Two menaces keep devouring Pakistan. The egotism of the elite and polarisation of the masses. Egotism because it is the epitome of classism which invariably brings you back to the precipice. In its very essence, it is the most egregiously dogmatic and exaggerated view of your own or your class’s abilities. I alone know what is good for you, it shouts out. Polarisation because it now threatens individuality and free thought. You may think that people are bothered about the issues that make or break their lives. Some are but not enough to do something about it. The rest, use the wrong lens to see things. That of superstition. South Asian states abdicated the responsibility of shaping the minds of their citizens on any rational lines a long while ago. Those glorious examples of high achievers assuming powerful positions around the world are outliers and exist in spite of these policies not because of them.
Back to egotism. Let me lay out a few rather quirky anecdotes for you to sample. To show what our people think it means to be a part of the elite.
Two and a half decades ago the Quaid-e-Azam University was a much different place. Less populated, overwhelmingly green and free of the higgledy-piggledy pigeonholing that passes for buildings and structures. Its main library was truly a shrine to the goddess of knowledge. This shrine was often populated by two species of students. A carefree minority out to explore the vicissitudes of romance and a majority that wanted to pass the entry tests of the Central Superior Services (CSS), the escalator that takes you to the upper-class life.
I don’t recall his name but there was this senior who had been attempting to clear the CSS exams for years. One day we learned that he had exhausted all chances and had now appeared in the Punjab Public Commission test. He got through and became a policeman. One day a breathless junior interrupted our long-winded debate at Majid’s hut. Something funny was going on and without wasting any time we must come and see it.
When we reached the university’s periphery we noticed that the inspector saheb, as everyone would call him later, had returned in a white Alto and had decided to walk around the campus. Our gentleman was attired in a starched-to-death white shalwar kameez and them pointy handcrafted khussas. Although he was accompanied by a uniformed cop, this subordinate was walking behind him carrying the cage of his pet partridge. The occasional crackle of his handheld wireless set piercing the silence around him seemed to attest to the inspector’s belief that he had arrived. Today’s lads call it peacocking. But this unvarnished projection of the feudal spirit taught me something. To arrive in Pakistan means the ability to control even subjugate other human beings.
Ostentation in the beloved country merits a separate piece. In my school days, the Urdu curriculum used to feature a story by Chaudhary Afzal Haq titled Ek Punjabi Zamindar Ki Kahani i.e. the tale of a Punjabi landowner. It was a true cautionary tale of how ostentation and the desire to seek the approval of the extended family drives a young couple into bankruptcy, is abandoned by the same family in tough times, and rescued only by hard work and manual labour. That it is no longer taught in schools does not obscure the fact that ostentation and the tyranny of the extended family are still pertinent issues.
Back to egotism which is perhaps one of the most underreported but important factors in our politics and officialdom. You will be surprised how many ACRs (annual confidential reports — for evaluation) and subsequently, careers are ruined for absolutely insane reasons like a junior officer’s failure to greet a visiting senior, standing in respect, vacating his seat, or oh wait for this one, the crime of offering three fingers instead of entire palm for the handshake. It has also been a common occurrence in politics for ages. Ministers during various governments lost their privileges, powers, and even office just because they failed the ultimate test of fealty called sycophancy. Please don’t read it as an example of the above but it is too good an anecdote to omit. Iqbal Akhund in his book Trial and Error recalls an interesting day during Benazir Bhutto’s first term. The then PM was concerned about the alleged insubordination of her cabinet members. “Arriving at a cabinet meeting one morning, members found before each seat a paperback copy of a book entitled How to Win Friends and Influence People, by one Dale Carnegie”. Go figure.
Tribalism and polarisation in a society where all egotistical leaders and why, even intellectuals demand total conformity, stymies critical thought and imagination. Each individual’s knowledge and experience wires his/her mental circuitry uniquely. You fail the test of individuality if you totally and blindly endorse another’s worldview. But with every passing day, anything less than a hundred per cent conformity is deemed not good enough. In my book, if someone agrees with more than fifty per cent of your views and does not run after you with a pitchfork and a torch qualifies as like-minded enough to be a potential ally. Time and again the expectation of total conformity creeps into the institutional culture and often enough manifests itself in the attitude of the state. Why do you think past allies, even surrogates, so quickly become personas non grata? If fairness, honesty, and agreement with the broader principles were the standard to gauge a person’s utility no one would lose allies so rapidly.
Why is it important right now? Because these twin menaces have already destroyed the fruits of the past twenty years’ worth of evolution. The system’s crash has only just begun and no one can say with certainty when it will end. But our egotism and tribalism have already ruined the gains over the past years. Without prejudice let me remind you that the constant drip drip drip of accusations against the institution of judiciary undermines its image and consequently ability to dispense justice. It hurts the efforts to vanquish terrorist organisations like the TTP which have devised their parallel quasi-justice systems. Through these means, politicians may manage to get some public relief in cases which they lost in courts, but permanently damage the platforms that guarantee their constitutional role. You may win battles but will most certainly lose the war. Similarly the parliament and the media. You set out to dismantle the system but will end up irreparably damaging the state. In five thousand years, South Asia has not produced one noteworthy revolution. And no one likes evolution either. Even if a dramatic shift comes it will be for far different reasons than you think and will only benefit the clergy, not you. Try to learn from the experiences of your three immediate neighbours.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 4th, 2021.