Reading Arendt in Islamabad

Hannah Arendt in her magnificent “Eichmann in Jerusalem” pointed out that you don’t have to be a monster to do horrible things. Even “normal” and even “decent” people do monstrous and evil things in the right set of circumstances.

Adolf Eichmann was the civil servant responsible for ensuring that his concentration camp ran “efficiently” and that the trains transporting Jews to the camp ran smoothly. He was of course aware that Jews came here to be executed, but to him the job assigned to him held precedence over any personal feelings (and he did show extreme remorse on occasion). The prosecutors during his trial tried to paint him to be a monster but he was not even remotely in that zone. To him it was a job to be done and to be done well. Even when during the fall of the Nazi regime, he was told to stop the trains, he ensured that they still ran; because that was what his state had demanded of him and that surely his superiors were wrong in countermanding that process. When asked why he countermanded his orders to keep the trains running his response was simply: “oh but the trains must run”. Not out of spite or hate for Jews (which he apparently did not have), but merely to do what the society of his time deemed correct and right. No personal feelings in the matter.

In covering Eichmann’s trial in Israel for her newspaper, Arendt correctly identified something more sinister than an evil monster. She identified that in a society where right is wrong and wrong is right, ordinary citizens do monstrous things while not recognizing this atrocity. They even feel that they are doing the right thing. In this way the evil that they do becomes “banal” or commonplace. She called this the “banality of evil”.

I am reminded of this in the light of the events of the past month. Mumtaz Qadri murdered Salman Taseer for what Qadri thought was an insult to the Holy Prophet. A month ago Qadri – who had appealed for mercy but not shown remorse over his act – was hanged after the last of his appeals was turned down. In his funeral and later tens of thousands mourners poured onto streets and much ink was shed his heroics. Some who did not agree with his killing still felt that he was justified. Some of the street protests turned violent and Islamabad was held hostage by these protesters for days. They even demanded that all Ahmedis be exiled from Pakistan. The overwhelming feeling was that use of extreme violence was justified to enforce the will of people over their dissenters. And of course there was that often repeated under current that Salman Taseer had brought this upon himself. So killing over dissent is justified and that dialogue is to be met with force.

The easy thing would be to declare that our moral compass is flipped and that we too are experiencing “banality of evil”, but that would be too easy. The more difficult questions would be why did we get this way, what should we be thinking through at this point and where would our paths – current or the alternative where shrink back from abyss – lead us. But think about ourselves and do it honestly we must.

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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.

Nawaz Sharif’s Missing Allies

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan finds himself under attack from many sides. His tussle with the army aside, nearly all political parties are assailing him; PTI is planning a “million man march” on the capital to depose him. PTI is supported by the megalomaniac Tahir ul Qadri who predicts Sharif’s ouster before the end of this month. Is Nawaz Sharif really that precarious and if so why. He is one year into a 5 year term that he won with a clear majority. He spoke extensively of this “mandate” last year. So why is this mandate not important anymore.

In any government there is a group of people who place and keep people in power. These selectors of governments are all powerful and must be appeased. In a functioning democracy, these would be all eligible voters. Governments serve at their pleasure and are removed when voters turn against them. Its a little more complex in not so well functioning democracies such as ours. So while the voters put Mr. Sharif in the office, his concerns with the shenanigans of a party with 10% of seats in the national assembly and a politically lame bombast suggests that the selectors are other than the voters who made Mr. Sharif the Prime Minister. For Pakistani politicians, the selectors are the generals, other politicians, business leaders, large land holders and bureaucrats. In short, the game is that of collusion where favors – called private goods in the language of economists – are exchanged behind the scenes. Politicians are placed and allowed political offices so that they can enable private goods to their cronies whom they must continue to appease. Their voters simply dont count, they are merely needed to overcome the formality of elections.

This understanding is well manifest in the policies of this and previous governments, who once in office completely ignore the voters. Prices of staples sky rocket and the government uses these to put up more tariffs that benefit cronies and empowerish the common man. The country plunges into darkness and we still have price fixing, subsidies and free electric connections to state run corporations – the cost borne by those who actually pay their bills. These common voters will be ignored until the next elections. However, as they have shown in the past 3-4 elections, they are not passive. They have voted out non-performing politicians each and every time. So why dont politicians work to win over their voters as much as they appease their other cronies.

But this need not continue to always be the case. Nawaz Sharif is in a particular position to break this trap. His party has done enough in Lahore to keep their grip on a plurality of voters. What if they actually treat ALL their eligible voters as “selectors”. The advantage would be that they would become less vulnerable to the PTIs and PATs of the world; even more sure against the generals who will eventually balk against powerful politicians. However, this will come at a cost. For sure the close group of cronies that surround Mr. Sharif and propel him from one bad policy to another will be resentful and will try to block any shift to favor voters over the cronies. There will be reprisals from them and other cronies who will see their private goods disappear. There may even be a dangerous period where there wouldnt be sufficient voter support and the pushback from the cronies may still be strong enough. But Mr. Sharif (and his brother Shahbaz Sharif) are savvy politicians as they demonstrated in the opposition in the past 5 years. Surely they can negotiate some of these rough winds. Once they find their footing with the support of their voters, they are looking at a new Pakistan – not just in slogans by you know who – where voters participate the government and Pakistan establishes a robust and prosperous democracy. And Nawaz Sharif may yet find his name in history books with the likes of Park Chung-hee of South Korea and Deng Zhou Peng of China; rather than just a footnote in someone else’s history book.