Dinner party chatter —Munir Attaullah


If we cannot — with any modicum of competence, grace, and wisdom — even handle a transition, what might we have witnessed had we followed a more uncertain, belligerent path

Most of my Pakistani friends are part of our elite class. The majority enjoy wealth, status, or privilege as a birthright. But quite a few have earned the right to sit at the high table the hard way: through intelligence, knowledge, and sustained personal effort.

Nevertheless, our meritocracy is still tiny when compared to that of more advanced nations. As such, its rightful role and influence in shaping the destiny of our nation remains limited. The old guard, still, largely holds sway.

One natural consequence of this reality is that when groups of the Pakistani elite get together socially, sooner or later the discussion inevitably turns to politics. This centrality of politics for the elite is a characteristic of a society that is relatively immature and socially backward, by modern standards. For, in advanced societies today, politics, though never unimportant, is not the be-all and end-all in the multifaceted affairs of the modern nation state and its citizenry.

And so it was that, at a recent get together, inevitably the talk drifted to the political dramas unfolding in Pakistan, and the usual heated argument ensued. I was unwilling to get fully involved in this sterile debate that leads nowhere for two reasons. I knew neither I, nor anyone else, was about to change his mind as a result of the discussion; and, it would require a complex argument on my part to defend what, given current circumstances, was obviously a deeply shaky position. Prudently, I decided the role of Devil’s Advocate would suffice.

An aside at this juncture may not be inappropriate. In looking back decades later upon the development history of the Quantum Theory that revolutionised our way of perceiving Nature, one of its founding fathers, Max Planck, had this to say in contemplative mood:

“A new scientific truth does not, in general, prevail because its opponents declare themselves persuaded or convinced; it prevails because its opponents gradually die out and the new generation is made familiar with the truth from the start.”

Do you not think this very human truth is as good an argument as any for persisting with even a flawed democracy, for a generation or two, if it is to take root?

Keeping Planck’s dictum uppermost in mind, let us return to the discussion. “These politicians are back to ruin us as a nation. Just look at the prevailing chaos. For six months now, our national energies are focused on two issues — the President and the Judges — that are of marginal importance at best to the bulk of the population. Meanwhile, we flounder and dither helplessly, for lack of quality and resolute leadership, on the two key issues of the economy and extremism. Is this the gift of democracy?” one of the friends declaimed to the group.

I chose not to answer. The elite are uncomfortable with, and distrust, democracy for obvious reasons. Instead, what was said reminded me of all those who, some time back, were arguing for a forceful transformation of the political scene. If we cannot — with any modicum of competence, grace, and wisdom — even handle a transition, what might we have witnessed had we followed a more uncertain, belligerent path?

Warming to his theme, he continued. “Can you deny that the Ayub and Musharraf eras were periods of vibrant economic growth? Democracy is a luxury only informed and educated societies can afford. Did you see the spectacular opening of the Beijing Games? We need to emulate the Chinese — and the South Koreans, Taiwanese and Indonesians before them — if we are ever to transform ourselves into a modern nation and catch up with the rest of the world.”

“And, do I have to remind you that the Chinese built the huge brand new Beijing Airport in less time than the British took to simply complete a preliminary inquiry into the desirability and feasibility of building Terminal 5 at Heathrow?”

I decided to spice up matters. “But dictatorships do not guarantee economic progress, as Myanmar, Sudan, the Zia era, and countless other examples testify. Also, I have at least two problems with your view that democracy is a luxury only educated societies can afford. First, there is the permanently irritating example of our neighbour. Second, who should we blame, if not the elite, that our people remain uneducated after 6 decades of independence? What a lovely argument! First avoid your responsibilities as the governing class; then use the obvious consequent result of that monumental political sin as the justification for perpetuating your own monopoly on decision making!”

“As for your airport example, suppose I counter that as follows: Do you think it likely the Brits will soon opt for the Chinese political model as a consequence? Conversely, will not the Chinese overwhelmingly embrace — given half a chance — the freedoms enjoyed by his British counterpart?”

By now, in true Pakistani style, I had got carried away by my own voice, even as I strained consciously to continue speaking sotto voce and with deliberate slowness.

“Besides, to blame democracy and politicians for our ills is to find convenient scapegoats. The success or failure of a nation — as always — still lies with the elite class. Our real problem is the political instability that comes from the constant and bitter infighting within our elite, and their infuriating inability to see beyond their nose.”

“For, in the communication age, it is no longer a sufficient or satisfactory answer for the elite class to shelter behind the argument that the common man simply does not understand the complexities of what is in his best long-term interest. Maybe he does not. But no one ever won an argument, or ever persuaded anyone else, with that dismissive attitude. Even the Roman multitude shouted “we will be satisfied!” during Antony’s speech”

“Democracy is the great modern social sleigh-of-mind and camouflage that both satisfies the rabble, and allows the elite to run affairs relatively unhindered and unimpeded. Yes, there is a price to pay in terms of economic inefficiencies; but today this price is often less than the cost of social unrest and political instability that comes from the alienation from the system of the bulk of the populace.”

By now, long aware that I was talking too much — and knowing that I probably had not changed a single mind anyway — I forced myself to stop. But my last few sentences had provided an opening.

“How can you say that democracy allows the elite to run affairs relatively unhindered and unimpeded, when the first thing such governments do is to indulge in an orgy of sackings, postings and transfers?” someone said.

I refrained from pointing out that that was as good an example as any in support of my argument above about the death wish of our elite.

The writer is a businessman. A selection of his columns is now available in book form. Visit munirattaullah.com

Source: Daily Times, 20/8/2008

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