January 2023

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In the age of gadgets and hyper-connectivity, where people spend more time with screens than themselves, mindfulness exercises and meditations make sense. You must have seen many examples of people walking around totally engrossed in something that is going on on their smartphones without any awareness of their surroundings. Don’t judge them too harshly. In our time, a TV set had a similar allure. Luckily, our lot could not walk around or cross streets with the monstrosities we called television or VDUs. The generations before that could allow radio or printed words to paralyse them. There is something about the human mind and immersive experiences that transports us out of our immediate surroundings and takes us to another reality. In short, mindfulness exercises are necessary for this day and age.

You would think only Gen-Z, Millennials, and to an extent, Gen-X need mindfulness meditation and not Boomers. But pray, think again, for I am about to give you an example to shake you out of complacency.

How aware should leaders be of the historical context of every word they utter? Especially if they have spent a lifetime in a career or sport where they must be alert to their surroundings. I think a lot. Because words have consequences. If divorced from reality, such statements can, at worst, lead an entire generation astray and, at best, leave you looking like a moron.

An immediate example that comes to mind is that of Donald Trump. The man got the most massive megaphone a politician could ask for. And his narcissism ensured that he would make a pig’s breakfast of messaging, opening a new door backward and ending up with the shameful legacy of causing an insurrection. But he is not the subject of our discussion.

Many of us getting a daily reality check will attest to it in a heartbeat. If Imran Khan’s choices and statements made in the past eight months shook you, you could not deny that even before 2018, when he finally made it to the throne, there were plenty of instances that this might happen. His belief that his suffering, no matter how limited, is the worst form of it in existence. For example, his weeklong incarceration during Musharraf’s time beats everyone else’s trials. In a country where leaders ranging from Maududi to Bhutto spent considerable time behind bars, the latter was hung at the end of it. In a country where journalists and opinion makers were lashed in public for speaking their minds and now become instant targets of terrorists and extremists, no one has faced more tyranny than Shahbaz Gill and Azam Swati.

Similarly where Liaquat Ali Khan, Benazir Bhutto, Salman Taseer, and many generals died by the assassin’s bullet, and in dubious circumstances, a failed attempt on Mr Khan’s life somehow takes precedence. I would never make light of the recent incidents but context, proportion, and scale matter. Especially, because ignorance and the lack of self-awareness can have a severe impact on your judgment.

As a direct consequence, he has all but destroyed whatever passed for his brand in the past eight months. His past mistakes and accusations against him, which we had collectively chosen to forget on Election Day in 2018, are resurfacing like rabbits in a hutch. His temperament, inflexibility, soft corner for certain extremists, and contempt for mainstream politics are all talk of the town now. A former bureaucrat and his once ardent supporter recently reminded me that a decade ago, the TTP had nominated him for negotiations. This, when read with the facts that he is constantly bad-mouthing the very institutions that are fighting against terrorists, and in his final year in office, he made mind-boggling concessions to terrorists in the name of peace-building, you get a very dangerous narrative. When you lose collective amnesia as your ally, you should know you have erred big time.

And then there is the issue of paranoia. Even in his final days in office, he was alienating allies by the light of speed. All because of paranoia and unfortunate choice in people. Your allies may tell you who convinced them to do that, but the fact is they couldn’t wait to jump ship. All because of your attitude towards them. Reason paranoia and lousy advice.

Paranoia also affects the ability to process facts. For instance, in Mr Khan’s narrative about the attempt on his life, he is clearly omitting or dismissing some key questions. For instance, who among his planners came up with the idea of not installing bulletproof glass or other such fortifications for his safety. Similarly, his supporter might have stopped one shooter, but if there were trained snipers firing from an altitude, how did they miss? How many other instances cited above saw a similar failure? Also, is it prudent to rule out the possibility that a guard’s stray bullet might have killed the man who died? He says there are people in high places who reveal all these plans to him. Suppose he knew beforehand, why didn’t he take the necessary precautions? Given the nature of workplace rivalries, is there no possibility that people use him to settle old scores? But an angry and paranoid man opens his mouth and shuts his eyes and ears.

Do you think, after this trainwreck, anyone would want to associate with such politics for long? There is a reason why we have been witnessing power changing hands between the same people for a long time. Not everyone is deemed temperamentally fit to rule a nation of more than two hundred million people. After 22 years, he managed to wear the system down and finally got a shot. And he blew it. It saddens me that the trauma caused by this episode may restrict the system’s ability to trust new faces. He could start afresh, but now in his seventies, he may not have another 22 years to reinvent the wheel.

After his departure from office, many had written him off. But not this scribe. After a quick succession of unfortunate choices made by the gentleman, even I cannot fool myself. If you are not paying attention, the number of viewers watching his talks daily is falling. If you still think he is not losing support, prepare to be shocked in the next election.

Histrionics and temper tantrums cannot substitute for sound policy and judgment. Charisma also has its shelf life. Good luck does not last forever. If a leader or his supporters cannot grasp these simple facts, they should definitely opt for mindfulness exercises.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 7th, 2023.

D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? (Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?). Important, existential questions. Apt to ask them at the start of the new year. But I have a better one: What’s the point?

Every year we say goodbye to the old one, celebrate, and resolve to bring about life-altering changes in the next. Changes come but not per our plans. For instance, emerging from the Covid-related fears and restrictions, did you imagine that Putin, the man widely credited with the post-Yeltsin revival of Russia, would wage war against Ukraine, and the ripple effects would so thoroughly skew our distant, mortal lives? So as Ghalib had said:

Rau Mein Hai Rakhsh-e-Umr Kahan Dekhiye Thamey

Ne Haath Baag Par Hain Na Pa Hain Rakab Mein!

(With feet off the stirrups, and the reins hanging free,

The steed of life gallops on; where it halts, let us see)

Another example. At the start of 2022, could you foresee that Imran Khan’s rule, which had survived the dire predictions of its worst detractors for almost four years, would come to such an abrupt and unceremonious end? Or that it would leave behind scorched earth?

Another. That the spectre of terrorism would raise its ugly head again? And blatantly so. With the fruits of a twenty-year-long struggle squandered in just about six months. And that the TTP’s apologists would crawl out of the most unexpected parts of the woodwork. People who never tire of telling you that it is not black and white but very, very complicated. Yeah, the same kind who does not relent for a second in declaring you the enemy of the republic. This country lost eighty thousand souls at the TTP’s hands and similar monsters. But we can still find time to rationalise the ugly tree of radicalism on which the poisonous fruit called TTP grew. There is no cheap thrill in remembering and honouring the sacrifices of the fallen eighty thousand. The latter can open up a universe of punditry. So what if it is counterintuitive? It is so profitable.

Fourth example: the economy. Everyone knows what needs to be done. Everyone knew what needed to be done at the start of 2022. But we keep changing doctors. How many finance ministers have we changed in the past six years alone? Had I not found a way to handle and manage my paranoia, I would have said that whenever a finance minister came close to figuring out a solution, he was sacked. Result? Marz barhta gaya joon joon dava ki (the ailment grew exponentially with every medicine administered). What saddens me the most, however, is how each finance minister was removed from the government. You thought India was unkind in its treatment of Raghuram Rajan and Arvind Subramanian. Wait till you hear stories of the way technocrats were hired and replaced by our finance ministry and state bank.

Jo koi chahnay wala tawaf ko niklay

Nazar chura kay chalay, jism-o-jaan bacha kay chalay

(And if a devotee yearns to go on pilgrimage,

Then he must walk, with eyes lowered & body crouched in fear)

So, what is the point, dear reader, of painstakingly evaluating the outcomes of the past year and recommending or predicting what ought to happen in the next?

