The Curse of Messianic Government: Big Claims Mean Big Responsibilities

Source: The Nation

Source: The Nation

Let’s face it.

Pakistani people’s concept about the government is all over the place. Probably the supposedly illiterate rural population is more sensible and realistic in its expectations of the government than the idealistic and educated urban demographic that lives in a fantasy world.

However, there is nothing wrong with expecting that the government should help its citizens and make their lives easier. It is supposed to. After all, what else is the purpose of a government?

But surely there are limits to it. Especially when everyone agrees that the government is controlled by a bunch of incompetent jerks, who also happen to be corrupt and the biggest thieves in the world, by the way.

The government is not really some superhero entity like Flash or Superman that would instantly fly over to prevent a traffic accident from occurring. As a matter of fact, it is also not Batman and would even not be able to prevent your commonplace mugging on the street. It can improve the policing, improve law and order, but not necessarily stop a crime from occurring in real time. It is just not in its power, as much as you would like to think otherwise.

And frankly, for people who make laws, this entity takes way too much responsibility on its shoulders. Certainly more than it can ever come close to carrying. Surely, they should look after policy concerning everything, but what’s their business with running corporations?

Frankly, we would be much better off if the government was out of the business of generating power for the most part and left it to the free market. That way, at least we would be getting the product in full that we are paying for. However, let’s go with the argument that it is a public utility, and the government needs to oversee every step of the way from its production to delivery, and that it needs to be subsidized for the lower income groups. Which brings us to our politicians.

Our politicians, even the supposedly more conservative ones of them, absolutely have no intention in explaining this as an ideological point during their campaigns. They would keep on bombarding the people with more Messianic claims, more Messianic promises, and they would simply promise miracles and no less. And that’s what gets them elected in this country, believe it or not. Because people love Messiahs over here, which is ironic because Imran Khan lost. But who knows, he may win next time.

PML-N was also elected for its claims of turning around the power crisis in Pakistan, which it has failed to do so as yet, because let’s face it, the government has no concrete solutions to offer. The best thing about that party is that it is apparently the only major pro-privatization party in the legislature at the moment, but it is throwing the same old public control crap at the people as solutions. In part, you cannot blame them for the audience they have to play to.

But with big claims, come big responsibilities.

The government has made the claim to deliver the goods of the public utilities, and the goods it must deliver. And on a low price too, as promised. So it must produce something with the money it does not have, and then sell it at a loss.

But if it is not possible, then can they please stop making the claims?

So that is why the government is responsible for failing to produce power and supply it to Karachi, worsening the conditions in the middle of the worst heat wave this region has ever seen, leading to over a thousand deaths. Not because it was something that the government was supposed to do, but because they had made that claim.

The Sindh government of the champions of public ownership and Messianic Islamic Socialism, the PPP, failed on the same account. But thankfully, they are in more of a position to conveniently point fingers at the moment, though they could have mobilized the relief work in a better way.

And with every crisis, ensues a circus of blame and claims.

Which brings to us a quote that another champion of Messianic government has been sharing on its social media pages, endorsed by Islamist thought leaders. The quote is said to be attributed to Caliph Umar I, which has destroyed the concept of government in the minds of our youth forever. Paraphrased:

“If a dog died hungry on the bank of River Euphrates, then I (the Caliph) would be responsible for it.”

There is surely more wisdom in Abid Sher Ali’s quote out of the two.

This is just the manifestation of our tendency to escape personal responsibility and to have an entity to point fingers to. If not God, then the government would do.

No, the government is not responsible for every single death that occurs, and it is not responsible for every dying dog for that matter. It is responsible for guaranteeing freedom and security to its citizens, establishing law and order, infrastructure, public services, and ensuring secure borders. It is also responsible for promoting the welfare of the citizens, but the more it allows people to take care of themselves the better. Let’s just say it is also responsible for running the social security.

But it cannot perform miracles. It cannot effectively run corporations in a profit, especially when it has to carry the labor deadweight along with it. It cannot possibly rescue every single person dying from a heat wave, or drowning in a flood, or getting buried under rubble in an earthquake. It cannot bring corpses to life. It cannot turn water into wine. All it can do is offer emergency relief.

