Independence Day 69 – Thanks for Our Home

Yesterday was Pakistan’s 69th independence day. Some celeberated exuberantly, while others remembered the ongoing sorrows. However, in the balance there was more cheer on the street than in recent years. And why not. Our independence day should be celebrated, if not for any other reason than the fact that we are free; for people without a land have wretched lives. Unhomed are never welcome anywhere.

That there were more people out in the streets than in recent years is good. Recent years have seen ordinary citizens abdicate public spaces to those who kill, terrorise or loot. For that reason alone it is good that so many Pakistanis felt safe enough to start reclaiming these spaces. It would be even better to have more places and activities where people can celebrate. But even when there are such few outlets for their joy, people turned out, claiming Pakistan as their own.

I see this as a slow and subtle turning point. Pakistan has not been easy for its citizens. Even today, a woman dies every half hour while giving birth and over half of our children and mothers are malnourished. Fewer than half the children study beyond secondary level and even when they do, they can’t read or write at that level. Nearly half of the population lives below the poverty line. 68 years later, this is not what nearly 2 million of our ancestors gave up their lives to achieve. They would want more prosperity for their children. So one may ask where is the turning point.

Slowly, things are improving. One sees the prosperity in the cities. The middle class has expanded. The GDP has more than doubled in the past decade. Indicators for development, health and education have improved albeit slowly. One felt that much that could have been possible in the past decade was squandered while the state played the militant game. This year, it appears that this game may be winding or at least tempering down. Any way, with a marked reduction in terrorist attacks on civilians and in public places this year, the change is noticeable and people are feeling a sense of safety.

Hopefully this will continue. People will continue to reclaim public places back from the militants and terrorists. The expressions of celebrations will transform from these forays into public spaces and flag waving to more constructive “owning” of the country. But this will take some time. People still have to feel that the country is their’s because it benefits them. Not a place where they pay all kinds of taxes while they also take care of their families and loved ones. All that will take time and will require continued stability, safety and some measure of economic independence. People need to continue to feel that their efforts can consistently give them returns and not be arbitrarily taken away from them at someone powerful’s whim. This feeling is still too strong and with good reasons. The state and its government remain whimsical and arbitrary. But even that is slowing down as people have learnt to protest and make it heard. Hopefully this trend grows, driven by increasing autonomy and economic power of the people and the resultant ability to be heard by their leaders.

Still the road is long. But in the meantime, let us be thankful. We have a land that is ours where all this can play out. Onwards to another decade. May its end see us better off than now, by far.

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Why Politicians Don’t Smile and the Political Crisis in Lahore and Islamabad

I never realised it until I worked closely with them, politicians in Pakistan dont smile much. The more senior they are the less they smile. Of course this is completely opposite of what you see in the US or UK. Smiling is a gesture saying: “I am going to be nice to you”. Politicians in the US or UK thrive at the pleasure of their voters. They must behave nicely to their constituents. A US politician who can’t kiss a few babies on the campaign trail should probably just not contest the election. So what’s different with Pakistani politicians. Their power comes from who they can push or extract favours from, that is what they are elected for. Helping voters and their approval means little. If you are in the business of pushing people, you dont smile, you scowl. Pakistani senior politicians are somber people, they scowl a lot.

We are seeing this in the current crisis playing out in Islamabad and Lahore. Mian Nawaz Sharif, the legally elected Prime Minister with over 50% of seats in the National Assembly is running scared against the onslaught of Imran Khan who has fewer than 10% of the seats and Tahir ul Qadri who has absolutely none. Both want to topple his government and dream of becoming kings. 

Imran Khan feels that electoral rigging in May 2013 elections cost him Prime Ministership. Why he is turning to street protests 15 months later is beyond me. Never mind that FAFEN felt that although there were malpractices, all parties did them and they would not changed very many seats. Surely not the 120 more seas that PTI needed to form government. The courts agree with this conclusion. So now Imran Khan has taken to street intimidation (ironically their partners in KPK government are Jamat-i-Islami, the seldom elected masters of street intimidation). There is an implicit understanding that PTI and its leaders are demonstrating: People and their will means little, when you want political power, do it by force. 

Tahir ul Qadri is doing the same. He never contested elections. He even tried to stop them last year with his week long siege of Islamabad (where he got the 50+ crore rupees it must have taken to do that is beyond my understanding). He too is using his street power to topple the legally elected government of Pakistan and has explicitly expressed this aim in public. 

The leader of the nation, Nawaz Sharif, also has little confidence in the will of the people. Ideally when faced with intimidation from IK and TUQ, he should have come out and said: “the right to protest is constitutional and we respect that. Please use these designated public spaces legally to do that. We will listen and talk with you. But you can not hold entire cities hostage. Your protest must only happen on holidays. Dont stop the businesses because we are a poor nation and cant afford the roughly 20 billion rupees that this stoppage will cost the residents of Lahore and Islamabad for each day that you hold your dharna”. But this is not what he did. His minions used heavyhanded and sly approaches such as closing off petrol pumps and commandeering cargo containers (wonder if they paid for their use) and blocking roads and adding to the misery of the people. They were faced with illegal protest and feel reluctant to use legal force of the state to restrain it speaks volumes of their belief in the system. They could have relied on the voters that brought them into office and said: we are faced with this challenge, help us sort through it. It may have been difficult and perhaps even uncertain but that would have brought the voters into the decision making centre and would have strengthened the government. But that didnt happen because like IK and TUQ, NS also does not believe that voters have any say in all of this. They too resorted to what they understand politics to be: overt and covert weilding of power. After all, that is what politics means in Pakistan. Its not about pleasing the voters or making allies.