But then, as is customary, when our media is not satisfied with the net outcome of our punditry, seers, palmists, astrologers, and card readers are invited to the shows. In itself a fitting epitaph of yet another dead year which reminded us how superstitious we are. These supernaturalists throw everything at the wall, and every year something sticks. That’s the brilliance of this scheme. If you get enough individuals under one roof and they all make predictions, some are bound to be correct, even if accidentally.

I have no patience for such predictions. But there is enough data to make some broad assumptions. Like barring any black swan incident, general elections will be held later this year which will produce a hung parliament at the Centre. This year will also see the PPP and the ANP significantly gaining ground. The state and society will redouble their efforts to combat terrorism. But if you expect the Taliban apologists to care more about Pakistan than their ideological masters, don’t hold your breath. The insurgency in Balochistan may gradually start losing steam as consensus emerges that the matter has to be settled amicably and politically. Yet those partaking in terrorist activities can expect a befitting response.

In our neighbourhood, I don’t see any answer to the paradox that is the Afghan government. Not this year. But don’t expect the fans of the Afghan government to change their tune. Our blood is the cost of their blind faith. Some of us will die, and their faith will grow stronger. They are the righteous ones, we, mardood e haram (barred out of sacred place). With China and Iran, you can expect even stronger relations. Expect at least moderate breakthroughs in the relationship with India. But there is also some room for not-very-moderate achievements.

The Pakistan Army will continue strengthening its resolve to remain apolitical and unbiased. It won’t be easy. It won’t come cheap. But when there is a will, there’s a way. The recent transition in the armed forces is a generational one. The transformation in threat perception and outlook is a remarkable one. If this happens, the country will be the next beneficiary.

After struggling in the opening months, the economy will gain some stability. This fiscal year has proven to be difficult so far. It won’t be a cakewalk, but it will get better. The next fiscal year will be much better. Be sceptical of the pessimistic predictions about the global economic outlook. The global economy is expected to perform better than expected, especially if you are not obsessed with presenting exceptions as rules and fiction as fact.

The Pakistani judiciary will need to overcome its crisis of identity. While it sounds prudent that the honourable justices pay no heed to the media, especially the social media landscape, it is unlikely to happen. And this may only add to the crisis.

The parliament has invented new ways to make itself dysfunctional. There is little evidence that it will change that pattern before the next elections. Also, despite all this, the talk about the country heading towards a presidential system is just talk. Make nothing of it.

The most breathtaking transformation that is likely to happen is in the reconfiguration of the country’s intelligence apparatus. Nothing exogenous. The change is coming from within.

So, despite deliberately trying to be sarcastic, bitter, and nihilistic at the start, dear reader, you might have noticed by now that the incorrigible optimist in me remains undefeated.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 31st, 2022.

It is believed that during Imran Khan’s final year in office, two strong opposing pulls emerged within the ruling dispensation. One exceptionally placatory towards the Afghan Taliban and the TTP. The other, more cosmopolitan, tough on Afghanistan but highly conciliatory towards India. And these intra-podal pulls, among many others, I believe, in the end, broke the dispensation. I do not doubt the sincerity of either party involved but without going too deep into the nuances which go beyond the scope of this piece, let me put it out there. I believe that both approaches were misguided. While I cannot perform a complete autopsy on their motivations, for the time is not ripe, I can explain mine.

The first ever biography I read in my life was of Ataturk. You can imagine a fourth grader sitting under a winter sun absorbed in Gray Wolf, Mustafa Kemal: An Intimate Study of a Dictator by Harold Courtenay Armstrong. For contemporary work, it felt brutally honest. The choice of the book involved more of a happy accident rather than a conscious effort. I want to make it absolutely clear that I had no particular childhood fascination with authoritarianism or the destruction of empires. It was there, and I found it. That’s it.

While most of what was written in the book is gone from my memory, one aspect stood out. Before the First World War, the Ottoman ruler Mehmed V was beholden to Germany, hosted Kaiser Wilhelm II, and declared Jihad on the Entente powers. Since WWI was an unmitigated disaster, his successor and half-brother, Mehmed VI, lost all volition and was entranced by the victors. While the empire was already vanishing, there emerged gruff Mustafa Kemal, who resented the appeasement policies of both these monarchs, offloaded the burden of the empire, and fought to save his country’s territories. While in Erdogan’s Turkiye, Ataturk might have been reduced to a national symbol, modern Turkey owes everything to that one man.

So, the first lesson I learned from this unlikely source was to remain unencumbered by ideological distortions and focus on what is most critical to your people’s survival — the country.

When the war on terror began, no one asked me if the country should join. My first impulse was to oppose it because it meant bringing the war home. My objection to it even threatened to radicalise me. But then my journalistic career and my reading habit saved me. As you observe the fight against terrorist outfits, the sacrifices of your brave soldiers and law enforcement officials change you. They did not get a vote in this matter any more than I did. But here they were, sacrificing their lives beyond the call of duty. The apparatus appeasing the terrorists would gradually slink into the background, but it would never truly disappear. People like me took on the task of keeping memories fresh, reminding everyone who would listen that once it started, the fight against terrorism could not be abandoned without the annihilation of the enemy. If the war was changing us, it was also changing the outfits against whom the nation fought. But to the nation’s rightwing pundits, even the assassination of one of their own, Colonel Imam, at the hands of Hakimullah Mehsud meant nothing. No crime was grave enough that could not be overlooked in the name of brotherly affection and ideology.

When the Afghan Taliban took over in Kabul, it was plain that they would seek to punish the neighbour they considered most responsible for their removal from power. You might think they would prefer you over the TTP, but they don’t. Why would anyone want to toss away an advantage after victory? Why would they change if they thought they could change your people? And there already existed enough appeasers on our side to make their job easy for them. And then someone went to Kabul and opened the floodgates for the deluge of groups on the run. That was not all. Pickets in the erstwhile FATA region were removed as a goodwill gesture, making return a walk in the park for the proscribed groups. Only God knows how many sons of soil will have to die before this menace, so casually allowed back in, is vanquished in this country.

Now a look at the counterpoint. The antithesis of the decades-old Afghan policy. A new approach towards India. Since every costly decision the country took, including the fateful support of the so-called Afghan Jihad in the 1980s, was an offshoot of the country’s India policy, why not, for once and all, make peace with the archrival? Absolutely a capital idea. I am all for it. Come to think of it, I am yet to meet someone who, in principle, does not agree that that is the most preferred way ahead. Except there are a few serious complications. Had this change of heart occurred when Manmohan Singh was in power or even Vajpayee, South Asia’s political situation would have been different. Now the lot that rules New Delhi shows a distinct lack of imagination or humility. Inhaling its own propaganda, this lot professes that within a couple of years, it will take over Pakistan, and the unending era of Akhand Hindu Rashtra will begin. If you are still not convinced, look at the damage they have done to India. At this moment, any one-sided attempt to sue for peace is misconstrued as the success of their policy of economic siege and isolation. Offering some blood to appease a predator can mean only one thing — that you are viewed as the entree.

Time never remains the same. Within the hubris of the Modi regime lies its undoing. After six years of shouting atop our voices that we want peace, it would be prudent that we rededicate our efforts to the one thing that matters in the end: surviving.