It cannot even manage power production, because really, it is not supposed to and qualified to do so. That’s an entire industry we are talking about and there are more qualified people and enough resources in the private sector to do the job. Maybe keeping the government out of our lives for a change would make things a lot better. How about we ever try that, since we hate paying taxes anyway?

But how would that realize our dream of an Islamic welfare state?

This single quote sums up everything that is wrong with politics in Pakistan.  And it also offers the perfect excuse for Messianic Islamist politics, because that is perfectly the Islamist view that the likes of Jamaat-e-Islami is a proponent of.

And that dog that died on the bank of river Ravi last night is not the fault of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.
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Why Secular Liberals Should Be Thankful for PTI

Source: The Nation

Source: The Nation

Sounds like a joke, right?

Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf is often criticized on the stance it has been taking on negotiating with the Islamist militants by more liberal and secular segments in the society. A lot of people have also criticized a lot of their tactics in the way they have been carrying out their campaigns, such as sit-in protests. However, despite all their defects, the secular liberals of Pakistan have a good reason to be thankful for the PTI.

PTI is keeping the urban middle class from turning to Jamaat-e-Islami.

And that’s a good thing, considering how quickly the current voting patterns can change. Also considering that a good part of our religious educated folks badly underestimate the ill effects of the imposition of Shariah. So the next time you call them “good-looking Jamaat-e-Islami,” thank your stars that it is. Don’t forget that the party is secular.

An Imran Khan statement was making rounds on the social media in liberal pages that the ideology of the PTI was the closest to the Jamaat-e-Islami. In many ways, it is true. But the ideology of PTI is also close to that of the founding principles of the Pakistan People’s Party, though the latter has thankfully become a much more liberal party ever since Benazir Bhutto took control of its leadership.

Considering how the PPP has weakened in Punjab recently, PTI has become the perfect alternative for anyone who is sick and tired of PML-N. Self-righteous populists tired of corruption and looking for a Messiah are likely to reject lesser Islamic Socialist options such as the PPP.

Constituencies, where the major parties fail to produce a good candidate, are still dominated by independents all over the country, but that does not offer a solution to the question of who would lead the country eventually. Imagine the horror of people making an educated decision of turning to the likes of religious political parties in case of the absence of other viable options, despite their lifestyle completely contrary to their vision.

Regardless of the party that people are voting for, it is amazing to note how much the core message of parties such as the PTI and the PPP resound with the Pakistani urban middle class. Pakistani people, it is safe to say, are Islamic Socialists by ideological inclination, even though what they are by practice is another matter. Many among them are the sort who would like to skip paying taxes, while hoping for unemployment benefits.

But the insatiable appetite for Islamic Socialism as ignited by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, of the Pakistani urban middle class, the torch bearers of hope and change in the society, must be provided for at all costs. Until and unless the area of “Islamic welfare state” is covered in one way or another, even by more economically liberal parties, they would be perceived to be unfit for politics in general. Failure to do so would easily run them down the slope where Jamaat-e-Islami would be waiting with answers. And they don’t have to use logic to convince them.

While there are some people who are very closely ideologically tied to the Jamaat-e-Islami, though it is safe to say that they do not represent a majority of Pakistanis, many do not turn to the party due to other better alternatives. However, we must not be satisfied seeing this pattern. Jamaat-e-Islami is a party with good potential to win seats in the KP and Karachi, and who knows, maybe some day in Punjab too.

If you are the kind of a Pakistani who is reluctant to admit support for Jamaat-e-Islami, but are fundamentalist enough to support Islamic Socialism and Shariah, then you could end up voting for the party any day. However, with more cosmetic options such as the PTI available, you can get the necessary kick of Islamic Socialism out of their fun, mixed-gender concert-like processions, without looking weird to your peers for supporting a bunch of crazy mullahs. Besides, the narrative is just about the same, so you are not missing much out on virtuousness points.

Anything that can prevent the urban religious middle class population of Pakistan to turn toward the Jamaat-e-Islami is useful. Even good. And in this case, PTI is indeed.

