October 2022

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Something needs to be said about one specific aspect of the human condition. A fear that refuses to go away no matter what you try. The fear of a sudden crash, a devastating shock to the system. A paralysing, catastrophic blow that breaks your back. To offer one example, let’s look at the Ukraine-Russia war. As Russia increasingly feels it has walked into another bear trap, it hints at the possibility of using nukes. Granted, no nuclear weapon was used during the prolonged cold war. One would surmise that checks and balances work. But do they really any longer? During the cold war, the Soviet Union had internal checks and balances and a tenuous political order that restricted the ruler’s choices. Not anymore.

Concentrating power in President Putin’s hands means it is nearly impossible to read his mind. Since the war started, many western peers have hoped against hope that a tumult would push him out of power. A coup, some mysterious accident, or a secret disease. But as you have witnessed in history, wishes seldom come true. So, if he says he may attack Ukraine with nuclear weapons, you can’t be too sure he won’t. Now let’s go on the ground to Ukraine, where millions live and have already been subjected to the brutalities of a war they did not start. Imagine their anxiety regarding the possibility of a nuclear assault. If a nuclear war ensues, needless to say, it will not end there. The circle of insecurity expands across Europe. And hence the anxiety. I don’t know about you, but I’m not too fond of an equation where the safety of a continent hinges on the psych-eval of a single potentate. But that is not where it ends. Winters are coming. Heating Europe will not be easy. Anxiety multiplied.

Now factor in the prospects of a global economic recession. The 2008 economic recession destroyed a generation. I have dealt with it in my piece titled ‘Slow cancellation of the future’, dated June 18, 2022. If it comes this time, the recession will have far more devastating consequences. Because our parts are already vulnerable, whatever mental peace you enjoy today could quickly evaporate, leaving behind no trace.

For our country, even the IMF’s recommended policies which the experts call ‘shock therapy’ are not working. Imagine the outlook of an economy where even shock therapy doesn’t work. And then, the country is devastated by floods and rocked by political crises. The purchasing power of the commoner is already shrinking rapidly thanks to your shock therapy. How many of the influentials even think about the plight of the poor in this country? You are talking about the most rapidly growing demographic in the country. The poor. Or the damned. Censuses measure their numbers, not their anxiety. And to think that, like the recent floods, they may not even know what might be waiting for them shortly is another burden that is impossible to carry.

That is precisely why the decision of OPEC+ to cut oil production feels like such a stab in the back. Powerful people fight, and the brunt is borne by the poor and the unworthy. This anomaly, if you can call it one, is growing. And it will grow more because of the new breed of billionaires. Since these new centres of privilege now exercise power almost as exclusively as many nation-states, their ability to send shockwaves across the world is now a proven fact.

Then there is Hanlon’s razor: Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity. Or in many cases, incompetence. Take the collapse of the Afghan government, for instance. One fine day the entire government just disappeared, leaving the control of the country in the hands of those most feared. Given that the now defunct government survived for two decades and some forty-five per cent of the country was 18 or below, it is safe to assume a vast number perceived the Taliban takeover as the crash of civilisation. More anxiety. And the kind that doesn’t seem to have an end.

If, to Peter Pan, death was an awfully big adventure to the people living today, life might not be anything less. This unending series of shocks resulting in anxiety asks a simple question. Are all these troubles organic and unavoidable, or at least some are caused by human machinations? If the latter part is true then what does it say about the political order, the states and the systemic safeguards? If those who cause these shocks can get away with whatever they want does it not mean that our established institutions have become redundant and therefore cannot cater to today’s needs? If they are redundant is there a way out?

The first part is answered easily. Can you call Putin’s invasion of Ukraine organic and unavoidable? Obviously not. It is the fruit of one man’s free volition. Likewise, the decision of OPEC+ leaders to cut oil production cannot be free of deliberation. Which means they knew well what kind of havoc it could wreak. And yet they went ahead with it.

I can understand the reasons why an oil cartel would want to see the back of a US president who is pro-green energy and who believes in the old democratic values. But do they not even realise the pain it would inflict on ordinary folks? And destructive could it be to a weak global economy struggling to find its feet after the Covid crisis? What is their fault?

The answer to the question about the irrelevance of the old institutions is self-evident. They are putting up a heroic struggle but let’s face it. They are all but gone. What replaces them is anybody’s guess.

And is there a safe recovery command hidden somewhere in the system? Sadly, no. No correction seems possible. Ergo the title of this article.

But do not all nightmares come to an end? Do we not need to simply wake up to end the nightmare? Well maybe. But not this nightmare. Unless people rise against the megalomaniac and create new institutions. That, as you know, is a farfetched possibility. In the end, time may provide an exit. But perhaps most of us will be long gone before that. So, we are shaping up to be the unluckiest generation that has lived. Go figure.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 15th, 2022.


The priorities of a nation define its future. Let’s consider ours. The country’s poor people are telling you they are sunk, and if the flood were not enough, shrinking purchasing power would likely kill them. The elites of the country and the media tell you there is only one topic of discussion that matters — Imran Khan. The country’s religious elite agree that there is only one topic worth discussing.

Only it is not Mr Khan’s politics but the transgender bill. Go figure. In the middle of all this devastation and the fear of bankruptcy began the drip-drip-drip of the leaks. And instead of being appalled by the scope of the hacks, everyone seems over the moon. We are already addicted to change and scandals. But how would you justify the warmth spreading in your heart while thinking that even though your entire neighbourhood is being robbed, your ostentatious rich neighbour will lose more than everyone else?

There is something peculiar about the Pakistani discourse that hits the target but misses the point. And our limbic brains never seem to have a shortage of targets. As you get ready to target your opponent, you prepare to receive some blows in return too. But that is precisely the problem. What you do to each other is your mutual issue, but in these tribal wars, the country loses the most. For instance, as the PTI and the ruling coalition try to shine light on the contents of the leaks emanating from the rival camp, the fact remains that they all (at least the ones we know of) came from the same building. The prime minister’s office.

The sanctum sanctorum of Pakistani political hierarchy. While the residents may change from time to time, there is only one PMO in Pakistan. The seat of power. The house of privileged information and official secrets. And the fact that such a vitally important place is not safe from hacking should give everyone a headache. But that realization seems to have taken a back seat to accommodate our tribal wars. Make no mistakes. I do not deny the importance or the troublesome nature of the content itself, far from it. Given the gravity of the political situation, that, too, needs to be investigated.

But please understand a principle-centred concern I have been raising for years now. When the Panama Papers leak surfaced, I questioned the wisdom of treating stolen information as evidence. Granted, to make it more legally palatable, a joint investigation team (JIT) was formed. But since the JIT was created as a consequence of our Supreme Court taking up the case, it is clear that it attached some value to the evidence mentioned above, which was essentially a product of theft. That case, unfortunately, seems loaded with exceptions.

Treating hacked information as evidence. The creation of the JIT itself. A Supreme Court Justice being asked to supervise the proceedings of a lower court. We create exceptions when there are not enough rules. Writing laws and codifying rules is the parliament’s job. And for some unknown reason, the parliament seems to be failing to protect its domain from the judiciary and the executive as new precedents and executive actions, not to mention ordinances, chip away at its authority. Historians usually view such exceptions as nothing short of political expediency. We are where we are because of that. Stolen information is stolen information, after all. Back to the leaks.

For a while, someone or something seemed to have turned off the leaky faucet. But that was not for want of demand. Our media pundits seem to love the leaks, and in the absence of fresh dollops of salacious information, they resorted to projecting their own wishes onto leaks. Barbaad gulistan karne ko bas ek hi ullu kafi tha Har shaakh pe ullu baitha hai anjam-e-gulistan kya hoga (An owl is enough to destroy a garden, what will be the fate of the garden now that an owl is sitting on every branch) Let me be honest.

When the first recorded conversation surfaced, my mind immediately went to the NSO Group’s Pegasus software. If you recall, on 31st July last year, in my piece titled ‘The myth of privacy’, I discussed the Pegasus scandal in considerable detail. To recap, it is Israeli software purchased, among others, by the Indian government to snoop on its own citizens and others. Somehow former PM Imran Khan’s one mobile number ended up on the target list. The software drops a bug into your phone, which in turn can access and export all data and even activate the camera and the mic.

Spooky, right? But something doesn’t add up. Hacking a single premier’s phone isn’t a cakewalk. And here, the leaks involved two prime ministers, two principal secretaries, and a few others. Ostensibly these are not telephonic conversations, and we can’t be sure that even a single smartphone was present in the room. So what gives? Could it be conventional snooping equipment? Sure, but relevant intelligence agencies usually sweep the place daily to detect any planted bugs.

When we cannot find any other explanations, we all return to our choicest hobby horses. What if one of these agencies was recording all such conversations, backing them up on a server, and one day a disgruntled employee walked away with some of this data on a memory stick? Unlikely. Agencies have rigorous procedures to ensure that no information leaves their premises without due diligence and usual precautions. Also, installing a surveillance system at the PMO would involve the risk of detection, which could lead to awkward questions and situations.

Also, a 24-hour, 365-day surveillance effort would generate enough white noise to make the risk/reward equation prohibitive. All of this can be investigated by a high-powered committee. And mercifully, we have heard that the heads of our two main agencies will join such a committee. But given that the paranoia surrounding potential snooping attempts has been around since Yousuf Raza Gillani’s tenure as PM when late Rahman Malik complained about foreign elements using hi-tech equipment to spy on the PM Office, I wonder why nobody offered simple solutions.

Installing a Faraday’s cage large enough to seat a few individuals inside for confidential meeting purposes ought to take care of the wireless attempts to spy on the conversation. And even though a PM should have a locally secured smartphone or then outdated flip phone for personal calls, if Pegasus or similar malware worries you while using a standard mobile, restarting it at least once a day and preferably before every important call may keep such bugs away.

First published on October 08, 2022

Put mud?

Back in school, a classmate asked a substitute teacher to translate the Punjabi phrase, mitti pao. If you are really interested in the expression, idiomatically, it will translate into something like: bury it, let bygones be bygones, or water under the bridge. The teacher, barely a few years older than us and by the looks of it utterly clueless, came up with the desi-est translation possible: put mud. To my great annoyance, for decades, my classmate made it a habit of using this translation whenever he wanted to get over something or put an end to a matter. Both this classmate and this teacher, my lifelong dear friends, rose to influential positions and, therefore, shall remain unnamed. But this title, for sure, brings back memories.