Does that mean we undo the modest confidence-building progress made in the past few years? Obviously not. The ceasefire on the LoC benefits both sides. Similarly, at least some trade with India might be helpful at a time when the recent floods imperil the country’s food security. But this once let India show the grace and initiative that suits its size and stature. If it does, no one will say no.

Policies are not made in a vacuum. Those meant for survival have to be highly adaptive and flexible. But any policy shift that discards the gains of the past many years, like the quick concessions made to the TTP did to the successes in the war on terror recently, cannot be good. In peace and war, it profits first to gauge the malice of the other side.

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

What do you think these three clips, ‘pawry ho rahi hai’, ‘mera dil ye pukare aaja’ and ‘Lahore da pawa, Akhtar Lawa’ have in common? Yes, they all went viral on social media, but what explains this virality? Algorithms. We live in the age of algorithms. Their rise and might have only just begun remoulding a world aggressively reshaped by the internet and technology.

When we try to understand the current transformation, Nietzche’s aphorism, “if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes into you”, comes to one’s mind. We have been learning and commanding machines and software for a while. It is their turn to understand and moderate our behaviour. I am not complaining. So far, they have nothing but help. But that at least tells of the shape of things to come, our feeble attempts to control these unfixed and mutating forces of change and the need to put them to good use.

But before trying to look under the hood and appreciating the enormity of the change, let us return to whence we began — social media virality. How many times have you looked at the videos above and wondered what was so special about them? I have often heard people complain that her use of the word party is pretentious, her dance is just so-so, or that Akhtar Lawa has an unfortunate past. Think whatever you will; an audience and algorithms have decided they are stars. That’s right — one-hit wonders. Dananeer Mobeen is now a budding model and a TV star. The number of foreign and local videos repeating Ayesha’s steps and her TV appearances keep multiplying daily. The same about Akhtar Lawa, even though we still don’t know what shape his career will take given his age and limited skill sets on display.

But how does it work? Unlike other algorithms, the story here is pretty simple. You post something on social media. If you are lucky and a social media influencer stumbles upon it and reshares it, you may soon witness a snowball effect. How does it reach these influencers? Enough has been written on the art and science of online content creation and distribution to merit repeating here. Suffice it to say that from the nature of the content and its production values to search engine optimisation (SEO) and marketing (SEM), everything counts. In a nutshell, a lot of thought goes into it. Others choose to go to professional boosters who would get your work trending. But that requires some money, and not everyone has it. And it certainly does not explain spontaneous content like the ‘pawry’ clip. But then, if you look at the growth of that clip, you realise that the initial reaction was critical and sarcastic. That takes us to another aspect of virality. That it is value-neutral. Whatever the original reason for its trending, if it is seen, it sells.

But there also comes the role of social media algorithms. Social media’s core engines assess each item carefully. If they decide that a clip, tweet, photo, or text may evoke public interest, they escalate it to the recommended content list, and varied audiences can access it.

In our growing corporate/job culture where anonymous, identical work cubicles threaten to turn us into nameless, faceless work drones, this is a welcome change of speed. Create something awesome, and social media algorithms will make you an instant star. If you find a way to maintain that moment, you get a very successful career. If not, well, better luck next time.

The fact that some can manipulate these algorithms seems to give policymakers worldwide a cause for concern. In Pakistan, you must have heard a lot about hybrid and fifth-generation warfare. And then, of course, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA). But all of this does not fully understand the beast’s true nature. The algorithms that worry you because they can be subverted to the potential social detriment are vulnerable only because they are still evolving. If you know anything about Machine Learning, Artificial Neural Networks, or Artificial Intelligence, you will see that they learn very swiftly. In fact, terms like recursion and nesting loops (where several processing loops work inside the main processing loop, like Russian dolls) indicate that their ability to evolve and grow is truly exponential. Such software, search engines, and trend subroutines will neither be easy to manipulate nor regulate. Their powers grow with your use. More data you generate is directly teaching them who you are and how you choose. Stripped of all our attempts to project motives and hidden desires onto these programs, this is a very useful skill set. Take, for instance, the issue of deep fakes. If software keeps processing datasets as big as the internet itself and has virtually infinite processing power, will it not be able to detect what is fake and what is real? That is happening every single day. And they operate within defined parameters. When our imagination runs amok, we see monsters in these machines. But when have they ever allowed you to complain? So, in the coming days, the ability of both state and non-state actors to manipulate the merit system will be pretty limited. And similarly, the ability to regulate them as well. I consider initiatives like PECA failing attempts by outdated legacy outfits to maintain some semblance of control. Laws and ordinances take some time to come together and pass or update; these changes don’t.

But as the reliance on such platforms continues to grow, many concerns emerge. How will it affect the social fabric? What about the safety of your data? What about doxxing that could jeopardise your safety? Will this trend of instant likes and dislikes seep into your daily lives, the justice system, and social and familial interactions? These are the real questions. The Cambridge Analytica fiasco has shown how your data and information can be exploited and weaponised against you and the system. What happens when data harvesters develop much more sophisticated tools and deploy them on a mercenary basis? What if a nation’s lawmakers decide that the judicial system requires a jury that should include all citizens through a social media app and digital identity? That your like and unlike buttons determine who is innocent and who is guilty. These questions require the state’s immediate attention and resources. If there is a lesson for our state, it is that instead of trying to regulate what keeps changing at a pace much faster than our imagination, it is prudent to find answers to these questions because it is doable.

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

A big problem with Pakistani history is that huge chunks of it are missing from the public record. By this, I do not mean that chronology or publicly accepted superficial accounts of those periods have disappeared from the record. Certainly not. We lack granular details, 360-degree memories and feel of the given times, autobiographies and contemporary analyses, and more. Until the 1990s, things were not that desperate. But then, many factors conspired to make such accounts elusive.

Bear in mind that convincing people to volunteer information is not an easy task. Then writing a book takes a lot of discipline, commitment and positive reinforcement. Since in Pakistan, writing books does not offer you enough financial incentive, there has to be some other form of inducement to keep burning the midnight oil. Politicians may want to do so to clear their names, influence politics for their progeny, or to remind readers of their vitality, ergo eligibility for some public office even at an advanced age. Other newsmakers have similar motives. But given these angles, the works they produce are not always highly readable.

Then in the nineties, the cost of the production of a book suddenly shot up and has now reached generally prohibitive levels. Mercifully, the National Book Foundation back then was still operational, and it could reproduce books it deemed compulsory reading at much cheaper rates. But then, one day during General Musharraf’s tenure, a visibly agitated Ahmad Faraz, the famous poet and the then chairman of the foundation, confided in this scribe that some genius from the federal cabinet had gone abroad and without consultation signed a copyright agreement which made it illegal for the institutions like his to reprint foreign books. Since then, even this foundation seems to have become a shell of its former self.

Another gift that keeps giving is the Oxford University Press. Back in the nineties, it accepted many important manuscripts and published them with great pomp and show. But gradually, many critically important books went out of print, and because the OUP has the copyright and the original manuscripts, these books have gone out of circulation. Despite my repeated entreaties to relaunch them in ebook form, there has not been any let-up. While hobnobbing with the country’s influentials with some ambition to write books, I urge them to keep the copyrights to themselves and not send their works to the OUP. It might have served this country a lot in the academic sector in the past, but as it now stands, the Press is where good books go to die.