One of the reasons it is working is that it has a Messiah to offer, for now. The message has always been around.

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.

The Condemned Heroes of Pakistan’s Democracy

Source: Dawn.com/White Star

Source: Dawn.com/White Star

We often find our political experts singing praises of the responsibility which political party leaders such as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and President Zardari have shown in coming together over issues. While there is no denying that Pakistani politicians have certainly learned their lessons as far as preventing the suspension of the constitution is concerned, the kind of consensus that we have been seeing of late is hardly doing democracy any favors.

Some would say that veteran politician Raza Rabbani has proved to be a great hero for democracy for speaking his mind about voting against his conscience during the passage of the 21st amendment in the Senate. He is certainly a hero for democracy, but hardly for simply shedding tears when his constituents waited for him to do the right thing, at least in his view. In the end, it was his vote that would have made a difference, albeit at the cost of the seat of Chairman Senate.

But the heroes that I am talking about are the ones who are condemned and cornered by their parties and are pressured every election season to follow the party leadership. No one is opposing a little whipping every now and then, but when the Prime Minister writes to the Election Commission for suspending the membership of an MPA for voting for the Senator of another party, you know that things have gone too far. Similar is the case for constitutional amendments preventing voting against party liners.

People such as Javed Naseem of the PTI, who has been thrown out of the party for issuing dissenting statements against the alleged corruption of the party leadership (treatment of own medicine), and Wajihuzzaman of PML-N, both from the KP Provincial Assembly, are lone warriors for the fight of the rights of the individual legislator. Same goes for many more individual MPs, such as Jamshed Dasti, breaking away from their political parties for whatever reasons they had to give.

The greatest damage that the party leaders are doing to the very fragile democracy in Pakistan is to try blocking individual vote of dissent in party lines in the name of preventing corruption. Just the very mention of the expression “horse trading” triggers a knee jerk reaction from the media and the people alike, limiting the individual delegate’s choice and influence. We must remember that the claims and allegations of corruption are not its proof, and a politician who switches parties is not necessarily corrupt. The need of discouraging “horse trading” stems more out of political parties protecting their investment than looking after the interest of the people or penalizing corruption.

The greatest example of such suppression of individual legislators could be witnessed in the recently concluded Senate elections. Even though all parties try blocking independent voting within their rank and file, two have been at the forefront for proposing amendments to the Senate election procedure. PML-N and PTI were all for changing secret ballot to open show of hands, only to be blocked by the PPP & JUI-F.

While there is no harm at all in open voting, it is also important to understand the motives of the political parties supporting the proposed 22nd amendment. This is probably to discourage what little hope individual MPs have to vote for the candidate of their choice, even if they are not from the same party. What our party leaders are now happy with is the absolute consensus for passing controversial constitutional amendments and electing the Senate Chairman unopposed, as long as their orders are obeyed. Party discipline.

Actually secret ballot hardly even matters as dissenting members of the legislature are pressurized by their parties already. However, open voting works well in legislative systems where members are not threatened with suspension for voting as per their will.

In Pakistan, the entire purpose that it would serve for now would be helping the media figure out which Senators from other parties voted for Shibly Faraz, the PTI candidate for the position of Deputy Chairman Senate, over Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, the cleric backed by the consensus of secular parties.

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.

 

The Gravity of Religious Threat

Source: Pakistan Today

Source: Pakistan Today

We often hear our confused youth cry about the absence of real democratic values in the society. According to them, democracy is impossible to achieve the widespread corruption and oligarchical influences.

They are very right. But not only do they forget this fundamental problem preventing democracy to flourish in Pakistan, they insist on denying it and vehemently defend it.

That problem remains to be theocratic influence on Pakistani law and constitution.

But then again, they would denounce democracy in the very next breath, because then they declare that their goal is not democracy, because its values are impossible to achieve under a democratic setup. Only free and fair elections under a dictatorship can resolve the dilemma.

Sadly, the problem is far more serious than they think.

The danger of religious influence on the law is so grave that no one is safe from it.

The latest evidence of that is that some folks have filed a petition of blasphemy against the Leader of the Opposition from PPP, Khurshid Ahmed Shah.