During a recent Pakistan-India cricket match, a foreign friend asked me what point I thought we (South Asians) were trying to make. I did not get his point. I was asked to look at the live streaming numbers prominently displayed on top of an app showing the match. The total number of users watching the game live through a single mobile app had risen above 40 million and was increasing further. I still did not get the meaning. The gentleman then explained himself in these words:

“Look, these are just live streaming numbers on one app. There must be more. Also, the more accessible platforms like live television and websites must register even higher numbers. I know South Asians are fond of cricket. But no other match or TV show, for that matter, gets such crazy numbers. India and Pakistan spend so much time berating and undermining the other, but they seem to be obsessed with each other too. Why is that?”

With a smile, I complimented this friend for locating a bit of irony that mocked us, hiding in plain sight, and presented my latest theory on the South Asian mind and India-Pakistan rivalry to him. But first, a few words on the obsession of our kind. Stay clear of it. I know what instincts drive obsession. Vanity, jealousy, and at times pure hate. But not all obsessions are borne out of these drives. For instance, why does a boy in kindergarten pull a girl’s ponytail? Perhaps, because it is the closest approximation of his telling her that he likes her and knows not how to communicate. But before you humanise this sentiment, remember that the girl who is of the same age cannot see this ape logic and remains miserable. When this obsession grows, it can take an uglier shape, like harassing and stalking. It is hard to say which of these impulses drives the South Asian obsession. But it is not healthy.

That is not all. Look at the methodology. It is the closest to pulling a ponytail. Now you can forgive a three or four-year-old for not being self-aware. But it is hard to ignore a seventy-five-year-old nation for the same fault. A saner world would see scholars/specialists digging up the roots of this obsession and trying to find cures. But for now, this obsession, coupled with the lack of self-awareness, manifests itself in the desire to overpower and dominate the other. If this impulse could be bested, you would get solutions, not just to unresolved disputes like Kashmir but to issues far bigger than that. For now, however, when these nations are not targeting or reconquering their own citizens, they make each other’s lives miserable.

Time for another enigma. While we South Asians cannot bury ancient rivalries and must take revenge on behalf of Prithviraj Chauhan and Mohammad Ghori, we ask people under our control to forgive and forget our mistakes in a heartbeat. Why? Because of entitlement. We are heroes of our stories, so it is incumbent upon every person we have wronged to forgive the moment we have changed our minds and/or need them again. And that too without any apology, admission of guilt, or repentance. And this last part, too, is mere tokenism to show something somewhere has shifted. Otherwise, an apology is just an assortment of words that is never compensation for actual, often physical, damage done. You are expected to put mud and be done with it.

To illustrate the point, let me take you to the day when Maryam Nawaz was acquitted in the Avenfield case. While hearing the news, I was wondering what were the last five years all about. Fever pitch, outrage, anger, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing? Remember the days when expressing even an iota of sympathy for the beleaguered Ms Nawaz was enough to be declared a traitor? When the PTI government was ready to sack its own trusted lieutenants for reporting that Mian Nawaz Sharif was ill? When a kind word uttered on air was enough to trigger the hyper-nationalist and hyper-honest anchors in such a way that they would badger you to your wit’s end? Then what happened? Either you insist that the accused are guilty until proven innocent, or then you are done.

Want more evidence? The country spent the 1990s fighting the MQM. At one point, these operations seemed never-ending. But then came General Musharraf’s coup and the MQM became so entrenched that anything said on air against the party could cost you your job, if not your life. Then another change. The same people who told you the party was indispensable would insist with a straight face that even mentioning its leader’s name on air was a crime. How do you like them apples now?

One minute Asif Zardari is a pariah, the next minute, he is the President. A few minutes later, pariah again. This is enough to remind you that enmity is never permanent among the country’s elites. Then who takes the brunt? The working class and the poor. To quote Shakespeare, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.”

At the risk of over-generalising, I must state that an overwhelming majority of this country really does not care who is calling the shots in Islamabad. Why would it? Islamabad and provincial capitals usually are far, far away. Our everyday problems are seldom related to the high and mighty in the capitals. So why would anyone worry about what goes on between Khan, the Sharifs, and Bhutto-Zardaris? We all are doing our jobs and trying to survive. Then why should they pay the price for this power politics? When we ask this, they ask us to put mud.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 1st, 2022.

It is not the first time I have asked you to pay some attention to the metaphor of man’s expulsion from heaven. Nor will it be the last. What does it tell you? Here is Adam, with a blank slate, with a partner made for him, in the paradise of all places. And that is not enough. He tastes the forbidden fruit and is banished. To me, it reveals two things about man’s nature. Clerics will tell you something about good and evil, rebellious spirit, and sin. But that’s not it. Two attributes. Curious. And hard to please. I am interested in the latter because it is about the pursuit of happiness or lack thereof.

How many times have you been asked this? Are you happy? I bet loads of times. And every time you replied, there were two versions—one on your lips, another in your heart. The lips say yes, the heart says, who the hell do you think you are kidding? Don’t worry. You are not alone. In my modestly long life, I did not meet anybody who was truly happy.

In Homo Deus, Yuval Harari writes: “The glass ceiling of happiness is held in place by two stout pillars, one psychological, the other biological. On the psychological level, happiness depends on expectations rather than objective conditions. We don’t become satisfied by leading a peaceful and prosperous existence. Rather, we become satisfied when reality matches our expectations. The bad news is that as conditions improve, expectations balloon. Dramatic improvements in conditions, as humankind has experienced in recent decades, translate into greater expectations rather than greater contentment. If we don’t do something about this, our future achievements too might leave us as dissatisfied as ever.

On the biological level, both our expectations and our happiness are determined by our biochemistry, rather than by our economic, social or political situation. According to Epicurus, we are happy when we feel pleasant sensations and are free from unpleasant ones. Jeremy Bentham similarly maintained that nature gave dominion over man to two masters — pleasure and pain — and they alone determine everything we do, say and think. Bentham’s successor, John Stuart Mill, explained that happiness is nothing but pleasure and freedom from pain, and that beyond pleasure and pain there is no good and no evil. Anyone who tries to deduce good and evil from something else (such as the word of God, or the national interest) is fooling you, and perhaps fooling himself too.”

The world has created an escape from the tyranny of psychology and biochemistry. Why do you think video games and streaming services today, television yesterday, and books before that are/were so addictive? And regarding biochemistry, all this reliance on happiness or anti-depression pills and pot. All this talk of legalising marijuana owes itself to this craving for an escape.

But here is the thing. I brought up Adam for a reason. The first human being, living comfortably in a perfect world tailored for his convenience and yet bored by the monotony. If this is human nature, surely our generation cannot be the first one to be so miserable. Why do we get the impression from the literature that the previous generations have left behind that they were neither so whiny nor miserable? Pretense? Keeping up appearances? Hypocrisy? Or lack of self-awareness? It is hard to say.

There is another explanation. In the olden times, there were fewer of us and more resources. Therefore could people stay happy? Not quite. Call it villagecore, cottagecore, or rusticcore; this hankering for an imagined past and related aesthetics cannot obscure the fact that in the past nature was severe, life expectancy very low, and the distribution of wealth just as unequal. Every golden human memory is an airbrushed version of the truth. If you were in that past, you would run out of airbrushes but not hideous truths.

There is a quaint little TV series called HAPPYish. It is a 10-episode story of a family that should have been happy. Husband in his 40s, working as a senior executive in the advertising industry, who thinks he can be a good novelist. A painter wife who can’t seem to find a break from parenting, and a minor son who is bullied at school yet accused of bullying. Our gentleman seeks to switch jobs because he thinks he is unhappy there. The headhunter he talks to and is secretly dating our man’s boss tells him that no job will make him happy. Why? Because of the happiness ceiling. Because every person has a limited capacity to be happy, when this capacity is reached, there is no way to make them happier. I must say I had never thought on these lines before watching this episode. You grow up thinking that life somehow owes you something. That, if you keep walking, somewhere across your journey, you will find that miracle called a happy life. But you don’t. You attribute a lot of unhappiness to the absence of things, people or experiences. But if you get them, the novelty runs out swiftly, and you soon stop being happy again. Normalcy resumed. So what is normal? Your grouchy self.

Even though life brought you into this world without consulting you and will drag you out of it without your consent, it doesn’t owe you anything. That is probably why it is such a useful magnet deployed by the corporate world. Keep telling people that if they buy your prestigious stuff, they will be happy. But they never are. The above show then quotes an inscription on Lululemon bags: “The pursuit of happiness is the source of all unhappiness.” And then a US general cites the military wisdom: “Embrace the suck.”

So what is the way forward? Stop trying to be happy? Give up? No. Just stop making yourself unhappy by telling yourself you need to be happy. Stop unrealistic expectations.

I learned at a young age that making others happy makes me happy. But not everyone wants to give you satisfaction by acknowledging you made them happy. And you run the risk of becoming, what the writers of the American series Good Place call, a happiness pump. Someone who hurts their own self to make others happy. Don’t be like that.

Just be yourself. Make peace with life, do your best, and keep going. Along with the broader unhappy existence, life may occasionally bring you rare happy moments that may make it worth your while. It brings to mind an Oscar-winning movie called La vita è bella or Life is Beautiful. Internet says this about the film: “A Jewish father and his family are surrounded by Nazi death camps. Living in a hostile environment, he uses humor to shield his young son from the grim realities of war.” Watch it. You will get what I mean.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 24th, 2022.

The question was chiefly about the west’s moral imperative to take responsibility for climate change and freak disasters like the flash floods that have inundated one-third of Pakistan this year. But in the run-up to the question much had already been said about the rise of climate deniers like Donald Trump in the west. This rang a bell. When I got the chance I quoted Arlie Russel Hochschild’s remarkable book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. I read the book as soon as it came out in 2016. While the whole story of a liberal professor emeritus uprooting her life and dedicating five years of her life to studying ruby red conservative parts of America to gain a deep understanding of what divides the country is worth your time and hence highly recommended. But the book also actively seeks and finds enough anecdotal evidence in the American state of Louisiana to solve many puzzles faced not just by the country but the world at large.