If you have adopted new reading technologies like e-readers or even your smartphones, you must be no stranger to the challenges of acquiring and reading boot-legged digital copies of the out of print books. Usually, they appear as an assortment of photographs of decaying pages combined into PDF formats. PDF files are highly inflexible and massive in size especially given the snapshots of the aforementioned pages. To have a sound reading experience, you need flexible and customisable formats like Epub, Mobi, Azw, and Txt. But there is no effort whatsoever to convert important books to these formats. May God have mercy on you if you are trying to read a digital copy of an Urdu book, even if acquired from a legitimate source! Formatting is something that our lot does not get. In fact, our approach to Urdu publishing is so outdated that we have not even integrated Urdu fonts into the formats mentioned above. So with the rise of e-readers and e-reading apps, most of these books will soon go extinct.

This brings me to another frustrating aspect of the Urdu language online. If you subscribe to video streaming services like Netflix and Prime Video, kindly open them right now and look for one feature. The audio and subtitles feature. A sizeable chunk of the content on display now offers an option to choose from a wide variety of regional languages. Where you don’t get a separate audio track in your preferred language, you get subtitles. You will find the national languages of many countries around us, and in the subcontinent, you may even find many Indian regional dialects also represented there. One language you will struggle to find is Urdu. That despite the fact that Netflix reportedly has over 300,000 subscribers in Pakistan. When you add the Prime viewership numbers, the total viewers must be much higher. Remember, numbers may vary, but India and other countries in the region also have Urdu-speaking and reading populations.

So what is it? India’s insistence on killing Urdu? Or our incompetence? Even if India wanted to treat Urdu with hostility and abandon it reserves for Mirza Ghalib’s grave, is it not the responsibility of the Pakistani authorities to ensure that the language is available on such platforms for their citizens? These are small matters of negotiation, but why would anyone bother? No real estate is involved with the potential to build quasi-legal housing schemes here.

Let me take you back to the discussion about books. I get it. Many folks may not want to invest time, energy and money in reading printed books. For such friends, the world provides two options. Audiobooks and book summaries.

Now one thing I know for a fact about voice talent in Pakistan is that there is no shortage of it. Besides countless radio shows, you will come across many voice-over artists with golden voices. Imagine if they could be engaged in reading good quality audiobooks, how much entertaining and informative content could be generated. The only few instances of Urdu audiobooks I came across were on platforms like Audible.com and they too were either read by Indian artists or Urdu speakers living abroad. There were a few amateur attempts found online too but clearly, their producers had no idea what an audiobook is for. Take the example of a gentleman who decided to read an Urdu translation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula for his audience and decided that he needed to read it in a spooky voice. I could barely listen for five minutes before rip-roaring waves of laughter threatened to give me a coronary and I quit. Ensuring copyright protection is another concern.

But dear readers, you can only complain about the decline in reading if you are giving people enough opportunities to read. Clearly, we do not. Critical thought needs a steady supply of data. Books can provide that. But evidently, no one is interested in that.

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

Almost the entire title of this piece is lifted from Tom Holt’s book, The Management Style of the Supreme Beings. Almost but for self-explanatory reasons, not quite. In my pantheon of modern writers, Mr Holt has found a venerated place. He sits right between Douglas Adams and Haruki Murakami. My accidental rendezvous with his work came as a result of a quest. When you have read Douglas Adams and thoroughly enjoyed his Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy, you realise that apart from the situational humour, unfettered imagination and breakneck plot twists, even the sentence construction is a source of great amusement. The man knew how to turn a phrase. And there were moments when I read a sentence and kept chuckling for a long, long time.

In ordinary fiction, you will find such instances often. I find the prose by PG Wodehouse and Jerome K Jerome most enticing. In Urdu, Mushtaq Yusufi does the trick for me. But where do you find a flight of fancy coupled with such multi-dimensional humour? I have been looking ever since for something similar. I explored Eoin Colfer, who has written a sequel to the guide apart from his famed Artemis Fowl series. And many other authors like Barry Hutchison, Grant Naylor, and even Craig Alanson. All good in their own right but nothing like Douglas Adams. That was until I stumbled upon Tom Holt’s YouSpace series. Every sentence bursts with hilarity. Imagination and a plot that made it nearly impossible to put down. Try his JW Wells and Co series too. You will thank me later. The genre is called mythopoeic.

If you thought we are done introducing the topic, I have a space station to sell to you. We are not.

A Pakistani mind is a resilient object. In a country where the people’s right to choose has so often been taken from them, what has emerged can only be classified as gallows humour. It is often said that the country has two rulers. One nominally elected, the other promoted. The elected one is dispensable, and the promoted one is for keeps. Before you take exception to this construct, let me remind you it is humour, nevertheless, and there have been times when even both sides did precious little to keep this tenuous balance of power from prying eyes. Why do you think so many pundits on television and tube gleefully tell you who is the boss? But there were times when those involved made genuine attempts to right the ship or at least made appropriate noises to this effect.

In the long list of Pakistani army chiefs, three generals are rightly celebrated for preferring to leave quietly than topple the apple cart or stay for an extended period. General Kakar, General Karamat and General Raheel Sharif. Despite this, one thing that often comes up in discussions is the Kakar formula — essentially a political arrangement. Likewise etched on my memory is an interview that the then opposition leader Nawaz Sharif gave to Herald where he said Karamat would never remove Benazir to bring him to power. All of this is a part of written and published history. An army chief, by virtue of his office, has no power to remove or install a prime minister. But this debate somehow readily became a part of our collective psyche over decades.

Nominally the president of Pakistan is the commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces. But to actually believe that would be akin to believing that a defence minister is an army chief’s boss. As I said, we have made peace with this reality over decades. If it quietly changes, do not expect the skepticism to vanish overnight. In the long run, it is in the institution’s interest. Even in terms of tactics, it is helpful to remember that real power is underrated, understated.

The debate about General Bajwa’s legacy that began before his departure has taken a vicious turn. And the reasons are apparent. Even the knights in the shining armours who come to his rescue, like our Chaudhrys of Gujrat, do not realise they are not helping. I don’t particularly appreciate when people assail someone’s integrity once out of power. It is a cowardly thing to do. Nor do I believe in such tribalism that forgets all norms of civility. Since it is too soon, I will reserve my detailed thoughts about his tenure for a later date. For now, all things good and bad can be summed up in one adage: The road to hell is paved with good intentions. I contend that the intentions were usually good even though not everything turned out to be as peachy. But details matter, and you will have to wait for a granular commentary.

But some important lessons emerge when you compare the management style of the past three chiefs. General Kayani, General Sharif and General Bajwa. Why is it that despite attempts otherwise, Gen Sharif mainly emerged unscathed out of his term? Yes, he was popular. But what else? Solid results. And no extension. He gained popularity on the day when after diverting Gen Musharraf’s motorcade to AFIC, the former dictator’s militant fanbase embraced him. But that is not where the story ends. He used this goodwill to build consensus against terrorism and took direct action. This produced tangible results. Gen Bajwa’s hard work through intelligence-based operations against terrorism came undone in the end. Where he really made a difference was his action against Covid-19. People don’t realise where we would be without that intervention. But his attempts to help the economy, which are often lauded, did not produce any substantial results except that it did not collapse despite constantly staying in the ICU.

In the end, I think he sustained so much damage not because there was anything wrong with his intention but because he was too eager to share his thoughts with all and sundry. Familiarity breeds contempt. When people start calling a set of your rapidly evolving personal thoughts a doctrine, you should seriously be alarmed. Interactions, consultations are good. Bragging, not so much.