 If a blasphemy case can be filed against one of the most powerful people in Pakistani politics, who is safe?

Is it safe to assume that MQM is behind it? Hope not. But if true, this would be coming from what is supposed to be one of the more liberal parties of Pakistan, who should ideally work to suspend these laws. Just for saying that the word “muhajir” or “immigrant” is derogatory. But of course, that easily qualifies to abuse the Prophet and his companions who migrated to Medina from Mecca.

Now obviously, it is a different matter altogether whether Khurshid Shah would actually be charged with the allegation. Because that depends on his position and the sort of people he offended.

However, it is important to emphasize the theocratic influences on the law and the constitution as the biggest hurdle to democracy, because tools such as the blasphemy law are used to shut anyone up, from a common citizen to the most powerful cable networks and politicians.

 And all you need is just a figment of doubt in the mind of the petitioner that a blasphemy has been committed.

Should not that be a part of the status quo that we should be struggling to change?

It’s rather ridiculous that you have to explain it so explicitly to some people, but here goes.

Democracy will not work until freedom of speech is ensured.

There will be no free speech as long as blasphemy law is in the books.

State Violence, Democracy and the Illusion of Liberty

Source: Dawn

Source: Dawn

A comment on the latest incident of carnage in Lahore.

Ahead of the arrival of Pakistan Awami Tehreek leader Maulana Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri, the Punjab Police supposedly wanted to remove a barrier outside his residence.

They were met with supposedly violent resistance and the police ended up firing on them, apart from violently beating them for not letting them do their jobs. The incident resulted in 8 deaths and counting and several critical injuries.

A needless, needless loss of lives. I really respect people who give their lives for democracy, but wonder what the cause was here.

In any case, this surely has been the greatest mistake to date of the Punjab government and one that could have been avoided. There was bait for state violence and Punjab government took it. Needless and disastrous.

But it is pretty much mission accomplished for PAT leader Tahir-ul-Qadri who had prepared supporters for martyrdom and has asked the government to step down as lex talionis.

I know it’s better to shut up about it if you don’t know the facts, but a few occurrences are unmistakable.

The Punjab police actively confronted the protesters this time around.

zI support aggressively curbing violent protesters damaging private property, but don’t forget, the Punjab Police were arguably infringing on private property themselves. Unless they had a judicial warrant.

However, if the guards fired first, as the government claims, they suffered the consequences. With liberty to bear arms, comes responsibility for actions.

But the Punjab police is traditionally very lenient when it comes to violent protesters, rioting religious mobs burning Christian colonies and women being stoned to death.

They usually witness the incidents and lodge a report afterward. Hell, they could not even protect vehicle-damaging Gullu Butt to be beaten up by an angry mob near, if not inside, the Lahore court.

So what happened that day?

It can be safely said that the police were ordered by some high officials to crack down on the protesters in such a violent way, some of them unarmed women. It could either be the responsibility of the police chief, the Punjab law and home minister Rana Sanaullah or the Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif himself.

At the moment, the Chief Minister is playing safe and has ordered an inquiry into the incident. But it is clear that what happened was undemocratic, unconstitutional and dictatorial. It was not only an excessive overreach, but criminal on the part of the government.

Rana Sanaullah - Source: Dawn

Rana Sanaullah – Source: Dawn

In my opinion, at least the Punjab law and home minister Rana Sanaullah should step down to offer reasonable closure to the incidence, if not someone higher in the hierarchy. For now, only police officials have been suspended.

Who would regard the Constitution, if not a democratic government?

But to add insult to injury, PML-N has now handed over tremendous political leverage to the Pakistan Awami Tehreek, who would rightfully play martyrs now. Well, and guess who is saying the same about the PML-N government. The opposition is rightful in reminding the provincial government that it’s a democracy.

PML-N must pay a price for its disregard of democratic principles, and especially more for its idiocy and political naivety.

But make no mistake about it. Dr. Qadri is on a mission here, and has way too many brainwashed pawns at his disposal. And he made a fool out of the PML-N, if not a criminal.