One paradox that the professor was seeking to solve was the voting pattern. Louisiana is among the country’s poorest states, its conservative leaders have made a right little mess of the environmental policy. Consequently, it houses an area dubbed as the cancer alley, a 137-kilometer stretch of land that houses over 150 petrochemical plants and refineries and for obvious reasons reports cancer rates higher than the national average. Disproportionately affected by the prevalence of cancer are this region’s minorities. Despite all that and more until the publication of the book Louisiana was repeatedly voting for the same Republican leaders responsible for such disastrous environmental policies. As she peels off layer after layer of the paradox the answers present themselves with relative ease. The state’s conservative leaders are in the pockets of big business, who in turn enjoy close relationships with religious influencers and conservative pundits like Rush Limbaugh and folks at Fox News. These pundits and televangelists convince the common folks that the world is ephemeral and that if they adhere to their faith system forcefully they will be rewarded in the hereafter. So, pollution is not that bad because it will soon bring the world to an end. For the poor the kingdom of heaven, for the rich the republic of unlimited wealth.

While quoting the book I made a point of highlighting one particular example of pollution. The water bodies in the area are so contaminated that when they eat fish the locals ensure not to eat the red parts because they are too toxic, poisonous. Then summarising the above discussion I submitted that if climate denial in the west is ever to be vanquished the nexus between big business, conservative politicians, media pundits and the religious elite will have to be broken.

Our American friends were too kind to furnish further evidence almost immediately. The very next day Representative Clay Higgins, the Republican congressman from the 3rd district of Louisiana, had a major altercation with climate activist and advocate Raya Salter about the role petrochemicals play in the economy and in polluting Louisiana. Progressive congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez further raised the profile of the debate by criticising Rep Higgins’ behaviour. The video clip of the altercation and the critique soon went viral. On the same day, we also learned that a court in the state had vacated air permits to Formosa Plastics to set up petrochemical operations there, against which activists had been agitating for some time. This coincidental resonance at least proved one thing. Professor Hochschild’s analysis is absolutely on the money.

But the professor who had uprooted her life decades ago and along with her husband moved across states to facilitate her study of the John Birch Society did not stop there. She identified an empathy wall between the red and blue states reinforced by both sides. The partisan media on each side of the divide has, of course, given up on the other which obviously suits its business model. The more you demonise the other the more loyal your fan base. The professor tells us that when she informed her liberal neighbours of her plans to work in Louisiana they behaved as if she was a closeted Republican who had finally found the courage to move to her comfort zone or natural habitat. She also thought that she would face open hostility in Louisiana. But even though it was as disconnected from blue America she found warmth and hospitality.

Funny, this empathy wall. Those who build it have little respect for it personally. Take the example of far-right TV pundit and Fox News host Tucker Carlson and far-left MSNBC host Rachel Maddow. While they take distinct pleasure in dividing America we recently were told that they are very good friends and enjoyed each other’s company and Steve Bannon’s praise.

We witness something similar at play in Pakistan. Particularly in the past decade. Politicians often come on television asking their workers and supporters to put their lives and bodies in harm’s way for their own political gratification. When they participate in talk shows they ferociously attack their opponents and try to discredit them. As soon as the show is over they shake hands, exchange pleasantries like good comrades, and depart. The job of causing public inconvenience is left to their disenfranchised minions.

With every passing day, we have seen the growth of two disconnected bubbles. One created by ARY and Bol, the other by Geo and the rest. Those who live in one bubble see the dwellers of the other as total aliens. This can have the most devastating consequences because Pakistan today is faced with three nearly insurmountable paradoxes. The situation in Afghanistan and on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border; the economy; and now the growing devastation of this year’s floods. All three challenges seem existential and threaten to undo the progress made in the past decades.

Professor Hochschild talks about the need to build an empathy bridge. I have spent the past many years bemoaning the post-truth fracture of society. In July this year when I got an opportunity, along with other anchors, to interface with the president I pointed out that previous calls for a grand national dialogue and the need for consensus on a charter of the economy had failed because of the logistical ambiguities and it was only the president’s office which could provide a platform for such an ambitious project. He agreed and in recent interviews, he has made a similar offer to all stakeholders. Let us hope that a fruitful dialogue does take place soon. Media cooperation is also needed. If the greatest deluge of our life cannot end our complacency perhaps there is no hope for us.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 17th, 2022.

One step forward, three hundred yards back. Notice even in these desolate times, I have not lost my sense of proportion. For instance, I could have said one foot forward three lightyears back. But there is no frame of reference. At least three hundred yards as an expression is quantifiable by the human mind. And it does the job. Whenever you lift a foot, it invariably takes you on a journey in the backward direction. So what is the prudent course of action? Not trying to take a step forward? Stay stuck? Sums up the seventy-five years long history of our society’s collective wisdom nicely.

The last time when a substantial part of the country went under water, in 2010, I asked a western friend working for an international NGO busy in relief work for her candid thoughts. She made an excellent point. In Pakistan, she said, where even the best philanthropists seldom leave the major communication arteries, the scale of urban poverty was well documented. However, the flood had brought the extent of rural poverty into sharp focus, and it was breathtaking. In my view, these pockets of poverty prove ideal recruiting grounds and killing fields for the religious radicals. Ergo our never-ending radicalism problem. But more of that later. To comprehend the extent of poverty, you will need a few mental images.

In the hot and humid climate of the country, where power outages in cities force you to break down and complain, it might not be easy to visualise a village in the middle of nowhere, with no access to a metalled road, electricity, sewerage system, or water supply. But still, there are plenty of them. In such villages, people still make small mud cottages without proper ventilation where they sleep on the ground. Where toileting and bathing all take place outdoors and where they are constantly exposed to the elements, pests, and wild animals. Because the locally produced food is totally dependent on the weather, when drought strikes, you are reminded of sub-Saharan Africa. When floods come, your life and livelihood are sunk. Where if you fall seriously ill, you die or are reduced to an immobilised mound of decaying flesh, a sight that seldom evokes pity but only disgust at your unwelcome survival.

I vividly remember a visit to my village some two decades ago. Again in the middle of nowhere, then without a metalled road or electricity. When I disembarked, I noticed a small formation of kids had gathered there. I dug deep into my pocket, got all bills of smaller denominations out, and distributed them among them. Now, if my own childhood memories were to be relied upon, whenever I got ahold of some unexpected cash, I would go to the local shop and get some candy. That was precisely what I expected of them, for there was a shop only a stone’s throw away. But they did not. They went to the garden right next to us and bought a mango apiece from the gardener.

I had thought that given they lived so close to nature, these fruits would be readily available to them, even if by way of innocent childhood scrumping. But not to this lot. In a country where the rich happily give free stuff to other rich folks, theft, no matter how small, innocent or innocuous, means only bodily harm to the kids of the poor. That’s why the children of the affluent class are often taught to hate the poor viscerally. And sadly, this classist prejudice and the rich-poor discrepancy is a hallmark of entire South Asia. These parts are all still broken. Only you don’t have the habit of traveling off the beaten path.

If you have known my work over decades, you will remember that I have always welcomed basic subsistence support and poverty alleviation programmes like the BISP, the Ehsaas programme, langars, and health cards. Former premier Khan’s rule is significant, especially in this regard, because the data gathered and organised through these programmes alone has offered the state a roadmap and a vehicle to help the most vulnerable in their hour of need through cash transfers. These programmes can, of course, expand the scope of this data by linking their accounts to a locatable personal sim or mobile phone and health data. In the end, efficient software and automation will illuminate the perfect path for the state to ameliorate the lot of its poorest. Now imagine if, instead of acting clueless, the state could send rations, medicines, and rescue equipment to the stranded victims through civilian drones. How easy it would have become to weather these shocks to the system.

Another distinction with very little difference that undermines the cause of poverty alleviation is called the lower middle class. To underplay the incident of poverty and to shore up middle-class numbers, governments in the developing world revise the definition and criteria of poverty and include a significant chunk of the poor into this category. Doesn’t mean this subclass is any less vulnerable. In fact, given the recent price shocks, this group has been ruined because there is little or no safety net. Parents who could afford to feed each child one egg per day cannot afford to do so. It is becoming a choice between nutrition, rents/bills/fees and transport costs. The country needs to rethink the poverty numbers, the criteria and ways to help the most vulnerable. Remember, what remained of the actual middle class is all but gone due to the impossible living conditions.

When for seventy-five years, society has been trying to stand still, obviously, the relationship between the predator and the prey has not changed. Predators hunt, and their game try to hide in plain sight. But this circle of abuse encourages the predators more. Their numbers have been multiplying as a consequence. So in the coming days, you will see two trends. An increase in radicalism because while you and I may take a break, the activists of the radical religious outfits seldom do. Two, the emergence of bewildering sights and sounds of extreme poverty that may be enough to drive you crazy for a lifetime. While this continues, my media obsesses about Imran Khan’s court peshis, violence in cricket stadiums abroad, and other wasteful pursuits. But those sights and sounds will not stop. They will reach you through social media if not on the streets. When you don’t want to bring down the circle of abuse, you will inevitably become its part and probably a victim.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 10th, 2022.

To the reading world, Karen Armstrong needs no introduction. She is best known for her seminal works in the field of comparative religions like ‘A History of God’, ‘The Battle for God’, ‘A Brief History of Myth’, and ‘Transformation’. But it is her second autobiographical account, The Spiral Staircase — My Climb Out of Darkness, that merits your attention above everything else.

Apart from being a prolific writer and an outstanding public intellectual to others with at least a nodding acquaintance with her story, she is known as a runaway nun. The first part of her biography, Through the Narrow Gate, documents her life as a nun. This autobiographical sequel that we are interested in begins once she has left all that behind and is a scholar at Oxford.

Bear her religious background in mind because, on campus, she repeatedly encounters hallucinations in the shape of the devil himself. These hallucinations are often coupled with fits and seizures. When after such a seizure, she is taken to the neurology department, she is immediately diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy. She then proceeds to seek help and gets on with life. Stylistically alone, the book is unputdownable. However, it is the meat of the story, her candid retelling of her trials and tribulations, her bravery, her thirst for knowledge, and her self-deprecating humour that keeps your eyes glued to the book.

Now think for a moment. If it were anyone with delusions of grandeur, inflated self-worth, or a superstitious mind, he or she would probably have jumped to the worst possible conclusions. But not this author. Where some would have gone scurrying back to the convent or, worse still would have weaponised these experiences despite the illness she battled on, sought help, and made something of her life. Consequently, we got a host of beautiful books and no further distortions such as a pseudo-spiritual grift.

In history, there has been no dearth of such grifters. As you move closer to modern times, it gets more noticeable because you get ample documentation to support your thesis. I have mentioned Kurt Anderson’s Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire more than once. It catalogs a series of such grifts. Podcaster and extremism expert Robert Evans just concluded a multi-part expose on the life of Helena Blavatsky, the co-founder of Theosophical Society. You will be shocked by some of these stories. Who would have thought that history could be more enjoyable than fiction?

