Silly Season in Pakistan

By Anjum Altaf

The last shred of doubt regarding the reality of climate change should have been removed by the unnaturally early arrival of the silly season. One warming outcome has seen the hot-air balloon of the Pakistani economy lifting off into the stratosphere without anyone ever noticing what happened.

First there was the upward draft in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post that removed the veil from the transformation we had failed to observe. Not wanting to leave anything to our blinkered visions, the WSJ blared it all out in one breathless headline: “Pakistan’s Middle Class Soars as Stability Returns: Consumer spending rockets as poverty shrinks, terrorism drops and democracy holds.”

Before the excitement could die down and lest a couple of eyebrows be raised, the redoubtable Economist added the gravity of its authoritative voice with an article titled “Pakistan confronts something unfamiliar: optimism” reiterating thereby that we were too befogged to see what was happening before our eyes.

Leave aside the fact that the land wouldn’t know real pessimism if it were staring it in the face, populated largely, as it is, with optimists of which one can count three types. First, those who can only be called ‘resigned optimists’ who subscribe to the Allah maalik hai philosophy that everything would come good in the end because we are God’s chosen people. And who can quarrel with them given that the nation has survived the most incredible stupidities that any ruling class can visit on a country.

Second, the ‘oppositional optimists’ who indulge in temporary pessimism only because it is not their charioteer that is leading the charge. Give a chance to the theocrats or the autocrats or the bureaucrats or the cricket bats and watch how we emerge roaring as the tiger of Asia if not of the entire world.

Third, the ‘incorrigible optimists’ who really need no excuse to feel positive. After soberly recalling all the gross errors committed over the past seventy years and recounting all the obvious but unfortunately missed chances, he or she arrives inevitably at the cheerful “I remain staunchly optimistic” conclusion. For this set, optimism need not be based on any evidence; it is more a genetic trait like green eyes – one is just born so. Press them a bit and they will pluck anything out of the air as the reason for their buoyancy – a very youthful population would do as well as anything else. Never mind we haven’t invested a penny in potty training.

For the EconomistA cricket match and an obscure administrative reform” in FATA are sufficient signs for the great leap forward. Add to that the handy standby: “Pakistan’s stock market has risen faster than any other in Asia over the past 12 months, by a heady 50%.” Heady, indeed. For years the Economist has been warning of dreaded bubbles underlying the heady rise of the Chinese stock market but no such qualms are warranted in the case of Pakistan even as its own regulator cracks down on malpractices in the exchange. It is all a matter of the balloon one wishes to float.

One does wonder though what caused the Economist to so radically change its story. It was just a couple of months back that it posted its last roundup of the Pakistani economy under the title “Roads to nowhere: Pakistan’s misguided obsession with infrastructure” with the despairing subtitle “The government is building more airports, roads and railways, even though the existing ones are underused.” That article labeled our last great economic corridor, the Lahore-Islamabad motorway, a “$1.2bn white elephant” and compared the Prime Minister to Sher Shah Suri. It ended with dripping sarcasm: “the railways minister, recently admitted to parliament that the country would not be getting a bullet train after all. “When we asked the Chinese about it, they laughed at us,” he said.”

The Economist clearly doesn’t expect much of Pakistanis not least to pay attention to what they read. The conclusion to its suddenly upbeat and optimistic gushing notes with genuine surprize: “For Pakistan, however, even to be debating the subject is encouraging.”  

Just to prove wrong the charge that Pakistanis are unable to recognize optimism when they see it a motley set of experts jumped into the fray adding colour to the silly season. Some excoriated the detractors for failing to appreciate the economic takeoff. Others claimed we were already much richer than we believed. Yet others asserted poverty was a thing of the past. I can only presume the malnutritioned children (nearly half of all children in the country) must be so because their parents have better things to do with their wealth much as the unemployment in the Great Depression had been an outcome of the voluntary trade- off between work and leisure.

Wake up Pakistan: feudalism is dead, we are all urban now, poverty is licked, every city is a growling tiger cub, and the Chinese are coming. The writing is on the wall. “Yes, how many times can a man turn his head / Pretending he just doesn’t see? / The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind / The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”

Think what you may. It is the silly season. It is the season for feeling good. March madness has barely ended. April is the kindest month in our part of the world. But still, why the obsession with the economy? Why not just fly a kite?

This opinion appeared in The News on April 4, 2017 and is reproduced here with permission of the author. See related article Economic Bullshit.

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