I want to close this piece by quoting a few lines from General MacArthur’s prayer for his son, which my late father used to make me read when I was very young. “Add, l pray, enough of a sense of humour, so that he may always be serious, yet never take himself too seriously. Give him humility, so that he may always remember the simplicity of true greatness, the open mind of true wisdom, the meekness of true strength, so that he may always be serious, yet never take himself too seriously. Give him humility, so that he may always remember the simplicity of true greatness, the open mind of true wisdom, the meekness of true strength.”

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

Forgive me if I do not mince my words today. We all like to believe that the forces of chaos and degeneracy have finally been vanquished. A Waterloo of sorts. But can we be sure? The decline is decline, after all, and to understand where we are right now, we have to comprehend what was at stake in the past few months. Then we can try to conclude if the elements have stopped rising and no existential threat remains.

Now that the wands have chosen the wizards and there are two newly minted four-star generals. Now that the primal screams and the horse and cattle show of Pakistani punditry have petered out, did you pause to ask yourself what was it all about? Of course, not. That happens when we are running on autopilot, and that too on fumes. When every moment of life is a struggle, how can you be asked to spare some time to study your surroundings and ask more profound questions?

Since it was the Pakistan Army’s leadership that was the subject of so much speculation, it would be prudent to remember two salient features that kept it professional, resilient and relevant among all the tumults. Discipline and turnover. Discipline ensures that the service functions optimally as an organism, and no attempt to overthrow its leadership ever succeeded. Turnover ensures that the leadership gets an infusion of fresh blood and a fresh pair of eyes at regular intervals. Add to it the fact that a majority of the officer’s corp is raised from the working class makes it a force to reckon with. Hence even when the rest of the tent collapsed, this one pole was left standing.

Now let’s look at the other side of the equation. Of politicians. Most come from a privileged background where too few dare to accost them. They instinctively surround themselves with yes men. And they never retire. What can go wrong? When they reach the top, the yes men tell them it is their destiny. Now destiny in politics is a dangerous double-edged sword. When you think you have arrived and everything is putty in your hand, you make terrible mistakes. The use of religion to perpetuate power is one example. Dividing state institutions to rule is another.

Now democracy and meritocracy should function as the great equaliser. This means all walks of life should eventually adhere to some merit-based turnover system. But in semi-reformed societies like ours, entropy and not propriety is the dominant force. A fallen tent wants to drag down the last standing pole with it.

And that is precisely what has been happening on repeat. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto tried to best the army by using a crisis to evict the existing leadership and replacing it with a pliant man in Tikka Khan and then Zia. Nawaz Sharif committed the same mistake in the late nineties. These attempts rebounded spectacularly. But no one learns from history. This time it was Imran Khan, an age-fellow of Nawaz, who tried the identical loaded dice. It isn’t going well either. But Imran comes with a difference. His party has a sizable representation of the working/middle class, and he himself is a charismatic man, which meant a better organised and calibrated pushback against attempted course correction — more noise, garnering global attention.

Even as the system bent over backwards to accommodate his peculiarities, there were telltale signs of turbulence. Rank inflexibility, putting ideology above policy, vendetta above harmony, and characteristic tone-deafness when it came to incidents like the Hazara protests. You had seen rulers who wanted to install their loyalists everywhere, now meet someone accused of appointing and removing people based on the first alphabet of their names. Charming. What began in October 2021, however, would surprise everyone the most. This country has seen both strong and weak governments — the ones with an absolute majority and weak, shaky coalitions. But no head of a shaky alliance which, by its own admission, owed its existence to the permanent institutions, had demanded absolute power through systematic demolition of the opposition, culling of dissent, and restructuring of the forces that had brought it into power. Then there was the cavalier attitude towards foreign policy.

But the fight waged on the army leadership was simply breathtaking. And for what? Blocking the transfer of an intelligence chief that you had already greenlit and was being carried out to salvage the prospects of the officer in question? This fight took an uglier shape when on 9th April, Imran was finally removed from power. To many, it was the most dangerous day in recent history because an apparent attempt was afoot to foment violent dissent within the military ranks. That, too, passed. But if you think it should have been taken lightly, just spare some time to listen to the violent rhetoric emanating from some retired military quarters. If the situation had reached the tipping point, who knew where it would have led? The fight dragged on even as a serious crisis was averted and kept getting uglier. All this brinkmanship to get an unreliable victory. With any luck, the new appointments bring an end to this madness.

But what happens in the coming months will be equally important. With the appointment of the new army chief, such elements might have been momentarily silenced, but it doesn’t mean they have gone away. Just like his demand for an election before November, there are reasons behind Mr Khan’s demand for an early election before April. We can wargame what path this unlikely scenario might take, but you know very well what this can mean for the integrity of the institutions.

Through the recent crisis, the Pakistan Army has proven that it is made of stronger stuff than many expected, but these constant attempts to destabilise the system should stop. The country cannot afford further polarisation and instability. Any attempts to foment further discord must be tackled swiftly and with resolve.

We all want more or less the same thing — more democratic stability and progress. But beware of the elements who might want to install themselves as the Amir-ul-Momineen. Pakistan was envisioned as a republic by the founding fathers. We have no right to allow it to become a monarchy or a theocracy. As civilian institutions try to fix what is broken, the new military leadership will have to take stock of the elements that might threaten their institution’s discipline and integrity. Apart from this, let us hope that pledge to stay away from politics is upheld because it is only by becoming a stable democracy that we can realise our collective dreams.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 26th, 2022.

On November 15, Przewodów, a village on the outskirts of Poland neighbouring Ukraine, was reportedly struck by a missile. Early reports hinted at the possibility of the missile being of Russian make. For a heartstopping moment, it felt like the war in Ukraine was about to spill into Europe. If Russia went to war with Europe and Nato got dragged in, this could mean another world war. If the First World War was called the great war, this one could be dubbed the greatest or the last. A 2019 YouTube documentary by “Kurzgesagt — In a Nutshell”, reportedly made in consultation with scientists, claims there are about 15,000 nuclear weapons on the planet and around 4500 cities with a population of 100 thousand or more. It takes three nukes to destroy such a city, and at this rate, after destroying every one of them, you will still be left with 1,500 warheads to spare. If you think living outside cities will save you, don’t kid yourself. If radiation doesn’t kill you, hunger and disease most certainly will. That’s all, folks!

Mercifully the dogs of a wider war were thwarted by the revelation that the missile was of Ukrainian origin and had been mistakenly fired in the wrong direction. But this incident reminded us how close we are as a civilisation to the precipice. It took me back to 2016 when India claimed it had carried out a surgical strike in Azad Kashmir. Waking to the news, one could not be sure what would come next. Both countries are nuclear powers, and if Pakistan accepted this claim at face value, it could lead to a full-fledged conflict with the ensuing conflict’s potential to go nuclear. I think I have mentioned it in this space before, and to a father’s shame, that it was for the first time in their life, I looked at my children, whom I dote on, and asked myself if bringing them into this dystopian world was such a great idea. Another small mercy of life that Pakistan did not take this claim at face value and did what it could to expose the Indian propaganda. But the helplessness I felt on this occasion left its mark.

November 15, incidentally, was also the date when the eight-billionth baby was born on this planet; some say in Manila, Philippines, others say in the Dominican Republic. But we know the human population has crossed the 8 billion mark. And what a time to do that. Our world is getting more unstable with every passing day. Climate change is already rocking our boat. Humanity just emerged out of a pandemic that all but paralysed us. The inflationary supercycle has already made life difficult. And while we examine the prospects of another global economic depression, we are informed by the UK’s Chancellor of Exchequer that his country is already in recession. Remember the term I borrowed from the late Mark Fisher a few months ago? Slow cancellation of the future? When a generation is raised with the hope of a great future only to find it all disappear into wisps of smoke. Well, that slow cancellation is upon us.