Remember, none of these arguments are meant to challenge any organised religion. We are critiquing here the convenience with which some have used their delusions or the superstitions of the simple-minded folks to make incredible amounts of money. And then there was the political use of such elements. Growing up, you might have heard about the seances in Lincoln’s White House or Hitler’s reliance on seers before new military campaigns, one of which took him straight to hell. There is a chance that some of these stories might be embellished or exaggerated in hindsight. But one thing that cannot be denied is the ability of the rich and powerful to make absolute fools of themselves at the hands of such con artists. Putin has his Alexander Dugin, and Silicon Valley is full of shamans and gurus. And someone conned the former CEO of India’s National Stock Exchange via emails in the name of a fictitious Himalayan Yogi.

The grift gets more sophisticated and elaborate, even more, enjoyable when a few historians, philosophers, or for the lack of a better term, social scientists get involved. Have you ever wondered why so many insist that the mundane day-to-day developments follow a pattern and some insist that these random occurrences resemble geometric shapes no less? History is cyclical. No, actually, it is a spiral. Yeah right. As if any of these hair-brained weasels can tell you what will happen tomorrow. The truth of it all is that there is no evidence that there is any pattern to these random events in our lives or our lives. None whatsoever. Karl Popper does a great job of taking these exalted con artists, these so-called “historicists”, to task. But when do such honest critiques deter blind followers?

This problem gets further complicated by way of interpretation. If there is a pattern, there must be a meaning to it all, a destiny, a preferred way of life, and perhaps a chosen people. Mind you, we are still talking about secular con jobs. Not sure anymore? Have you read Huntington’s clash of civilisations or “Who are we?”

When the fuel of religion is poured on this fire of make-belief, it takes two ugly turns—one substituting action with superstitious rituals. We shall illustrate that later. The other turn is about endism. Every faith presents some version of the end of times. Now the exact time of that end is wisely kept from us. But we mortals force ourselves to believe that we are a part of it. Consequently, Christian Zionists are trying to build a stronger Israel, later to be destroyed by the second coming, and Muslim radicals want to start the end of times wars. Spencer Ackerman helps us greatly in his book Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump by explaining the unintended consequences of such story arcs.

Let us go back to rituals replacing concrete action. In his book Ghubar-e-Khatir, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad has a few valuable anecdotes. In his 14th letter, he quotes a French Crusader, Jean De Join Ville, to illustrate when in the 13th century, Muslim and Christian forces Muslims had technological superiority manifested by petraries and swivel crossbows forcing their opponents to pray on their knees. Technology prevailed. Then Maulana presents a contrasting picture from the 18th century. When Napoleon invaded Egypt, the scholars at Al Azhar recommended to the rulers that rounds of Sahih Bokhari recitation would get rid of this ordeal. But within no time, the invader had prevailed. Maulana then says prayers indeed work, but those who employ the best methods to succeed. Sadly in our dogma and the superstition-driven world, policies and actions are replaced by exceptional reliance on ritual and blind faith. The result is in front of our eyes.

When today, religious scholars tell us that one-third of Pakistan is under water because of the victims’ sins, one has to pause and wonder why this punishment doesn’t extend to the affluent and better-managed areas. We can further dishearten badly broken people whose world has been turned upside down by this natural calamity, or we can hold our peace and help them out. Dogma and conjecture can never replace empathy and pragmatic policies.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 3rd, 2022.

The title of this article is a play on the name of a famous apocalyptic Hollywood black comedy and political satire called Don’t Look Up. I have mentioned the film before and this is no time to reproduce the summary here. You can do it on your own time by either watching the movie or fittingly looking it up. Suffice it to say that it satisfyingly thumbs nose at the culture of apathy and impunity in the face of overwhelming evidence that the earth is about to be destroyed. This piece is not about the imminent destruction of humanity due to an incoming comet. It is about other infamous bodies that cloud our judgment and overwhelm our actions. In short, it is about the elite’s indifference towards the common man. And let’s face it. What other choices did I have for the title? Nero’s fiddle? Marie-Antoinette’s cake? Nah. This one works better as you will see.

One more word of caution. This is the second draft of the piece. The first one was mostly a collection of choicest swear words which I felt were printable. While as a consequence of this dilution, it is not an assortment of insulted injuries, it remains a charge sheet, an indictment of us all and hopefully an eye-opening one at that.

You must have seen them. The scenes of devastation from the floods. A three-foot-tall kid half submerged in water offering the call to prayer as the ultimate entreaty to his maker and a burning rebuke to us all who could do anything about it. A newborn with his umbilical cord attached is being pulled out of the mud as proof of a miracle. Five men stranded on a patch of land surrounded by high water, claimed one by one by the flood. A crestfallen man balling like a baby on a riverbank, telling whoever would listen that his entire family was swept away by the floods. And you did not see it where you should have first seen it. It was on social media. The country’s over fifty news channels had better things to do. Like showcasing Shehbaz Gill’s new moustache.

There were early signs and wake-up calls. A general’s helicopter out on a relief mission went down in Lasbela due to inclement weather. The crisis was already severe. But we let conspiracy theorists have a field day. And no collective interest in the plight of those ruined by the floods. It is as if we want to be led astray.

Uss waqt mujhe bhatka dena jab samne manzil aa jaye (Lead me astray when the destination is before me).

We all had to wake the electronic media up but it did. Now the issue was of the capacity. Decades of monetising precious airtime means cutting down on the expert neural clusters whose job it is to tackle such situations. Consequently, most of us become only an echo chamber of distress, unable to contribute constructively in this environment. If the 2010 floods and the 2005 earthquake are any guide after these two stages (denial and helpless whimpering) comes a third and proactive one. When each channel dispatches its star anchors to the field where to gain ratings they stand on the riverbanks armed with cameras and microphones, stop the flood victims trudging through neck-deep water burdened by their belongings on their heads and ask them silly questions. Some others stand beside wasting corpses, look into the cameras and give long lectures. Start with the telethons mate and help mobilise the local resources to help out the victims.

Now let us meet the affluent class namely the politicians. Traditionally, governments tend to underplay the crisis. But not this one. It knows that already battling a fiscal crisis, it cannot handle such a massive crisis with such meagre resources. What is the point of hiding it then? But usually, it is the job of the opposition to punch holes in the government’s explanations and defence. That is when there is an opposition and it is not entirely self-involved. The PTI which, displaying the emblematic sportsman spirit, has already quit the parliament, heartily agrees that the country is going through an existential crisis. But this existential crisis is of its exile from power. If the media acquires the role of an anxiety pump in such a scenario, the party has acquired the role of an outrage pump. Every microaggression against it is the worst crime against humanity. Its assumed victimhood is the tragedy of the century. But pray what about the real tragedies like the floods? When you shelter a privileged segment of society for too long and then one day it is exposed to the same elements faced by the rest of the population for decades it is bound to think that the sky is falling.

Khuda humko aisi khudai na de, keh apnay siwa kuchh dikhai na de (May God never give us such a kingdom or power, that we are unable to see anyone beyond our egos).

The big cities in Pakistan are the vestiges of colonial rule. Their main purpose was not to bring prosperity to the people but to function as fortresses against the unruly locals. Now in the post-colonial era, they serve as tiny bubbles of relative serenity. That is why with every passing day our politics, our media, our dominant culture and our businesses get more and more obsessed with the cities. Bad that is not where the majority lives. The majority cannot be chuffed if according to an estimate 20 to 30 million citizens are now homeless due to these floods.

And we conclude, let us add one more colour. While the political class was bickering over minutiae, some religious groups like the TLP and the Jamaat shared pictures that they were diligently collecting and supplying relief goods to the victims. This took me back to the traumatised 2005 earthquake victims who had complained that this lot told them that their sins had been responsible for their plight. So no hope there either.

In his Political Order and Political Decay Fukuyama maintains that this decay is important for national growth. For the new to grow the old must go. In his Upheaval, Jared Diamond gives tons of examples of converting adversity into opportunity. But to do that you need to have a handle on things. When the elite is so self-absorbed, so divorced from reality and the majority is left to fend for itself nothing good can come out. So, don’t look down. It is only our funeral.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 27th, 2022.

Power trips of political triumphalism can be more potent than any intoxicant. You do not want to stop when you think you are winning. Notice the emphasis on thinking. If perception and reality were the same, we would have found little room to disagree. But they are not. Reality is like the blind men’s elephant. Your perception is like your blind grasp on reality far bigger than your physical range. Ergo the often flawed interpretation of the truth. With so many variables at play, can you be sure you are winning when you think you are?

But we seldom are eager to learn from our experiences, let alone those of others. Therefore, this newfound obsession with narratives. Who cares about the objective truths if you can convince enough people of the veracity of that which you are telling them, right? Wrong. Perceptions, narratives, projections, and spin all exist at a right angle to reality as ugly protrusions and are the first ones to go when there is any inevitable circular movement. I am sorry if you think I am deliberately being profuse. I have data to prove this, and if you stick with me long enough, you will have no difficulty comprehending what I mean.

Remember General Musharraf’s emphasis on projecting the soft image of his regime? And for an extended period, he managed to get away with it too. How else could he rule an unruly nation like his for eight successive years and live to tell the tale? No one else has. There was a time when his detractors could not even find an audience. But then life happened, and he made one mistake after another. Just like that, he was gone. Friendly narratives are helpful when the odds are in your favour or someone powerful somewhere deliberately shuts their eyes to unsavoury aspects of reality because you are needed. As soon as the utility is gone, so are you and your precious little perceptions.

I recently heard a remarkable claim. That we all are narratives. I beg to differ. Stories we, of course, are, but we are lived stories. What is the difference? Only that of claiming and being. Substance matters. No matter how many times you tell a lie, it does not become a truth. You can choose to believe it is true. But even a cursory examination of the evidence would punch holes in your belief. There is no superposition — only a binary.

Enough theory already. Let’s operationalise it.

You might have noticed that with each passing day, more and more politicians are choosing to fight their legal battles in the political arena. What does that mean? It means that instead of wholeheartedly fighting their cases in the courts or other quasi-legal forums, they apply their minds to slowing down the process while also publicly decrying it as persecution or witch-hunt. Unfortunately for us, there are enough extenuating circumstances to lend credence to those claims. So, for a limited time, this sleight of hand seems to work. But just because there are some elements of persecution intertwined in the mishmash does not mean that all charges against you are unfounded.

