the failure to master the art of garbage collection.

The spirit of Gen Zia lives on. In a nation that could never claim a shortage of false piety, he raised an entire temple complex to the spirit of hypocrisy. His legacy endures. The Pakistan of today is not cast in the image of Jinnah or Iqbal. The veneer of democracy notwithstanding, it is a tribute to the spirit of Zia. The supremacy of form over substance of which he was the master engineer continues to blight what, without a trace of irony, we call an Islamic Republic.

If only this were creative disorder. If only we could say that despite everything the situation was excellent because within this turmoil lay the seeds of hope and renewal. But look closely at the political class, examine with a microscope the pretensions of the military order, and what we will see is the failure of national imagination and the death of ideas – that is, if there were ever any ideas to begin with.

What should be our charter of economic renewal? Have any books been written on the subject? Are we even seriously debating this issue? Foreigners, and an increasing number of them, come and give us lectures on governance and economic policy and we accept what they say because we have little of our own to add to the narrative or the debate.

If there was a better government in place in Islamabad we could have traded our vital contribution to America's war in Afghanistan into a better set of economic aid figures for ourselves. But we've never been able to play this kind of poker game well. We somehow can't transcend the penchant for settling for the cheapest possible bargain – cheap at our expense: coolie work at coolie wages. So it is futile to expect that we would speak with a firm or credible voice when inter-acting with our foreign friends. There's some terrible inferiority of the mind at work here and it prevents us from coming into our own.

Kayani should have retired this month. In which country of the world these days, apart I suppose from North Korea, do you have an army chief serving for six years? We could have done with someone else, hopefully with a fresh stock of ideas. But in the government's mind security and safety – its own – trumped every other consideration. Good perhaps for the government but not so good for the army. Part of our problem is the stagnant waters in which we swim. The current of our waters should be swift if it is renewal we are hoping for.

Hugo said there was nothing more terrible than an incurable destiny. Is this our destiny? Were we always meant to be like this? 63 years is a long enough time. During this period we should have been able to put some basics in place: a common education policy, the same for the entire country; investing more in public health and public education; investing more in public transport; taking steps to create a socially liberal society as opposed to the suffocating and restrictive nightmare we have so successfully managed to create; and being more confident about ourselves and less scared of our giant neighbour to the east.

Why have we screwed up what could have been a great enterprise? Perhaps because we inherited not the courage and broad vision of our early ancestors, those who first came to the subcontinent from the hardier climates of the north, but the all-consuming fears and suspicions of our later ancestors who had lost an empire and were afraid of the new currents of thought and the new forces of nationalism rising around them.

We've proved unequal to the task of shaking off those inherited fears. The past continues to shackle us. Discovering the brave new world which seemed to be the promise of independence is a voyage we never undertook. We can still make amends for time lost but only if we have the courage and imagination to erase much of the ideological nonsense with which we have cluttered the mental spaces of the Republic.

Reach Ayaz Amir via his email: winlust@yahoo.com

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