Analysis / 08.07.2011

By Anjum Altaf I wish to explain Pakistan’s long drift to the religious right while going beyond the argument that Islamism is at the root of all the country’s problems, a formulation that begs many questions: Why was Pakistan amenable to Islamism? Why this particular form of Islamism? Why with seemingly so little resistance? My focus will be on the structural factors that opened the political space first for Islam and then for Islamism while remaining cognizant of the fact that an explanation is not intended to be an excuse. Nor is it an attempt to shift blame, distinctions many are too impatient to make. The blame rests squarely on Pakistanis but that does not obviate the need for an alternative but coherent explanation of the events of the past sixty years. Pakistan was born drenched in a religious ethos. How religion acquired a salience in the electoral...

Analysis / 26.06.2011

By Anjum Altaf Pakistan is like the spouse who makes one froth at the mouth and take leave of one’s senses. In the ensuing rant, it is possible to get almost all the facts right while getting the big picture almost entirely wrong, leaving one feeling, the next day, sheepish and deeply embarrassed – the real damage done, in any such fight, being to oneself. Pakistan’s latest enraged ex is Christopher Hitchens, who could not have done himself any worse damage than what he has accomplished with his ironically titled Vanity Fair blowup, “From Abbottabad to Worse.” Hitchens delivers his verdict right off the bat: Here is a society where rape is not a crime. It is a punishment. Women can be sentenced to be raped, by tribal and religious kangaroo courts, if even a rumor of their immodesty brings shame on their menfolk. In such an obscenely...

Politics / 17.05.2011

By Anjum Altaf I hired a guard to secure my home and found him asleep when the robbers came. I fired him on the spot. I hired a driver to transport me from here to there and found him stealing the petrol. I fired him on the spot. I hired a tutor to teach my children logic and found him imparting them theology. I fired him on the spot. I am (all of us are) so decisive when it comes to firing private servants who are found to be incompetent or dishonest or devious – khaRey khaRey nikaal diyaa is the phrase of choice. And yet, and yet… We can’t do the same when we find public servants to be incompetent and dishonest and devious. What, after all, is government for if not to provide the citizens with security, direction and development?  And what greater evidence do...

Analysis / 17.04.2011

By Anjum Altaf We have the opportunity to improve our understanding of corruption, democracy and the relationship between them by examining critically the views of Professor Neera Chandhoke outlined recently in connection with the Anna Hazare campaign. In The Seeds of Authoritarianism, Chandhoke articulates two fundamental positions. First, the establishment of a Jan Lokpal is not democratic and carries within it the seeds of authoritarianism. Although Singapore has controlled corruption, it is not a preferred model because it ‘does not respect the two prime fundamentals of democracy as India does: popular sovereignty and the equal moral status of citizens.’ Therefore, corruption in India needs to be addressed within the procedures and norms mandated in the Constitution. Second, Anna Hazare’s political beliefs are questionable because he has expressed a low opinion of the voter by saying that some sell their votes; contempt for the voter defies the ‘very rationale...

Democracy/Governance / 03.03.2011

By Dipankar Gupta The fundamental law of politics is that rulers act and the ruled react. This truth has held in all hitherto existing societies: it is carbon dated, weather proofed and tropicalized. The difference democracy makes is that it lets the people judge its leaders, but only after they have already acted. When an elected leader advocates a policy in the name of popular will, it nearly always is a big lie. By using people as a cover, ugly politicians have found happiness in parliaments everywhere. The sentiments of the people count when they are asked to judge a policy on Election Day. While votes do matter, they are always cast after the political act has taken place; never before it.A good democracy is that democracy where the electorate can take informed decisions when voting. They are never the architects of policy though clever politicians often...

Politics / 07.02.2011

By Anjum Altaf What do the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt portend for Pakistan? The question is on many minds. One approach to attempting an answer might be to try and infer it from below by investigating the morphology of Pakistani society and noting any significant similarities and differences in the process. A convenient point of departure is the elementary error that most people make in their characterization of Pakistani society. It is often argued that the portrayal of Pakistani society as religious is incorrect because people do not vote for religious parties in elections; the latter hardly ever get more than five percent of the votes cast. This error flows from an uncritical conflation of religious beliefs and voting behavior. The fact that people are religious does not mean that they are oblivious to their material interests. A defining characteristic of Pakistani society is that it...

South Asia / 21.01.2011

By Anjum Altaf There are two theses about South Asia that I keep returning to often and feel strongly about – that democracy is alien to South Asia and that the British period was epiphenomenal. But I haven’t been able to bring the two together to my satisfaction. Oddly enough, it was a column on mathematics (Finding Your Roots) that suggested a way out of the quandary. In hindsight, it doesn’t seem all that odd; what I needed was a different paradigm, a new way of looking at my problem. Let me first lay out the two theses. The claim that democracy is alien to South Asia was articulated clearly and early by Dr. Ambedkar and I have quoted him frequently to that effect: “Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic” and “In politics we will be recognizing the...

South Asia / 05.11.2010

By Anjum Altaf I see the future in India being shaped by the intersection of three major tendencies playing out in the context of one major trend, the difference between a tendency and a trend being that the former is reversible and the latter not. And there is one joker in the pack. The three tendencies are increased empowerment of some of the poor via the democratic process, the recourse by the marginalized to rebellion, and the attraction of the middle classes to soft authoritarianism. The trend is urbanization. And the joker in the pack is economic growth. Let me speculate on how these forces might make themselves felt over the next decade or so. We have highlighted the uniqueness of Indian democracy a number of times; it is serving the function that was performed in Europe by the social revolutions that preceded the introduction of democratic governance. Such...

Modernity / 11.10.2010

And Why It Matters Suresh Kalmadi has something to answer for to the Indian people for the chaotic run up to the Commonwealth Games. But given his belligerent stance it seems he feels he doesn’t have to. This would not be a surprise because in India many have gotten away with much more. What I do find surprising, however, is that he has not even been called up for something that, in my view, no one should be allowed to get away with in this day and age. With reference to the lack of spectators at the Games, Kalmadi is reported to have said: "We are working on the children from schools, already steps have been taken in that direction…. And also from the low level of society, we have been distributing a lot of tickets." What is this about the “low level of society” and how can...

Democracy/Governance / 08.09.2010

By Anjum Altaf If there were a last few shreds of respect clinging to the body of the Pakistani state the floods have washed them away. The state stands naked and drenched in its helplessness. The real question, however, is the following: Why did we ever believe that there were some redeeming shreds in the first place? The state has been naked for a long time. Just put your ear to the ground – millions of echoes and re-echoes will reverberate and deliver the judgment without an iota of misgiving: “All our rulers are thieves.” If there has been any one overwhelming sentiment in Pakistan, it is this: its rulers, one and all, have been, and are, knaves and rascals who do not have the welfare of the citizens at heart. What has Pakistani civil society done with this verdict delivered with such unanimity and clarity? Precious nothing,...