The likes of Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri, as reasonable as they may sound in their criticism of a faulty democratic system, represent a mindset against democracy in Pakistan. This mindset has been particularly promoted and nurtured by the State bureaucracy in Pakistan, which involves holding democracy and the Constitution in contempt.

They are doing it for the right reasons alright, but all the parties lining up for the government to step down are the ones who are always standing for pro-establishment campaigns. Why is the PPP largely silent at this point and only resorted to issuing a warning before the incident?

In front of our very eyes, we are witnessing pro-establishment parties building a coalition against the elected federal government. And everyone who was not happy with the result of the last election stand behind them. Apparently except the PPP.

The demands of the government to resign due to the violation of democratic principles are fair. The demands of suspending democracy are not.

The most idiotic part is that people call for or expect the martial law whenever a civilian government violates democratic principles. More oppression as a remedy for oppression. How ironic.

Has anyone ever asked for our state bureaucracy to step down? Yes, and don’t ask what happened to them in the 1980s.

Sadly, many in this coalition do not understand that a dictator has no reason or interest to reform a democracy. They can wish for a dictator like General Musharraf again, but that’s just wishful thinking. But a democratic government, no matter how terrible it is, can be voted out.

I agree that the current democratic apparatus does not offer true liberty, since its foundation lies in authoritarianism and Islamic principles, but the perceived liberty offered by military dictatorships is an even greater illusion.

Don’t forget, right now at least people have the option to ask, and are asking, for government officials to step down.

Wonder if that would be the case if a Pakistan Army General were in power.

Making Bad Laws Worse

Source: salon.com

Source: salon.com

I have often observed what a terrible idea making laws for a living is.

However, that is apparently what makes the world go round. But often in their bid to play their much needed part in changing the society for the better, lawmakers often tend to worsen the already terrible laws that are in force.

One of the recent examples of this has been the proposed amendments to the Pakistan Protection Ordinance 2013 by the current Federal Government.

Arguably a bad law, perhaps the PPO 2013 was not so terrible (probably because I always thought the likes of Taliban should be treated as POWs), though it is just about Pakistan’s version of the NDAA 2012. But the PPO 2014 certainly goes a step ahead in ensuring violations of personal liberty.

We are already familiar with the terrible dictatorial orders that our former Prime Ministers have issued in the not so distant past to ban YouTube. But the Federal Government is now considering a Power Conversation Bill that could ban the import of electronic appliances that consume more than a certain limit of power.

There is really no need to elaborate on the terrible lifestyle laws in Punjab imposed by CM Shehbaz Sharif, which include prohibiting flying kites and serving more than one dish in weddings. Not to mention arresting caterers for not observing wedding ceremony timings. But then again, we are entering the realm of elected dictators now.

As far as the PPO is concerned, for a change if only out of political animosity, the parties on the opposition benches put aside all their differences and opposed it with a united voice.

It is hard to disagree with them. As a matter of fact, at this point in time, I have to say that I am proud of the opposition parties. The new ordinance not only overrides many existing legal and constitutional conditions and encourages detention on government orders, but even introduces the term “internment camps”.

I am not sure if the internment camp reference was ever introduced before in the Pakistani law or no. However, this ordinance certainly is a step forward to legalize otherwise illegal detentions and even internment of certain citizens. It only sounds like a new low for the liberty of Pakistani citizens, despite the security situation.

Despite fierce resistance, the treasury benches passed the ordinance on a party line vote in the House, not that the individual members have much of a choice. But since PPP controls the Senate, it could possibly defeat the bill there, since the party so passionately opposes it.

But the citizens of Pakistan are not always so lucky. For the sake of convenience, let us not discuss the multitude of discriminatory laws passed by the parliament anyway.

It is not just about Pakistan actually. Legislators obsessed with constantly changing the society for the better anywhere are arguably a continuous threat to individual liberty of the citizens. And we see this idea in action everyday.

Making bad laws worse.

Let’s conclude this post with an age old liberty cliché that is as true now as it was in the eighteenth century and the eons before. It was encouraging to see a few liberals endorsing the same quote in Pakistan recently.

Those who give up their liberty for more security neither deserve liberty nor security.