Consider this. My generation (Gen X)’s childhood was consumed by the ravages of the cold war and adult life grappling with the consequences of the cold war (read the war on terror). Millennials (Gen Y) bore the brunt of the great recession of 2007. Now through the pandemic and all this mess, we are wrecking the future of another generation — Gen Z. Only time will tell what comes next. Remember, billionaires only got more prosperous during the great recession, the pandemic and even now. We, the common folk, are asked to pay for all this through our shattered dreams and adjustment to the gig economy.

We can all take solace in the fact that the world we live in is less violent than in the past. In his brilliant work, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Dr Steven Pinker does an incredible job of not only documenting the sheer volume of violence in the past to show dramatically it has declined but also explaining why it is so in terms of biochemical changes in the brain through the ages. Anybody interested in the subject must read this book. Especially the way Dr Pinker proposes to tackle our five inner demons that lead to violence, namely predation, dominance, desire for revenge, sadism and ideology, is worth your time. But let’s face it. Violence worldwide might have gone down, but it has not been abolished. What is more, if you are talking about a world at risk of nuclear annihilation, a large-scale onslaught of hunger and poverty and major man-made climatic catastrophes, you are merely counting small victories right now.

The worst news from all significant flashpoints like Ukraine, Taiwan, Kashmir, Middle East, North Korea, Iran and the Twitter headquarters is that there is no easy solution. These active and latent conflicts have grown without any off switch, a reset button, or guardrails. From G7 to G20, from the UN to other fora, all institutions meant to ensure collective security, close cooperation, and reconciliation are struggling to stay relevant. When the rich and the powerful choose not to behave, good-faith actors can only gawk in horror. If you want to see how the rich and powerful evade responsibility, look at the recent FTX crypto crash.

While ordinary folks might have been lured into investing in such shoddy schemes, the founding principle of the much-hyped crypto-rush seems to be the protection of billionaires’ wealth from state entities by parking it in the ether. Something taught to them by the Russian oligarchs? That would explain the callousness with which some billionaires are ready to bulldoze everything democratic. And common johnnies invest thinking if their idols are investing here, it must be the hot new thing. How would they know they are only keeping their idol’s side hustles afloat and might soon be conned out of their life’s savings? More and worst subprime assets for you, then. Back to square 2007.

Every time a big crisis is averted, we heave a sigh of relief. But every tradeoff ends up being as bad. Through interventions, you might save the economy from a meltdown, a business from going under or people from losing jobs, but their safety nets are gone, and their growth plans, including children’s college funds. The world needed to wake up by now. It shows no signs of doing so. Consequently, the future we could rely on is already gone. Consider the future cancelled.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 19th, 2022.

Every crisis presents an opportunity. It is a test of your wisdom to spot it in time.

A few days ago, a corps commanders meeting concluded without any press note. Remember, issuing a ceremonial press release after such meets is a custom, not an obligation. But our wisdom-starved vlogophere and pundits took it as a licence to peddle unverified nonsense, conspiracy theories and projections as the gospel truth. It meant something was afoot. An extension for the incumbent army chief, perhaps? Martial law? The decision to terminate the incumbent political order prematurely? Every version an ostensible disservice to a man who had spoken his mind many a time on record about his imminent retirement. How often must a man repeat himself before the message sinks in? The speculations would continue until the next day when an ISPR press release about the general’s farewell visits ended all these fishing expeditions. But notice this. When the entire country’s punditry keeps obsessing about one appointment, imagine how much power and democratic space is readily ceded to an unelected office. And then we complain about the civil-military imbalance.

But I wish it was just about punditry. Our political class is obsessed with this too. Take the example of Imran Khan who has, of late, said that he couldn’t care less who became the next army chief. One would have taken this claim at face value had it not been thoroughly undermined by two facts. His long march’s culmination date seems to have been deliberately chosen to coincide with the broader period involving the appointment of the next chief. And it is in Rawalpindi, the home to the army’s GHQ, where Mr Khan rejoins this march. What can go wrong? Similarly, other political parties have made it abundantly clear that this matter currently consumes most of their available bandwidth.

But why this obsession? After all, the army is a national service that borrows its workforce from among the citizens, and these citizens rejoin the civilian side upon retirement. So why lose sleep over who will head this service for three years? Because four times in history, this force toppled the government and imposed martial law? But how can you overlook the recent three chiefs who did no such thing and that the incumbent has already stated that the institution has decided to stay away from power politics permanently? Because the pundits are incapable of visualising a world without the army’s political role. From boomers to millennials, all have grown up facing some martial rule. It is their very definition of power. I can spend hours berating them, but in this day and age, it cannot continue, for, in this age of post-truth partisanship, it now seems to severely impact the institution’s ability to do justice to its professional functions. The institution is cognisant of this development, as is evident from the Army Chief’s various talks and the DGI and the DGISPR’s presser. So, despite the initial turbulence, as time passes and the institution maintains a stoical disposition, discipline and professionalism, media persons, pundits and politicians will learn to live with the new reality. It is not easy to give up a privilege. But if someone does, we should be happy that such a commitment was made.

Take another example — the DGI’s press appearance. Our old programming, written in less enlightened days, forces us to overreact. As if it was the end of the world. The purpose, it seems, was to capitalise on the shock value. But times are changing. Intelligence agencies worldwide, especially in developed democracies, are now compelled to keep a public profile. The CIA and the MI6 (SIS) now have websites and social media handles. While an average, everyday intelligence operative should remain unknown, the heads of these agencies appear in public, before the legislatures, and when prudent, even before the media. If a department head will not fight for his department’s integrity, reputation, jurisdiction and budget, who else will? How can this be done while staying away from the public eye? Hence, arguably the world is not ending; we as a nation are getting better and more democratic.

Now, a few words on the long march and the politics of sit-ins. Imran Khan is unduly accused of inventing this ‘technology.’ Years before his 2014 sit-in, the lawyers’ movement mainstreamed the methodology. Before this, only religiopolitical parties resorted to such methods. And it made sense. The electorate constantly rejected them. So, street power was the only avenue to get what they wanted. Even though the lawyers’ movement relied on many prominent politicians, lawyers as a community did not have direct representation in the parliament, and a dictator was in power. So, they found it helpful to protest in the streets. But since then, even mainstream parties have emulated that model. Sadly, the way the federal capital is built, it becomes easy to lay siege to the city. Authorities must make the required alterations to ensure that these marches do not disrupt life. These changes must include a small airstrip in Islamabad for the arrival and departure of the VVIP guests. Then these long marches would be nothing but dialogue by other means. As Mr Khan’s party grows, he may find that the mainstream voters prefer voting over street agitation hence suboptimal participation in such marches.

One more gift of the lawyers’ movement is the judiciary’s relationship with the media. During the campaign for the restoration of the deposed judges, this seemed like a matter of necessity. But after his restoration, the then Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary relied heavily on television news tickers to proliferate his opinions proferred during judicial proceedings. Whatever his reasons, this trend not only continued after his departure, but the resulting symbiosis, unfortunately, also grew. Remember, Pakistan’s judiciary has no elected component. Public opinion should not matter to it one bit. Truth is not always popular. But it is the responsibility of a court to stand with the law and the truth. It is possible only if the judiciary shields itself from hurtful media and social media comments. Free of concerns about its public image, the body can work wonders.