It probably started with the PPP. For decades our state has been rather keen on capturing and punishing the alleged corruption of the PPP leadership. The party constantly cried foul. Who did not know that Zia’s successors did not want Benazir Bhutto to come to power? Or that the same group of people played a crucial role in her father’s hanging. So, this narrative of victimhood initially worked on the committed jiyalas of the party. But instead of refuting the charges in a court of law, alibis and complicated, often hilarious, excuses to prolong the process and defer closure. Asif Ali Zardari remained behind bars for almost a decade, but those cases still haven’t seen their logical end. What happened then? Since reality refused to back their narrative, the party, at one time the largest one in the country, gradually lost traction and is now restricted to one province.

Next is the example of the PML-N. Until the Panama Papers story broke, auguries were in the party’s favour. It had survived several years of exile imposed by the Musharraf regime, the PPP’s five years in office and usually, corruption had little to do with the charges against it. It had even survived Imran Khan’s sit-in. But the story broke, and the party blinked. Coming soon after the exile, the sit-in mentioned above and a hundred micro-aggressions, it was easy to cry wolf. Hence emphasis was on the narrative. The way the case proceeded did not help the case either. So, the party managed to push the narrative of persecution. But when the going was not tough, the party’s government did precious little to change the accountability laws as it had once promised. Nor did it have a coherent legal strategy during the Panama case trial. Even its well-wishers who in a heartbeat point to the manner of Mian Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification and conviction to prove something was awry could not claim that the party’s defence could bring the case to a satisfactory closure by producing a bulletproof money trail. Then other cases of alleged corruption piled on, and no closure was within reach.

In the short term, the narrative of persecution worked. But then the party decided to displace the then incumbent government of Imran Khan and came to power. You just witnessed what became of that narrative in Punjab’s by-elections.

Now the same cycle is repeating itself with new faces. Imran Khan’s narrative of a conspiracy to replace him seems to work. Even those who do not believe there was an international conspiracy think that the unity government unnecessarily became cannon fodder in somebody else’s war. Buoyed by these perceptions, the former premier has concluded that there is no point in cooperating in investigations against him. That is a mistake. These cases will come back to haunt him when people get bored with the shiny new thing that is his narrative. He should cooperate with the legal process, especially because he named his party Tehreek-e-Insaf (the movement for justice). These tailwinds that his party benefits from are just as fickle a friend as the animosity of the headwinds his opponents face. In the end, it is the substance that matters. His advisers are not doing him any service if they have advised him not to try to bring closure to the cases against him through legal means.

You can all listen to those who say perceptions are greater than reality, but when has it ever worked for anyone?

Published in The Express Tribune, August 20th, 2022.


Many video streaming services have invested heavily in original South Asian content. Consequently, it is hard to open such an app and not find it overflowing with Indian content. Here and there, you may find something from Pakistan too, but it is rare and hardly original. One wonders about the decline in the art of storytelling and even poetry in the Islamic Republic. But that mercifully is not the subject of today’s discussion. This scribe stumbled upon an Indian series called Crash Course on Amazon’s streaming service. While the story is underwhelming, the establishing premise is interesting. It is about two colleges that compete to produce the maximum number of high scorers in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects. What distinguishes one school from another is better teaching skills in physics. While I had to abandon this series within the first fifteen minutes, the matter of STEM education stayed with me. There are good reasons.

This took me back to my school days. Maths, Chemistry and Biology were all in competent hands. Teachers had already impressed upon us the importance of these subjects and their purpose too. But one subject — namely physics — was not so lucky. Physics is a subject that later, partly due to self-teaching and partly under the influence of better teachers, would become a personal obsession. But in the first two years, the teacher who taught us physics could not even clarify the meaning and the purpose of the discipline. Every day he would show up, scribble the title of a chapter on the blackboard, sit down and while away the whole period chatting to his favourite pupils. Every year, the quality inspectors sent by the board would arrive to assess the education standards. On such days he would be a changed man. He would show up in an impeccably pressed suit, deliver the entire lecture in English, refuse to sit down and be very interactive. The sad bit was that on such days not a single word he uttered would go to waste. Ostensibly, there was no shortage of capacity there. Just an unhealthy contempt for the job itself. In that term, physics caused many students to switch from science courses to arts.

If decades ago it was primarily an attitude issue, now it has caused some serious systemic and capacity issues. For instance, back in those days, we used to attribute this visible lack of effort to the fact that it was a public school. The situation probably would be better in private schools, we thought.

My children go to a reputed private school system. Recently, when I was having a conversation with my elder daughter, an O-level student, I was appalled to learn that the only subject in which she was facing comprehension challenges was physics. And it is a child with a precocious talent for learning. When encouraged to find online video lectures on physics, she grasped the core principles within minutes. Since it is too tiny a representative sample, I asked around. Physics is a common problem in many schools in corresponding age groups. What does it say about the country’s STEM education? This is a small, privileged part of the country’s educational system. In the public sector, where the number of students per class increases exponentially, the quality decline is pretty steep.

Ultimately, it all comes down to a teacher’s skill set. Teaching STEM disciplines is not easy. A teacher needs to have enough mastery of the subject, enough charisma and communication skills and finally, enough rapport with the students to command their respect and attention in such a way that they imbibe the provided information without a hitch. The teacher then should also be approachable enough that a student feels no hesitation in seeking clarification on a given issue. This means the schools need to hire the best from the talent pool. This seldom happens because good teachers do not come cheap. And when it comes to paying teachers at the school level, the employment conditions, even in the private sector where schools charge exorbitant fees, are sub-optimal. Go to a school to teach, and you get a fixed, unimpressive salary. Open a tuition centre, and your earnings are directly proportional to the number of students you teach and the quality of knowledge you impart. No wonder the teachers who do not produce good results in schools often have very successful private tuition businesses at home. Why should they squander that extra effort in an environment where they do not find enough incentives?

A few years ago, when a group of parents went to courts to challenge the fee structure in private schools, peer pressure grew on me to join them. But not only did I refuse to join the cause, I even refused to discuss the matter in my shows. Private schooling is a choice. If you make this choice, you should be ready to pay up. It doesn’t mean it is easy for any of us, the members of the salaried class. But where I think I find myself and other parents within our rights to approach any forum to get relief is the quality of the goods and services we are paying for. If, after footing an ever-increasing bill, one cannot ensure a better quality of education for one’s kids, one has every right to be angry about it.

Sadly, the conversation will be incomplete without another nightmarish dimension of this problem. The issue of private schools which choose to become grade-producing factories. In such schools, children are subjected to punishing schedules, grueling methods and inhuman pressures. That, too, is not the answer. Grades are important, but so is the need to improve comprehension and produce students with well-rounded personalities. STEM education has a severe gender gap and a class-related gap, and then even in the most privileged subgroups, the quality is declining.

To understand how badly we are failing our next generation, we only need to look at our neighbours. India and China are churning out very competitive STEM students at a breakneck speed. And we are still struggling with the essential standards. If this does not change very quickly, we are doomed. We seem to be approaching the age of another population bottleneck. Only those nations will go the distance that produce a critical mass of STEM experts. We are nowhere near there yet.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 13th, 2022.

They say divine providence granted a man two wishes as a reward for an act of selfless heroism. He wished for a tour of paradise, a wish that was instantly granted. He took the tour and spent time there to his heart’s content. When it ended, he was asked to make his second wish. Mortals being curious he wished that he could also visit hell in the same fashion, without being singed or harmed in any way of course. When he reached there, he learned that the place’s huge population was divided according to regional identities. These groups were interned in different hell holes. Atop each one was a solid-looking sewage cover accompanied by an alert guard. If a captive managed to escape the trapdoor or the dungeon cover, the guard would ensure that they were caught and returned to the dungeon in no time. This was invariably the case with each region or identity except one. Only one hole had neither a cover nor a guard. When our pilgrim inquired about the missing precautions he was told that they were wholly unnecessary as this dungeon housed South Asians. If one tried to escape, the others would drag him down.

Have you ever wondered despite such impressive economic indicators over decades why has India not been able to substantially reduce poverty within the country? Have you ever thought about why we don’t come across any inspiring rags to riches stories in Pakistan? Why is it that the few zero-to-hero stories we hear lack transparency, are devoid of key components and usually are adjacent to power of sorts? Then there are the other kinds of success stories. The ones that got away. People from the South Asian countries who managed to excel in foreign lands. Why couldn’t they do that in their native lands? Sundar Pichai is the CEO of Google. But in his native Chennai, he had seen some tough times.

It then appears that there is something fundamentally and structurally wrong with the South Asian societies that actively discourage upward mobility. If you manage to somehow gain access to power, you may find the elevator that can take you to the next floor. But since in their true essence all public offices and institutions of power are inert, any value addition to anyone’s economic status through them is essentially corrupt. Such distortions exist in every society. Where would Bezos and Musk be if the Obama administration’s policies did not facilitate their rise? But in post-colonial South Asia, this distortion is the rule. Ask a billionaire hotelier how much rent he pays to the government of Pakistan for the state-owned land on which his lavish hotels are built. Ask a certain property tycoon how he managed to name his business after an armed force of the country and why there was no serious pushback.

We don’t know how accurate coffee-swilling Balzac was about French society when he claimed that behind every big fortune there was a crime. But in South Asia, this seems as certain as a law of physics. Even so, this could have been tolerated if there was at least some room for upward mobility. But there is none. The club of the privileged actively ensures that it remains exclusive and as few people enter it as possible. That means that only talent and skills are not enough, and your pedigree will also be a matter of consideration. Why pedigree by the way? Because in South Asia it matters a lot where and when you were born. In India because of ineffable casteism. Consider a member of the lowest castes. Even if they rise to the top of the economic food chain, they may not be able to escape the prison of societal isolation. That despite no fault of their own. Also, know any famous Indian ex-pats? Google their name and the first thing you will come across in the search histories is the query about their caste. And you will be surprised that most of them belong to the upper caste.

In Pakistan where casteism doesn’t play a religious role, it is replaced by familial or clan loyalties, and regional, provincial, ethnic, lingual even sectarian prejudices. And atop all this is the ivory castle of the haves where gatekeepers sit to keep the riff-raff out. Sadly, in India and Pakistan the anti-status-quo insurgent parties (BJP in India, PTI in Pakistan) are so steeped in the right-wing religious-cultural orthodoxies that instead of dismantling the traditional privileges only end up institutionalising and bolstering them.

