Democracy/Governance / 18.07.2018

By Anjum Altaf It was back in the time of one of the dictators who was giving the Pakistani political system one of its fresh starts. He had given a message to the people to take advantage of new elections and replace dishonest incumbents by voting for “good” people. At the time I was doing fieldwork in rural Sindh in a constituency where the incumbent was a known criminal and I put the proposition to a peasant asking him if he would vote for a “good” candidate. The illiterate peasant took all of three seconds, looked me in the eye, and replied: “Saeen, will the good man get my son out of prison?” Therein lies the insight that goes to the heart of the Pakistani political system. It is obvious to illiterate voters but escapes many a sophisticated analyst. In our deeply hierarchical society, most people are...

Democracy/Governance / 23.10.2015

This billboard from the ongoing elections in Bihar revived our reflections on democracy. Focus first on the panel of four messages in the middle of the picture. For those who do not read Hindi, the messages, from left to right, are as follows: Kheti ke liye 0% byaj par rna (loan for cultivation at 0% interest) Har dalit va mahadalit parivaar ke liye ek rangeen TV (a color TV for each dalit or mahadalit family) Har beghar ko 5 decimal zameen (5 decimal land for every homeless) Har ghareeb parivaar ko ek jori dhoti, sari (a dhoti and sari for every poor family) What should one conclude? This is a striking case of a picture speaking louder than any number of pious words, the starkest commentary possible on the nature of democracy in a very poor country. Undeniably, votes are being purchased and for a price as low as...

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...

Miscellaneous / 09.11.2010

By Ibn-e Eusuf Sometimes I wish I could afford a few assistants devoted to scouring the Pakistani media on a daily basis. In short order one could have a book called Bizzaristan comprised of the fantastical workings of the minds of Pakistan’s rulers and managers. Alas, I can’t so I will confine myself to reporting on the occasional item that is particularly revelatory of the way in which we are ruled and governed. A news item informs us that following a charge of incompetence, the principal administrative officer (DCO) of the leading district in the leading province of the country has been transferred and appointed as the Chief Economist of the Provincial Planning and Development Board (PDB). The Chief Economist’s job includes supervision of the economic affairs of the province, framing of economic policies, analysis and formulation of strategies, and planning and development. The rules stipulate the...

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,...

Democracy/Governance / 11.08.2010

By Anjum Altaf One has to sympathize with Pakistan at this time beset as it is with problems from all sides. The focus ought to be on ensuring survival. But surely there must be some thought that extends beyond the sympathy, beyond the jaded expressions of shock and sorrow. Will Pakistan continue to lurch from crisis to crisis? Will this cycle of pray and beg, beg and pray, ever come to an end? It will, but perhaps not in the way we would like. There is no such thing as equilibrium; it exists only as an idealized state in textbooks of economics. In the real world, things either get better or they get worse. And who will now dispute that, in general, things have been trending down in Pakistan mostly as the result of self-inflicted wounds.So, the real questions are the following: How long can this trend...

Aid / 01.08.2010

By Samia Altaf and Anjum Altaf This op-ed appeared in Dawn, Karachi, on July 30, 2010. It was intended to initiate a discussion on the possible approaches to sector reform and is being reproduced here with permission of the authors to provide a forum for discussion and feedback. We must state at the outset that we have been wary of, if not actually opposed to, the prospect of further economic assistance to Pakistan because of the callous misuse and abuse of aid that has marked the past across all elected and non-elected regimes. We are convinced that such aid, driven by political imperatives and deliberately blind to the well recognized holes in the system, has been a disservice to the Pakistani people by destroying all incentives for self-reliance, good governance, and accountability to either the ultimate donors or recipients. Even without the holes in the system the kind...

Democracy/Governance / 13.06.2010

We have frequently reiterated the prominent features of South Asian societies – the social hierarchies, theologically sanctioned inequalities, and extensive economic deprivation. These have given rise to modes of governance dominated by patron-client formations as well as a monarchical ethos among both the rulers and the ruled. The passivity that comes from pervasive religiosity accounts for the slow pace of change in the overarching mai-baap culture. In this post I will describe the interaction of these features with the attempts at democratic governance and refer to a new book on European history to provide arguments useful for a critical analysis of  social and political developments in South Asia. Transplanting a democratic super-structure onto a hierarchical and unequal sub-structure is like fitting a round cap on a square bottle. No matter how the cap is twisted, there are gaps from where the intrinsic tendencies of the soil escape and sprout.
Democracy/Governance / 29.05.2010

By A Pakistani It was not too long ago that those critical of governance in Pakistan were limited to a handful of academics, journalists, and other professionals. They were the subject of aspersions – being agents of this or that power or being self-hating Pakistanis or Muslims, as the case may be – and advised to “love it or leave it.” I am not talking of those opposing particular governments in Pakistan – they were many – but those who used arguments from reason to question the structure itself that characterized the governance of the country. To simplify, the opponents of particular governments behaved as if Pakistan was always one good leader away from salvation; the critics argued that given the foundations of the state that hope would inevitably lead to disappointment.Not only that but the bouts of hopes and disappointments would be accompanied by a downward...

Democracy/Governance / 22.05.2010

By Anjum Altaf Like Vijay Vikram, I too am glad Arundhati Roy exists. I wish, however, to take this discussion beyond her role as a public intellectual and focus instead on her work as a political activist, which has opened a space for us to leverage, provided we broaden our understanding of the political process. It is our failure to see the political process in its entirety that leads many to dismiss Roy as an extremist divorced from reality, and in our aversion from her “shrill” voice and alleged “extremism,” we overlook the vital systemic issues she demands we consider in our capacity as concerned citizens. Roy’s essential point is that there is a deep structural flaw in Indian governance, which has left the majority of its citizens poor and a significant minority actually oppressed. In a democracy charged with protecting and enhancing the equal rights of...