None of the above entails a severe crisis. We may not realise this is a part of the nation and institution-building processes, but it is. The most crucial progress takes place when we are least expecting it. We might be labouring in a fugue state, but our labours are not futile. The real problem with sleepwalking through progress is that you overlook some critical details. The most significant casualties of our culture wars are the efforts needed to rehabilitate the flood affectees, the economy, and the media’s evident decline.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 12th, 2022.

How do you write a piece on the reasons behind Imran Khan’s meteoric rise when he has been pushed out of power, launched an agitational march which seems doomed to fail, and narrowly escaped a serious attempt on his life with a bullet wound? This last part has given the Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirots in the media a licence to act like criminologists and forensic experts. I am neither, therefore will only condemn the attack and express hope that Mr Khan and the lieutenants around him take better care of his security. Nor is it the purpose of this piece to glorify or romanticise Imran Khan’s recent politics. The main point is to explore why he persistently keeps proving the political obit writers and his detractors wrong by refusing to fade away. This exercise can be pretty helpful for all sides if taken seriously.

At the time of his departure from the corridors of power, the common assumption was that he would be forgotten for at least a term. But that did not happen. If by-election results are any evidence, he has bounced back with a vengeance. In his re-emergence, where we see clear signals, a lot of noise is also produced, which makes separating the wheat from the chaff very important. Your average, everyday political televangelists, pundits, and vloggers cannot be trusted to give you a decent answer. If an ordinary person’s prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until 25, their prefrontal cortex and temporal lobe have not matured even at this very late age. What then emerges is more noise misattributing successes to wrong reasons.

Take the example of the claim that Mr Khan is very lucky. You may shrug your shoulders and make nothing of this assertion. Still, it is precisely this kind of inane speculation which obscures the hard work that goes into promoting the PTI’s causes and supercharging particular “spiritual” or superstitious elements in his circles, which might have actually played a direct role in his fall from power. Similarly, the claim that his foreign conspiracy narrative is selling is not just devoid of data, but it overlooks the demographic complexities of this nation. Let’s take the example of far-flung areas in Southern Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Do you think that foreign policy is even the remotest factor there? But since dogma needs no evidence and our media is nothing if not dogmatic, we keep building castles in the air in the name of analysis. And as these pundits are pretty loud, their propaganda is often inhaled by the leaders who can undoubtedly benefit from the lack of it. This includes Mr Khan. Resultantly, he feels compelled to stick to the same elements which caused his downfall. His ongoing long march is indicative of the very same state of mind. If I were in his place, instead of trying to install or replace certain officials, I would have waited out the current political dispensation, and the factors to be presented to you in this space would have ensured my return to power with an absolute majority. By jumping the gun, Mr Khan imperils his own safety and, therefore, his party and whatever cause he believes in.

Before we evaluate factors that work for Mr Khan, one general rule of thumb is based on two distinct examples. When the PTI was in power and constantly accused of being the establishment’s plan, the opposition carried most of the by-elections. When it came out of power and the current ruling coalition was accused of being close to the establishment, guess who started winning? PTI. Do you see any connection? No, seriously, try. If, as a citizen, your only superpower is your vote, why would you appreciate any effort or element that disenfranchises you? You can say that the current dispensation came into being through a democratic vote of no confidence, so what is improper? A legitimate question. But that is not how perceptions work. If, during the past fifteen years, people voted for three assemblies whose first choice of prime minister was pushed out of power before the end of the term in highly dramatic conditions and every time whispering campaigns attributed every change to the will of the establishment, is it to be overlooked casually? In this regard, the military leadership’s decision to stay away from politics is a most welcome one. But the message will take some time to sink in. Until then, there will be some serious political collateral damage.

Now a few words on the elements helping the PTI.

The first factor is talent, opportunity, and merit. Say whatever you make of the PTI’s social media wing and people like Dr Arsalan Khalid, but you cannot deny that they are good at their job. They rose to these positions because there was a merit-based opportunity, and these jobs were not kept for the cousins of cousins of the party influentials. Likewise, the media may want to obsess about a few vestiges of dynastic politics within the PTI. Still, it is hard to ignore the number of first-generation politicians around the party chairman. How many other major parties can claim something like that? Even when you see some self-made politicians, their stories are decades old, and they, too, by now considered a part of the old elite. This takes us to the second factor: Youth.

Mr Khan is now 70. Why does the country’s youth find it easier to associate with him? Because there is still room for growth and upward mobility. The arteries of other parties are clogged with old blood. Shortly after the 2018 elections, PILDAT organised a briefing by Ijaz Shafi Gilani of Gallup Pakistan with a few media representatives. Mr Gilani insisted that a middle-class youth bulge had emerged, which needed to be harnessed politically. He had all the necessary data to prove it and recommended that parties clear their berths to accommodate young, relatively affluent politicians. None did. Even new avenues, like the local government system, which could take the load, were shut down — the only exception: PTI.

Third factor. The diaspora. Our diaspora has a depressed identity and has been at the receiving end of two decades-long persecution during the war on terror. Anyone who stands for their rights and against Islamophobia becomes an instant star. This time the diaspora has a critical role in his resurgence.

There is more that I will discuss in future pieces.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 5th, 2022.

Rome was not burnt in a day. Many thought they could stop it. But not our Nero. His fiddle is a metaphor for an unparalleled wild abandon and perhaps a tortured form of twisted wisdom. Embracing Murphy’s law. That which can go wrong will go wrong. Why burn your own hands in the process? Today, I am here to embrace the same caveman wisdom. For like Marc Antony I come to bury Indian secularism, not to praise it. And before the army of Hindutva trolls attack this hapless scribe I want to quickly remind them that I finally see their point, them and their country. Your country, your rule. Right?

Then why all the hostility? In my defence, let me state that since Narendra Modi’s shock victory and his inevitable expansion of his mandate in the subsequent election, I have gone through all stages of grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and now this final one — acceptance. The reason I did so owes itself to being a lifelong witness to the ravages of fanaticism. Pakistan, after all, since my childhood, has been trying or at least threatening to be a very conservative theocracy. The attempts did not succeed, and eventually, the country went to war with the very elements it once idolised. We lost over eighty thousand souls. And counting.

Punters kept reminding us of our mistakes and that there was a better example to emulate. A secular democracy of over one billion. Why not copy that? By the time the message sunk in, the teacher had developed problems of his own. I found out it hurts when a dream is shattered, but it hurts more when the model inspiring the dream disappears. And what do you do when the model inspiring that dream is itself a phantom? 360-degree confusion. So, I would have continued to sulk and, at least in my mind, resist had it not been for a singular book. But before I mention that book, let me offer some context. If you have read Orson Scott Card’s brilliant book Ender’s Game, or watched the movie based on it, you might also know that it was written as a prequel to another story called Speaker for the Dead.

After the conclusion of the war, at the end of the first book, Ender sets off for a new home in space and assumes the role of the Speaker, which involves telling the story of the departed in a way which sets everyone free from their terrible burdens. This book just did that for me. The book is called Being the Other: The Muslim in India and is written by senior journalist Saeed Naqvi. I briefly met him a decade ago in New Delhi. By then, I was familiar with his television work and since I was being subjected to what I then considered patronising talk on democracy and secularism, I was unimpressed. If you travel to another nation for the sake of peace, take out time to mingle with the local influencers, you do not want to be showered with dire predictions about your own country.