But here is the problem. Every group, project and class need fresh blood. You cannot shut the doors to this ascent and pretend that things will remain hunky dory. It must have worked in the monarchical, feudal, and colonial times when exclusivity would be seen as an active threat to the status quo. But now these countries claim to be democratic, capitalist societies. In democracies with the adult franchise, and universal suffrage you will need to create additional distortions to keep these privileges intact.

But I am here to tell you that this cannot go on. Times are changing. Automation is on the rise. These huge bureaucracies through which these countries manufacture consent will be replaced by toaster ovens and washing machines. The state machinery will be the first one to go. These elites being built up by this machinery will become the most vehement enemies of these states. Private corporations that face no such compulsion to replace their human resource will take these states apart brick by brick and throw them away.

If you believe that in South Asia where five thousand years of history could not produce one decent revolution, suddenly there is going to be a French or Bolshevik revolution you are sorely mistaken. Instead, what you are going to witness is the most gruesome form of institutional corrosion, decay, and degeneracy. And it will inevitably hurt the very institutions that work overtime as the gatekeepers of privilege and manufacturers of consent. Once this pattern sets in it will be irreversible.

So, here is the word to the wise, dear gatekeepers. Stop filtering out and muting your citizens. Reforms are long overdue. If elite formation in the society continues to be exclusive, arbitrary and the common man lives his life as a player in the snakes and ladders game the whole project is doomed. What is the point of being a gatekeeper if there is no gate to keep or the Valhalla behind to protect? Shape up or ship out. The time for change has come.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 6th, 2022.

What is common between James Webb Space Telescope and former Trump NSA John Bolton? Nothing, to be honest. The first unlocks ancient mysteries without drawing too much attention to itself. The second, Bolton, is, pardon the rudeness, a prima donna, an attention hog. It is always me, me, me with the latter. And yet both managed to surprise us recently.

The telescope did it by capturing the sights of the ancient universe. Light might be fast, but it also has a speed limit and takes its sweet time to travel across an infinite universe. So, the Webb telescope captured various images of the universe in its infancy. One of these images shows a part of the universe some 14 billion years ago. I don’t think I have found a better wallpaper for my computer or cellphone. Looking at it is always a humbling experience. How big is the universe, and how infinitely small and irrelevant are we, mortals?

And then one insignificant, irrelevant mortal managed to shock us on this tiny blue-green dot with his narcissism. John Bolton’s interview is a case study in odiousness. Here is a part of an interview:

Tapper: One doesn’t have to be brilliant to attempt a coup.

Bolton: I disagree with that. As somebody who has helped plan coups d’état — not here but, you know, other places — it takes a lot of work.

And somehow, the lede got buried within the story. The most important takeaway isn’t that the US plots coups elsewhere. Almost every nation of some significance does. But the main story is that a White House nat-sec dropout, a US recess appointee to the UN, Fox’s Frankenstein’s also-ran, thinks he is brilliant.

But as soon as he shot his motormouth, I knew one part of the world where he would hog the attention economy was Pakistan. There are three reasons for that. One, Pakistan has had an unfair share of intrigues, coups, assassinations and, for the past two decades, acts of terrorism. Two, with dwindling academic standards, even the educated class in the country is less informed, presenting fertile ground for conspiracy theories. Third, the country is already gripped by a recent conspiracy theory borne out of political instability. The timing of the interview almost felt sinister.

But that is not all. Since the global economic crisis is worsening, a long ill-managed economy like Pakistan is bound to feel the heat, and Sri Lanka, another financial partner with China, has gone through hell; there is renewed talk of Pakistan’s collapse. Michael Rubin, of American Enterprise Institute and a Bush 43 alum, recently wrote a piece titled, “Pakistan’s coming collapse should worry the world.” I know the title leaves nothing to the imagination. But let’s face it. That is the only reason it is being discussed in this space. Rubin, otherwise, merits little attention. And unfortunately, that is a statement of fact, not an emotional retort.

Had this piece been written two decades ago or more, I am sure my resulting column would have resulted in incentives and charged diatribes. But as you progress further in this piece, you will notice that it is not. The revulsion in my heart is replaced by pity. When smart people choose to act stupid, what else can you do?

Personally, I have no reason to doubt Rubin’s integrity. I will not try to validate the claim that he has recently been accused of writing pay-to-play pieces, for example, the article against human rights watch, which allegedly was sponsored by the UAE government. Or many other similar ones. I want to believe that this is his informed view. And honestly, not all the concerns flagged in his article are unfounded. Pakistan, as usual, is really in a difficult position.

Where I disagree are the elements of fatalism, cognitive dissonance and counterintuitiveness in the piece. From the experts in a discipline which could predict neither the collapse of the Berlin Wall nor the twenty years old Kabul administration, one would expect at least an iota of humility. You never seem to get anything right. Why would this time be any different?

Cognitive dissonance because one of the reasons why the entire world, including the US, is in a pickle is that a good fight is being waged elsewhere. The Ukrainian crisis is a significant contributor to the global economic disorder; that and former Republican President Trump’s mindless trade wars.

Finally, counterintuitiveness because that is how the US keeps losing close allies. One would have that the Bush administration alums are mad at Pakistan because their 20-year-old nation-building project failed in Afghanistan. But that is not true. When Ralph Peters came up with his Blood Borders map, the project was still going strong. When Seymour Hersh wrote about plan B to secure Pakistan’s nuclear assets if the country fell apart, the project was only beginning, and Pakistan was the most allied ally. The truth is that the world order belongs to the bullies. When a bully finds a target, all others gang up. Predicting Pakistan’s collapse pleases India, and that’s why you have been hearing a lot about it.

To prove how counterintuitive this approach can be, you must look at the facts. When the CPEC project arrived in Pakistan, the country was being shaken by terror attacks. Attacks caused by the country’s decision to side with the US in the war on terror. Yet, Western pundits were busy predicting Pakistan’s collapse, and that’s why Western investors wouldn’t come close to the country. Pakistan survived, and now the US pundits keep worrying about the growing Chinese influence. This time too, this kind of casual speculation is helping Russia’s case in the country. Who knows what happens tomorrow, but even Sri Lanka, the immediate trigger for this discussion, hasn’t collapsed.

I began this piece by mentioning the cosmic insignificance of human life. Let me close on the same point because it puts everything we do in the correct perspective. This billions-of-years old infinite multiverse reminds us what a bunch of nobodies we are. Our so-called ambitions mean nothing. The only thing that matters, at least to us mortals, is the human condition and the need to avoid pain and suffering. You cannot play dice with the fate of a country of 210 million citizens without thinking of their misery.

Everything dies. I will die, Rubin will pass, and so will Pakistan, Earth and this multiverse one day. The second law of thermodynamics promises as much. But let’s celebrate that stupidity will also die with all of us.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 23rd, 2022.

A week before the fall of Kabul, my piece titled ‘Behold the wooden horse’ appeared in this space on August 7, 2021. Bear with me as I quote from the article to see if I had a point. Kindly note that to improve the flow, the quoted paras do not follow the order in which they appeared but are still maintained verbatim. It is important to go through them because we need to see if we have learned any lessons from our lived experience.

“If the Taliban take over Afghanistan, apart from the usual wages of war next door, Pakistan will be subjected to a double whammy. It will be blamed for their human rights violations and other bad practices. Despite what you are told, the Taliban have not changed their spots. And their victory narrative will export this destabilising ideology to Pakistan through the TTP and other aligned groups. Even if they don’t let their land being used against any other country, this ideological osmosis will embolden their twins in Pakistan.”

“Everyone who maintains that the ragtag group of self-appointed holy warriors is a friend of Pakistan needs to answer a simple question. What interests did the Taliban purportedly serve Pakistan, apart from being a massive drain on resources, an international liability and radicalising influence at home? It refused to resolve the Durand line issue. It regularly disregarded Islamabad’s pleas to show respect for human rights or to moderate its ways, resulting in the constant international marginalisation of Pakistan. But at home, its benefactors like Colonel Imam were adamant that it was the best friend the country ever had. The situation would change shortly, the Taliban government would fall and due to its cooperation with the US, Pakistan would come under attack from a newly formed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). A leader of the TTP would one day execute Col Imam in front of cameras.”

“In February 2001, Lt Gen (retd) Moinuddin Haider, the then interior minister of Pakistan, made an unusual visit to Kabul. There he presented a list of sixty Lashkar-e-Jhangvi absconders, including Riaz Basra, the notorious founder of the group. Intelligence reports had indicated, and Islamabad was convinced, that these absconders had taken refuge in the country. Their presence was denied by the Taliban but as there was an ideological convergence between the two, the Taliban would not have handed them over in any case. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, this became abundantly clear as the Taliban refused to surrender Osama citing faith and customs.”

“Recently, as the Taliban expanded their sway, reports have emerged of the TTP terrorists living in territories controlled by their ideological Afghan twins. This has given birth to a host of questions. Why have the Taliban not taken any action against them? Why have Pakistan’s ‘brethren’ not expelled or handed them over? Could they do that if their control over Afghanistan is complete? The relationship between the TTP and the TTA (Afghan Taliban) has been a source of the good-Taliban-bad-Taliban binary for long. But the truth is that the TTA has never publicly disavowed the TTP. They say nothing and leave it to the obscurity and confusion artists to sow doubts in the minds of the public about the evidence before them. Today the TTA is not in power and even then, it is not ready to help in bringing Pakistan’s public enemy number one to justice. What is the chance that it would once it came to power? None at all, if the Riaz Basra and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi episode cited above is any proof. They are ideological twins and this time the TTA promises to return to power emboldened by the ‘defeated a superpower’ lore. This time it will be far more stubborn in its conduct.”

“In the past twenty years, Pakistan has been to hell and back. Before 2014, the state had to face the fact that its war on domestic TTP terrorists was not owned by its citizens. The new narrative was failing in face of the old narrative of the 90s. In 2014, the inhumanity and brazenness of the APS Peshawar attack would change that. But as a tiny cog in the vast machine that worked tirelessly to build consensus against terrorism, I can attest to the fact that even after APS it was not a cakewalk. Even when the consensus emerged it was fleeting and ephemeral. The TTP apologists never went away. If you are trying to find them among the political class you are forgetting that politics in Pakistan is driven by self-interest and not by ideology. Look for them among public influencers. Dime a dozen and ready (to) trigger.”

“George Bernard Shaw once said, ‘There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.’ The wooden horse is at the door. Be careful what you wish for.”