                                                                                                                                         – Benjamin Franklin

My Pakistani Person of the Year 2013: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif

Source: geo.tv

Source: geo.tv

For reasons right and wrong, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is my Pakistani Person of the Year for 2013.

He has taken office after a massive victory in the May 2013 elections in which people, of the Punjab at least, have clearly voted for economy ahead of any other issue. And his party PML-N had heavily relied on promises of economic prosperity in its election campaign too. Since government is the sole provider of many utilities, it was just a change of subscription from the same source.

While his party, like every other party in Pakistan, believes in big government and big spending and has to offer its fair share of idiotic socialistic election stunts, it still happens to be the best hope for greater economic liberalization in Pakistan.

Perhaps, another hope is its conservative sister PML-Q, which may or may not vote to support many economic reforms out of political rivalry, while PPP and PTI could oppose based on their ideology. It is a shame that both parties have parted ways on anything but issues, and it is mostly Nawaz Sharif’s fault.

To be fair to the Prime Minister, he has inherited a financial wreck from the PPP led coalition government, which doubled the total debt in its term ending in 2012-13. So it is hardly a surprise that the PML-N government is desperate to finance the state any way it can and adding on further debt.

However, Pakistanis have grown sick of excuses and passing on the blame to the predecessor. The PML-N government will have to make tough decisions and it partially seems headed that way as well, at least in terms of reducing the size of the government. But it could damage the economy to some extent in its own right by irresponsible spending.

At the same time, Nawaz Sharif is far from perfect. He has a reputation of a democratically elected dictator, whose second term legacy is still crippling democracy in Pakistan. His party tolerates Islamic fundamentalism, though there is no other way to win an election in Punjab, and he almost became the Emir-ul-Momineen.

I can never forgive his 14th amendment and never will. But if you still look at him with hopeful eyes, it tells you of how bad things are. Perhaps he is the wrong choice, but I am not liberal, or idiotic, enough to think someone else would be a better choice at this point. I didn’t vote for his party, but would have voted for him had the Prime Ministerial ballot been there.

There is this fool’s hope of keeping your fingers crossed that he has learned something from the second term mistakes. And so far, he has not managed to offend my sensitivities.

Given the usual election cycles in Pakistan, most people are likely to vote for a more populist and pro-socialist government in 2018 in any case. While PML-N can compensate its loss of reputation with its trademark wasteful infrastructural and welfare stunts, even though it could either carry out those schemes or control inflation effectively without widening the deficit, it should at least do the needful about the economy on the larger scale in the mean time. Regardless of the cost.

If PML-N is able to privatize major departments currently administered or influenced by the government, especially PIA  and the Steel Mills, and partially at least, it would leave government with a productive legacy.

I would rather have much lesser government control in the oil and power market as well, though this is harder to achieve. The privatization is the easiest measure and would go a long way in the improvement of the economy and standard of living of Pakistanis.

But he has just rejected a recommendation of OGRA to increase oil prices. I don’t even mind the continuous subsidies if either the size of the government is drastically reduced or the income tax revenue is drastically increased. Failing to make one of the two unpopular decisions would mean continuing the same old disaster.

You cannot have big government without a lot of taxes and cannot expect government to look after every single aspect of the economy without paying taxes. Pakistani people do not seem to understand this.

Most Pakistanis are under the impression that a “good government” can solve all their problems. To them, a “good government” should be like a messiah that would come to their rescue. Can you blame them?

But this is why there is an excess supply of messiahs in Pakistani politics.

This is why you have MPs walking out of the legislature all the time, including PML-N, whenever oil and power prices are increased, so that the government can further subsidize these commodities.

This is why you have parties restoring laid off employees in ancient history with pay and benefits in retrospect at the taxpayer’s expense and call it a fulfilled promise.

And this is precisely why Nawaz Sharif is the best man to lead the country at the moment, until we can find someone better and less messianic. At the moment, only he is really able to bring about the changes that the Pakistani economy actually requires. He could fail, but his direction does not look too bad.

We can put off whatever political correctness we are missing right now to a later year.

My Pakistani person of the year for 2012 was Malala Yousafzai.

Happy New Year.