May 212008

It is always an uphill task to persuade those weaned on simple cathartic explanations and fixated with ‘principled stands’ about the subtle complexities underlying the reality that is governance

It is barely three months since the elections. But already I can palpably hear the murmurs and rumblings of discontent emanating from a significant section of the populace: have all our yearnings for a democratic dispensation and a brighter future sunk so quickly to this little measure?

For, we are told, nothing really seems to have changed. That mysterious entity known as ‘The Establishment’ continues to pull all the strings from behind the curtains, at the behest of its foreign masters, with only a new set of puppets replacing those who have outlived their utility.

As visible and conclusive proof, we are reminded that a reviled and discredited President continues in office; ex-General Durrani, our previous ambassador to the US, has now been appointed as the PM’s national security advisor; and, that infamous lynchpin of the hated previous regime, the Attorney-General, has still not been unceremoniously sacked, as he deserves to be.

But what infuriates us no end is all that scarcely concealed coming and going of mid-ranking American officials to parley with our politicians. Is that not clear proof of a ‘dictation’ that we should treat as an open and contemptuous challenge to our izzat and ghairat as a sovereign nation?

And then there is the matter of the restoration of the judges. What could be holding us back — if not a conspiracy — that despite ‘mandates’, declarations, and deadlines, those national heroes who so bravely made history by defying a dictator, remain in limbo? Is this not a matter of simply having — as many say — the necessary ‘political will’ (damn the possible consequences: why should there be any?) to issue the requisite executive order?

As if all the above was not disheartening enough, the government seems helpless in checking the upward spiral of fuel and food prices, and is unable to relieve us of the misery of load shedding. Tell me, is this compendium of woes the bitter harvest the righteous should be rewarded with, for their sacrifices in the struggle against the previous authoritarian regime?

That is the brooding, emotionally charged message conveyed daily to our populace, through those political talk shows that are the staple fare of evening TV programming. Which leads me, naturally enough, to ask myself today: what do I make of — and how should I react to — this constant pounding my ears have taken over this period? Has all that pressure on my eardrums penetrated my thick skull and reconfigured my obdurate mind?

The short answer is ‘No’. But first things first: This does not mean I am in denial of the bare facts of the case, nor that I consider all those matters outlined above to be trivial and of no consequence. On the contrary, they deserve our deepest attention. Then there is the satisfaction to be had from the knowledge (as evidenced by all those polemical discussions) that, at least, we are a not a herd of goats but a politically conscious lot.

Also, though I am very far from being in agreement with most of the opinions being voiced, I remain largely undismayed and not unoptimistic. I say this not only because we still have many sane and sober voices in our midst, but also because there is seldom any escape from the ground realities for those who have to, when they finally take the reins of power, make the hard decisions on our behalf. For, in the final analysis, most such people are practical people.

Finally — as sportsmen are so wont to say these days after losing out — there is that other important ‘positive’ that should not be lost sight of. I remain up-beat over the vigour and independence our media continues to demonstrate. And, I am hopeful that the new government, never forgetting the terrible mistakes made by the previous dispensation, will counter the prophets of doom and gloom the right way: not through attempted suppression, but by fielding in the fray persons of sufficient subtlety and sophistication to gracefully and patiently explain to the public the other side of the story.

And there is no shortage of such people, in my opinion. A week ago, I watched, much to my amusement, our Ambassador-designate to the US, Hussain Haqqani, leave spluttering and floundering that formidable media personality so fond of gut wrenching Meray Mutabiq soliloquies. Another person that obviously comes to mind is the newly appointed Punjab governor (a shrewd and admirable choice by Mr Zardari, for many reasons).

For, perceptions depend crucially upon the choice of perspective, and that in turn is often dependent upon a certain set of unstated assumptions. And it is a moot point whether the media is more a true reflection of public opinion or the instrument that is crucially responsible for moulding it.

So, for example, let me consider how a different choice of perspective might lead to a different perception. Start with considering that word ‘mandate’ in the context of the election. Should we consider the verdict as a clear rejection of past pro-American policies? If so, why was the most vociferous proponent of this policy — the religious lobby — so soundly routed? Did the people really vote for the MQM or the PMLQ, or indeed even for the PPP, because of their stance on this issue?

As another example, does the fact that the MQM (an ally of the President) won a crushing victory in urban Sindh mean that the people of Karachi favour the continuation in power of an absolutist President? No. ‘Mandates’ are largely a convenient political fiction.

Again, rather than hint darkly that he is little more than an American stooge given his background, consider an alternative way of looking at Gen Durrani’s appointment: is not a man with unmatched contacts with the upper echelons of decision makers in the US, and a deep understanding of how their minds work, ideally placed to advise our government on how best to deal with a superpower? Or should we prefer ex-Gen Hameed Gul for the job?

As for all those meetings with US officials: how bad can regular — even deep — consultations be with those with whom we share many vital interests, and whose financial support is so crucial to our economic well being? Why should such meetings be automatically viewed as ‘dictation’?

It is always an uphill task to persuade those weaned on simple cathartic explanations and fixated with ‘principled stands’ about the subtle complexities underlying the reality that is governance. Difficult, but not impossible. And that is one good reason why government is not conducted on the basis of opinion polls. But clearly our media has some way to go yet before it can sensibly project that real life balance between principle and expediency so vital to keeping the lumbering ship of democracy afloat and on an even keel.

The writer is a businessman

Courtesy: Daily Times, 21/5/2008

 Posted by at 9:22 am

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