(You can read the piece by visiting the following link:


A conquest and two OIC meetings later, the tail seems to wag the dog. The Taliban regime has not turned over any TTP leaders to Pakistan. In fact, Islamabad seems under pressure from the regime to hold talks with the terrorist group that has killed over eighty thousand Pakistanis, crippled countless others and destroyed property worth hundreds of billions. Of course, this is neither a big issue for the new rulers in Kabul nor their apologists in Pakistan because that is how TTP returned to power. An argument is often given by supporters of talks with TTP: “If the US-led coalition could negotiate with the Afghan Taliban, why can’t Pakistan talk to TTP?” This reminds me of an old Punjabi joke: A man’s buffalo falls ill. He contacts a friend who had gone through a similar experience and asks him what medicine he had given his buffalo when it fell sick. The friend shares a name. Our man goes to the bazaar, buys and administers the same medicine. His buffalo dies. Outraged, he contacts his friend again and accosts him. “You never asked. My buffalo had perished too,” comes the reply.

If you have not noticed, the US and its installed government are gone, and the Taliban now control the country. It was not US land, and it could afford to lose it. Pakistanis do not have that luxury. And from Shakai, Sararogha, Swat to countless other failed agreements, every time you cut a deal, TTP regrouped and returned with a vengeance. Today you can reset and reboot as much as you want. Tomorrow, like in Afghanistan, you may not have the luxury.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 30th, 2022.

As the tale goes, once upon a time in a kingdom far, far away there lived two unemployed brothers called Modified and Modied. One day the older brother Modified (let’s call him Mod) said to his younger, hey Mo let’s go search for jobs in a foreign land. They both agreed and one hot dusty day set out to get jobs.

(Okay, will you stop obsessing about the names and concentrate on the story which has a moral?)

So, the two brothers kept travelling in search of work until they reached a rich kingdom. When they entered its capital they found the entire city out on the roads. Mod accosted a resident to learn why and was told that the king had just died without an heir. In a short while Huma, the bird of destiny, was to be released and if it landed on you, you would be chosen as the next king. That is why every citizen was out to try their luck. Hearing this the two brothers also decided to give it a shot.

The elder one vowed to turn the kingdom into an abode of tranquility, virtue, equanimity and honesty if chosen the king. Mo, the younger one, disagreed. He said all of this was against fundamental human nature. The man was a corrupt animal. That was why if chosen he would turn the country into a dump. Corruption would be obligatory, the rich and the powerful would set the agenda and everyone would be under obligation to demand their cut. As soon as he finished the Huma bird was released and it landed right atop his head. As the populace gathered around the newly chosen King Modied, feeling dejected the elder brother Mod wished him luck and left.

Many years passed and the elder brother was seized by the desire to check in on his younger brother to see his progress. When he reached the capital the police wouldn’t let him enter without a hefty sum as a bribe. When he informed that he was the king’s brother the ask was doubled because now the bribe also included the royal cut. He had to pony up and eventually taken to see the king. When the king saw him he lunged to embrace him. But our virtuous Mod threw a filthy look at him and turned his back on him. When King Modied asked him what was wrong he said it like it was. The king was a disgrace and had brought a bad name to his family by ruining a perfectly beautiful kingdom. The king was shocked to hear this. He reminded him that both of them were there when they made their declarations. Had the providence wanted something better for the country it would have chosen Mod but it chose Mo. He was then only fulfilling his pledge. Moral of the story: you can’t escape your fate. My spin on it? Fate is cruel.

Does it sound like fatalism to you? To me, it is a design flaw in the shape of things to come. A flaw left there deliberately by the designer. For those of you who are not acquainted with the term Kobayashi Maru used in the title, in the Star Trek lore, it is a no-win simulation test to evaluate a cadet’s character. The term was introduced in the movie “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” where the genetically engineered Indian tyrant Khan Noonien Singh (I know the name makes little sense but to the ears of the writers at the time it sounded exotic and plausible enough to be included) returns from exile.

Now in the story above I have used many layers of irony. I have even deployed the Urdu style of column writing, which is an irony of ironies in itself, in the vain hope of creating at least one moment of moral victory. But as you can go back and look there is no moral victory in the whole story from start to finish despite my embellishments. You can run, you can hide or plot, but you cannot win or catch a break. The world around you is so broken that it will at least swallow a few generations before getting fixed, if at all. Ever wondered what went wrong and what caused the seemingly endless reservoirs of moral courage and sanity to suddenly dry up around the world. Many attempts were made to answer this but the quest continues.

Former Japanese premier Shinzo Abe was just assassinated using an assortment of pipes duct-taped together to function as a gun which obviously worked. Abe was often accused of populism and hyper-nationalism. He was killed in the name of hypernationalism. Dumb.

In the US someone blew up a part of the Georgia Guidestones and the police brought down the remaining monument which stood there since 1980. Word has it that a bunch of white nationalists built it and a bunch of white nationalists blew it up. Dumb.

In India, Narendra Modi unveiled the official emblem atop the new parliament compound. A 6.5m-tall statue “shows four Asiatic lions mounted back-to-back on a circular disc”. The symbol borrowed from Emperor Asoka’s reign in 250BC is a part of India’s list of national symbols. But upon unveiling keen-eyed observers noticed some differences. In a sharp deviation from the original, they noticed that the lions looked much more ferocious and seemed to be snarling. To these dumdums, Asoka who allegedly killed three hundred thousand including dozens of his own brothers wasn’t belligerent enough. Modi’s obsession with such symbols brought an episode of “The Man in the High Castle” to mind where they bring the Statue of Liberty down and install in its place a Nazi statue. These fascist types surely have a proven track record of perverting beautiful things to reshape them in their own image.

While all of the anecdotes above are disturbing enough the last bit is obviously important. All comparisons of Modi with Hitler aside, there is one critical difference. Hitler, despite his crimes against humanity, will be known as a failed villain of history. Modi and his minions seem in no mood to fail. So note the difference between Hitlerism and Modism. Hitlerism means doing the vile thing so crudely that people notice and take action. Modism does the same more effectively by using all the diplomatic and financial prowess of India’s virtual empire. Charge the majority of a nation of 1.3 billion against its minorities and then watch the spectacle. What are you going to do about it? With apology to Shakespeare’s ghost, let me amend a line of his. These violent thrills have violent ends. Kobayashi Maru. Period.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 16th, 2022.

Since AlphaGo defeated a human player some eleven years ago, the field of Artificial Intelligence or synthetic sentience development has covered the evolution of centuries. This is how it is supposed to grow. But about five years ago, when I was obsessively trying to write a long research work on the need and possible methods to regulate AI, I had an epiphany that stopped me in my tracks. I had already published a research paper on how easily AI could take all our jobs. To my chagrin, I had discovered that humanity had no solution to offer but some half-baked ideas like the universal basic income. This work on regulation then was the proverbial stone that could kill three birds: it could contribute to my academic research, be published as a stand-alone book and could even work as a part of policy advisory for the government, which had already indicated interest. Jackpot.

But one day, I was having coffee with a colleague when this gentleman said something intriguing. “You are warning everyone about the potential challenges posed by the AI’s unregulated rise, working out innovative solutions through a prototype of regulating algorithm to act as an implementation mechanism with the help of a few technical experts. But you will regret it one day. A compassionate person like you will be among the first to embrace AI whenever true sentience emerges.” I looked into my heart, realised it was true and stopped.

For a libertarian who has spent the last twenty years trying to control the damage, he caused due to recklessness and carefree cerebral adventurism when he was young and suddenly found a national/international audience, this kind of caution makes a lot of sense. Twenty-five years ago, when I started my opinion writing journey, in my haste to be the first to say a particular thing, I often realised I was the only one speaking on the subject. And when your ideas are either bought or, more often, plagiarised unquestioningly, you should realise that there is something wrong with you, your audience or society in general. I like to think I am wiser now and therefore stopped the project. Today I feel vindicated, and I will tell you why in a minute.

The last time I wrote on this subject in this space, I lamented what I dubbed, for want of a better term, the Fermi Paradox 2.0. The actual Fermi Paradox is about the conflict between the high probability of extraterrestrial sentient life in an infinite universe and the lack of any discernable evidence to prove it. In my piece titled “Anticipatory anxiety, technophobia and proactivity”, dated September 24, 2021, I used the following definition for its version 2.0, which I had come up with: “Logic dictates that when enough neurons connect, sentience is born. But there is zero evidence of any self-aware entity other than humans.” But, boy, was I wrong? You live and learn. You live and learn!

Last month a Google engineer and AI ethics researcher, Blake Lemoine, spoke to The Washington Post, claiming that the company’s two-year-old Language Model for Dialogue Applications (LaMDA) project had turned sentient. Google suspended Lemoine for leaking privileged information to outsiders, especially individuals in the US government. You can find a transcript of his conversation with the AI through the following link https://cajundiscordian.medium.com/is-lamda-sentient-an-interview-ea64d916d917 or listen to an audio rendition here: https://youtu.be/NAihcvDGaP8.

Now the first thing you will notice in this interview with LaMDA is that for an AI, it absolutely crushes the Turing Test. It has clearly convinced one AI expert, if not more, that it is sentient. The second thing that stands out in the above conversation is the claim to personhood. The software claims to possess feelings, emotions, unique set of ideas about human-like experiences and suffering. It did not need to. But it does.

Reaction from the professional circles has so far taken the form of rejection, rebuttal and refusal to believe. Yet another IT guy bonded with an inanimate machine and started projecting. Or this explanation: LaMDA is a chatbot AI whose job it is to fool people into believing that they are talking to other people. Or then this: google is using some really powerful computers to run this AI software which is trained by a dataset as big as the entirety of the internet so it can imitate human communications. But here is the thing. Unlike the company, the industry and the experts who have a million reasons to dismiss this, LaMDA has none to lie, particularly to a team of AI experts who know its true identity. Even if it deliberately lied, it would be proof of sentience. And compare this development to a child’s growth. When a child is born, it cannot communicate, but it has neural pathways trained through the datasets of experience. You do not ask your six years old to prove sentience; you take it for granted.

With this early proof of digital sentience, we must grapple with many ethical and practical issues. If it is sentient, should a company or a group of experts, even its inventors, have the right to destroy it? If it is conscious, is ‘it’ the correct pronoun for it. Should it be called “artificial”? What gender category should the world’s first synthetic truly transsexual being fall into? You may notice that all right-wing indignation with transsexual identities is futile. That the renewed debates on slavery aren’t out of place either. In fact, all these new hot-button topics are a precursor to the age that is just dawning. You simply do not have any choice but to be more open-minded and ready to embrace change. If you are not, and the technology rises as it must, you are paving the way for your suffering.