But then you forget your own lived experience. A citizen’s desire to prove one’s loyalty again and again. Especially a citizen whose worldview, like mine, deviates from the kosher versions taught in the school textbooks. Was I doing anything different? But now that I have read this book, I am compelled to revisit and revise my view of the mind I encountered. The book tells the story of the systematic othering of the Muslim community in India. And here and there, it is littered with personal anecdotes, bon mots and priceless insights. I will cite only one example. An interview with the most significant idealogue of the RSS at the time, Bhaurao Deoras is reproduced almost verbatim in the book. To a sceptic, this interview may seem placatory, even indulgent. I found a son of the soil using every iota of his shrew while almost pleading with the powerful not to abandon the idea of the pluralist composite culture, the so-called GangaJamuni Tehzeeb.

The line of argument was this. If you want Akhand Bharat (greater India, a federation of all South Asian nations ruled from New Delhi) you must abandon the idea of a Hindu Rashtra in favour of secularism because if the country is not an example of pluralism why would any nation want to rejoin. Abandon what you can achieve now in favour of an emotive, if elusive, ideal. Naturally, he was turned down. But I could see what was being done. A plea not to other his people. I tried something similarly silly with our conservative lot at the start of my career in the vain hope that they could be reformed. But then I learned that they were so insecure they could not be asked, and I at once abandoned that wild goose chase and have spent considerable time atoning for my mistakes.

Throughout the book, a thesis emerges. That Hindutva is not an outlier that recently emerged. It is what India is about. Since its inception, the state began its journey to Hinduise the country. At the start, consolidation of state power was needed. That is why secularism was a useful slogan. But once this consolidation was complete, this slogan was abandoned all but in the name. Now it is about consolidating the fractious Hindu base, which is achieved by othering and alienating their favourite hobby horse — Muslims. And this will never stop. Someday, another hardline leader will officially declare India a Hindu Rashtra and the journey will be complete. The Hindu Rashtra versus Akhand Bharat binary gives way to another one, the secularism versus democracy binary. India is so complicated that it cannot be both.

To placate and consolidate the Hindu base, the othering of the minorities becomes almost a foregone conclusion. And in all this, the Congress, not the BJP, played the most crucial role. It looks like the men who divided India in 1947 had the right idea. Politically, as they are shaped, the two dominant identities of South Asia cannot help but dominate each other. The Muslims who chose not to migrate to Pakistan knew the risks and yet stayed back. This homogenisation process is a force of history; it will not stop. In all this, the BJP and Modi are only symptoms, not the cause. It is pointless to blame them. I do not want to spend more time worrying about that. Perhaps from the safety of their separate countries, the two nations can find a way to coexist and be friendly.

First published on October 29, 2022

‘Dream big. But keep it simple,’ instructed Art Williams’ aspirational audio back in the 1990s. For those who don’t know, Arthur L Williams Jr is a school football coach turned insurance executive in Palm Beach, Florida. He made a fortune in his adopted career and has been spreading the word through his aspirational talks and speeches since. I found his audio tape in a relative’s study. In his speech, he also discusses the importance of finding clients before establishing a brick-and-mortar shop.

When you land in Gwadar, the first thought that strikes your mind is how difficult it is to keep this big dream simple. For one, to the untrained mind, there is hardly anything there. And if you are returning to the city after 17 years, like me, it takes a while to connect the old memories with the new ones to recognise what has changed and how much. For instance, new roads with fancy names have been built. An elaborate port has sprung up. But so have security pickets.

As you must have guessed, my previous visit to Gwadar was in 2005. That was before the start of the insurgency. This meant that three accompanying fellow journalists and I could travel by road via Coastal Highway. We had to rent a car from Karachi, and the long journey did not fail to impress us with its imposing beauty. And when we reached Gwadar, the four things we found were pristine beaches, fish, coast-to-coast property dealer shops selling Gwadar masterplan for 10 thousand rupees a pop, and rudimentary trappings of the hospitality industry. One benefit of this visit and a vagabond’s lifestyle was that you could connect with the ordinary folks on the streets. The local population was exceedingly friendly. Since then, the port city has remained close to my heart even though I did not get a chance to visit again.

The city kept returning to the headlines for one reason or another. Still, it wasn’t until the 2015 launch of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that it would claim its rightful place in our collective imagination. Since then, I have been itching to go back and see the progress for myself. And finally, this month, an opportunity presented itself. When I was asked if I would be willing to be a part of a delegation of the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI) to Gwadar, I jumped at the chance. The delegation was headed by the former foreign secretary and the institute’s current Director General, Ambassador Aizaz Chaudhry. If you are the only journalist in a delegation featuring distinguished career diplomats, academicians/researchers, and businessmen, the journey can be its own reward. I have a bag full of insights and anecdotes that I am putting aside for the rainy days when the topics of discussion are scant and/or I am facing writer’s block. For now, let us return to the subject at hand.

The air travel between Karachi’s ageing but bustling airport to Gwadar’s airstrip is almost one hour long, was smooth and uneventful. The first shock was the airstrip itself. The new under-construction airport will start functioning next year. Until then, the current one gives you the feeling of landing a crop duster on an abandoned airstrip far away from civilisation. The city’s character, as experienced, at first sight, has not changed much in the last 17 years and resembles a dust-blown shanty town in the middle of nowhere. As I said earlier, the road infrastructure, at least along the coastline, and the hospitality industry have come a long way, as there are two international quality hotels (PC and Gwadar Business Centre, where we stayed). But in the middle of nowhere isn’t an exaggeration. Gwadar is still not hooked up to the national grid for electricity. For power supply, the local population relies on Iran and, as is the case of businesses, the generators run by the China Overseas Ports Holding Company Pakistan (Pvt) Ltd (COPHC). Likewise, water supply is a big issue. The 2017 census shows the local population to be around 90 thousand, but the local authorities claim it is about 130 thousand now. Gwadar now has a university, although it is still in its infancy and will soon be shifted to a formal building. The internet and mobile connectivity is also unreliable. As we entered the city, three out of four mobile networks were down. They came back online within hours. But complete day-long outages are a matter of routine.

During our interactions, we met with the DG of Gwadar Development Authority, senior officials of Gwadar Port Authority, the representatives of the COPHC, public servants, and senior security officials. The COPHC office bearer showed us how the company is developing climate-resistant breeds of vegetables, fruits, flora, and fauna to turn the entire region green despite the dearth of water. They have also created job opportunities for local women. When during our interaction with a senior security official we asked if there was any local requirement we could highlight, we were told the university needed at least two buses for the university. Our interactions with the students and faculty at the university brought to our attention the infinite human potential this region has. The only people we could not meet were the politicians because they were not there. And this lack of political interest shows.

In hindsight, one thing stuck with me. Our Chinese friends told us that they had been here for years, but because of the security situation, they could not go outside the port or the security cordon. As an ethnic Baloch who has covered the sub-nationalist politics for a considerable time, I have to flag the stupidity of attacking the investors who create immense opportunities for the local population. The idea that the local people will not benefit from economic growth is preposterous. So if I were a part of a sub-nationalist group supported by foreign elements and asked to attack such investment, I would use my right to be selfish for my people and region and refuse the ask.

This is your city, and no one can take it from you. The Chinese staff has restricted itself to the port and has not used any aggressive tactics, showing the value China attaches to the bilateral relationship. These projects can potentially uplift Balochistan’s entire population out of poverty. Why not benefit from them?

In conclusion, let me point out that Gwadar’s potential is not hidden from the naked eye. It is there. And all office bearers we met are too eager to do their part. But somehow, the inertia so far gives the impression of an abandoned dream. Brick-and-mortar work is slowly underway without full-blown local business activity, connectivity, amenities, and foot traffic.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 22nd, 2022.