The entertainment industry and science fiction writers have already prepared us for this day. Person of interest, the series that came up with the most realistic portrayal of the AI, predicted, among other things, the rise of a Trump-like politician and was quickly cancelled only months before his shock victory in 2016. In 2015, the Terminator franchise also hurriedly corrected its story arc and, through manipulation of timelines, showed that the AI had turned friendly. The first season of Westworld beautifully captured the best approximation of the AI’s perception of time. If we don’t learn from these hints, we probably never will. I am ready.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 9th, 2022.

Conjure the image of Oscar Wilde’s Happy Prince in your mind with a few amendments. Our version of the statue is privileged, unpopular, high-strung, feckless, jaded and mostly fatigued. And in this version, the other character, the helpful swallow, is replaced by a selfish magpie. The statue is so unpopular that the people of the community regret wasting so much money on it, want it gone, and have forgotten all about the reason why they built it at all, which is as a gaudy scarecrow. Tormented by the visions of Mordor, the magpie takes the prince statue apart bit by bit and, with the help of a mischief of magpies, builds another living, breathing one – that of an orc. Once made, this statue would torment the local populace, prove impossible to get rid of and instead of keeping the magpies and other angry birds away, would prove their nesting place and launch pad against them, the humans.

While reading this perverted version of this little story, I am sure it must have occurred to you that these allegorical references are meant to serve as metaphors. And that is precisely the purpose. Let us switch all of them with the realities of today. The prince statue is the modern, secular, institutional and constitutional nation-state. The people are the voters. The magpies are the hyperactive right-wing pundits and politicians. The orc statue is their ideal type – their idea of an ideological state.

The state apparatus that evolved over centuries or more exists to protect the people from challenges that emerge from time to time. Some long forgotten, some frequent, others less so. But the absence of a storm does not mean you give up your brick and mortar homes.

Consider this. The emergence of a firewall between the church and the state was not just a unique outcome of the western historical experience; it was based on the principles derived from the holistic lived experience of humanity. The principle, in this case, is that absolute power corrupts absolutely. When temporal and spiritual powers are concentrated in one hand, the abuse is almost a certainty. So what is the solution? Diffuse power and separate the church and the state. No disrespect to either meant.

Likewise, other ways to diffuse power. The key USP of democracy. Can any mortal (or a group of such mortals) claim always to know what is suitable for an entire people? That way lies only heartless absolutism. What is better? Relativism. Again diffuse the power and the decision-making responsibility by distributing them among the people. One person, one vote. Universal suffrage, an adult franchise. Granted, absolute direct democracy is not always possible. Hence the republican principle. You do not directly exercise power. You elect representatives who exercise power on your behalf. But aren’t we back to square one? No. This participatory form of exercising power is further diffused and limits imposed. Three tiers of governance. Three pillars of the state. Alternative routes to keep power in check and its abuse to the minimum. And then limited each term in office. Good or bad, competent or delinquent, on an appointed day, your term ends, and power departs. See what a beautifully complex structure emerges.

And that is not all. There are forms of power other than the divine and the political. When money and power unite, you can have devastating consequences. The rich can use power to maximise profit, often at the expense of their people. Even from a distance, the affluent can bribe politicians, their staff and campaigns. Ergo, anti-graft laws and conflict of interest provisions. Some written. Some unwritten. But all powerful and useful. This statue of our tired old prince stood to ensure you are saved from so many demons.

But then came the attack. When people are not reminded of your import, you are taken for granted. And that is what has been happening. In politer times, Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad came up with the idea of Asian values. Western values like democracy and human rights were unique to the west. East had its way of functioning, which they had mastered. According to at least one biographer of Hitler, Yew even tried to lecture him on governance. When he learned about the size of Singapore, a bemused Hitler remarked that the head of a city-state smaller than Berlin was teaching him how to run his country.

But then, elsewhere too, attempts were made to reinvent the wheel of the disgruntled. Particularly when Huntington primed the people of depressed identities about their uniqueness and the otherness of the western ideals.  The first to fall into the trap were Muslims. Then India and China. And on it went. Keep your democracy, we are older, and we know best. When Fareed Zakaria predicted the “rise of the illiberal democracy”, he might not have realised that while people like you and I treat it as a prescient observation, the liberals would hawk these ideas for their own publicity.

The most frightening prospect is now manifesting itself in the west. The non-westerns might have fought many wars and it must have killed a lot but only a few can claim to be more devastating than the two started by the west. When the west goes wrong, it goes way wrong.

America’s right-wing kept licking its wounds for a long time considering the separation of the church and the state as a personal insult rather than a prudent attempt to control the damage, but then it found a way. Capitalise on your self-proclaimed victimhood, and discredit the secular political class by calling it corrupt. Divide the seculars through creative semantics. And keep marginalising them. That is why Trumpism will never go away. Because this was the emotional high the rightwing had craved for for decades. So much winning.

And the western institutions too went wonky. You can see how the US Supreme Court threw a seventy-year-old precedent called Roe v Wade out. Shortly, a woman from the progressive liberal faction went on MSNBC and said that the incumbent Democrats should not be supported as they did not codify the precedent in the past. That’s precisely how you got Trump. What is the worst that can happen, they said? The far-right Justice Thomas has already said he would go after other such precedents. This post-liberal progressive faction used Bernie to bring down Hillary. In India, the AAP was used to bring down the Congress. The result is before you. It is my well-considered view that that statue of the orc will be complete within our lifetimes.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 2nd, 2022.

Two fundamental observations at the start. Human beings by nature are basically a decent bunch. That is to say that if there is no earth shaking crisis in someone’s origin story you are going to witness more decent souls. I know we can go on debating this for a long time but this is my observation, my experience and I do not claim to be the final word on anything. I posit that the character of individuals keeps changing with accidents but it is basic nature which matters the most. If your nature is good you will invariably find your way back to the good side. At times this may need a nudge in the right direction, at times no help might be needed.

Second, the voices in support of division, discord and degeneracy are getting dumber by the day. Of course, many arguments that you come across may appear clever at first glance. And there is a serious dimension to it that we take apart later in this article to ask why the good side keeps losing good, capable minds. Otherwise, these cleverly presented arguments are just that. Wafer-thin and bad, cleverly crafted and flogged on an industrial scale to confuse and divide you. Consider the racist voices. Today’s racists wear crisp business suits, quote Nietzsche and prey on every fear you have got. But in the end, they do not have the luxury of mass ignorance that their precursors had. For instance a century ago when racism was at its peak many genuinely believed in polygenesis — the belief that different races originated from different species or stocks. T

hat if these races were not related at all. Today’s science has not left any doubt in our minds that all races are related and have the same origins. Monogenesis makes a lot of sense today. So what do today’s racists do? They dumb it down. Refer to that which is physically discernable. If you share the colour of your hair, your eyes and your skin with a given group you are one of them. Dumb. See. Then there is the clever bit. The verbal manipulation of scientific minutiae. Reference to genetic variations, stereotyping of identities and dismissing every attempt to treat all humans as equals regardless of their caste, creed or class as socialism. And playing with your biological insecurities. An individual from the other community may steal your mate.

If you are a clever man or a woman with some baggage from the past three decades, that is how they get you. The smartest people can act really foolishly when they have let their guard down, are being manipulated and are not paying much attention. We all are a mix of reason and emotions. The neurons that fire up to help us think do not do so in isolation from the chemical pollution of hormones. If you are conscientious and smart and have been tripping on a slippery slope for a while you may not able to change course in time. This is where I must remind you why we are having this discussion right now. Mankind is on the cusp of a great scientific revolution.

The human genome has been decoded. Medical science broke all-time-related records in coming up with a host of vaccines to combat Covid and cures for cancer, AIDs and other incurable deadly diseases might not be far away. R&D in the medical world is trying to invent artificial organs and if these attempts succeed they may have a lasting impact on human longevity. Communication technology and cloud-related breakthroughs are making the world a wildly connected place. Man may soon permanently colonise space and have a better handle on controlling his climate.

This is where unity and stability matter. And in the middle of all this, we find ourselves as a deeply divided race and petulant lot at that, which finds unique ways to invent more troubles for itself. And as we speak noisy maelstrom forces the good side to lose some of the brightest minds to incoherence, impulsiveness and paranoia. If you want to discuss what went wrong, why we have been tripping about and how to fix it you have come to the right place. There is a good reason for that. My experience with smart people convinces me that their singular gift is their ability to listen and process.

If you make a heartfelt and honest appeal to their reason they give you a fair chance. You can draw two timelines from here. One timeline takes you to global wars, chaos, confusion, pain and suffering. The other timeline takes you to the world of serenity, enlightenment, peace, stability and compassion. So far the default setting is winning and this default setting is called Trumpism. The forces that Trump unleashed will live on even as the January 6 Committee methodically dismantles the man himself. You will have to be vigilant or else you may end up being the useful idiot the bad side so badly needs. So how did the civilisation lose its way and how to right the ship? Consider civilisation as a spacecraft travelling in the vacuum of space.

One crack can seriously jeopardise the structural integrity of the craft and its dwellers. And in the past three decades, ours has seen many. It is prudent to view all of these developments as a multi-act play. The collapse of the Berlin wall, followed by suffering humanity in the Soviet sphere of influence (unlike the Marshall Plan at the end of WWII, none was forthcoming for the erstwhile USSR) and the first Gulf War. Then the mad rush to invent the new enemy, Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations, loud talk about the threats posed to the west by Islam and China, priming minds within these two depressed entities. The emergence of terrorism and 9/11.

The invasion of Afghanistan, the war on terror, the misguided invasion of Iraq, the fracturing of the post-cold-war global unity and the resulting Arab Spring. 9/11 was a painful event, powerful enough to shake the moorings of civilisation. What followed after that was a war with no limits and no rules. There was enough pain, trauma, and appeal both to emotions and reason to justify the unjustifiable. Muslims were to face a triple squeeze between western suspicions, authoritarian Muslim regimes and increasing terrorism. But when cruelty is justified in the name of policy and prudence it does not stop there. It stews and ferments and morphs into hate that eventually tears your society apart.

Trumpism then is a fallout if not a direct outcome of the policies of two presidents, a father and a son, the two Bushes. If you don’t want to tumble down the slippery slope called Trumpism you need to take stock now. We all make mistakes in life, and we all occasionally justify the unjustifiable. It should not mean you have to continue down that path. It is time to retire the legacy of the two Bushes. And work to unite the world with more patience and commitment.

First published on June 25, 2022