• February 23, 2024

The writing off the wall

The writing on the wall is overrated. Do you want more of the same? Endless whining or victory laps? Oh-I-told-you-so, at any rate? More of the shame? Egos driving the political agenda or the policy debates? The endless discussion regarding the glass being half empty or full? The writing on the wall is edited, written and deleted, written and updated with the ink of power.

No, if you want things to change you want that which was omitted. That which was deemed inappropriate to be kept on the wall. Why would anyone tell you that the glass whose fullness or emptiness is the subject of all the controversy, does not even exist? Either broken and hidden, pawned and sold, or simply stolen, when you pour more water into this make-believe glass ostensibly to fill it, you in essence are throwing it all away. So, interested in what was kept off of the proverbial wall?

How did we get here? And what is kept on the wall? That another government is about to fall under the weight of its contradictions and that of the system. That this time the departure, if at all, threatens to be messier than usual. And all this goes on our eastern and western borders couldn’t be farther than stable. That no matter who goes and who comes things are unlikely to improve. Somewhere in faint handwriting also that since 1947 the administrative capacity of the executive branch resembles a consistent downward slope and there is no shortcut to improving the situation. That the next budget will be a tough one because the government had expended whatever fiscal space it found on providing the people with short-term relief. And that in Sri Lanka’s economic meltdown there is enough food for thought for Pakistan to convince the country not to even think of putting one toe out of the line mutually agreed with the IMF. And that the absence of recent data on outflows is seriously alarming.

What is missing from the wall is an in-depth explanation of the reasons. The causes we have trained our minds to ignore. The reasons our impatience, egotism, and politics conspire to obscure. The series of bombs planted by our relentless population growth that have been going off since the very inception of this nation eroding our institutional capacity. No matter how pundits underplay our population explosion, the fact remains that the burden on every institution created for the public good has been increasing by leaps and bounds. Take an average class size in public schools. In our school days, the average class strength used to be somewhere around 20-25. A decade later it had climbed up to the mid-forties. Now in many reported cases, it has reached in hundred(s). Likewise in hospitals and other such institutions. No state can be asked to keep ramping up its capacity because the population, in all likelihood, will not stop multiplying.

Our second tragic flaw is our shaky grip on numbers. We do not let verifiable numbers or ascertainable research data come in the way of a seductive if populist policy choices. What we can afford and what we cannot do not matter. Will a said policy proposal have any real traction among the people does not matter either. What matters is the will of the leader. Whatever he says goes. Whatever he or she says is popular. Miscalculations stemming from this insistence lead many governments to their early grave but by then it matters little. The people whose government you wrecked are unlikely to hold you accountable for they are gone. The new ones ask different questions and favours. The wheel is invented again. Until it is too late to learn lessons.

The third problem is our perpetual insecurity. Conservatives the world over are considered an insecure bunch with untrusting, suspicious minds. But liberals everywhere find ways to cut you slack. Granted this is changing rapidly owing to the cancel-culture outbreak but even then liberals are more tolerant. But not in our sweet republic. Here tribalism means severed head of the rival. But the rich are mostly related so there is a mulligan for an estranged cousin. Not for the working class and the poor though. Nah. Ye shall hang for the crime of showing some agency instead of acting like a mindless serf.

The fourth issue is the trust deficit between the federal and provincial governments. This is primarily due to our rather troubling obsession with centralisation and inadequate resource pie. Only sustainable and inclusive long-term growth will enable the country to be just internally and stable externally. Until then we will bicker on the 18th amendment and try resolving disputes by the forced creation of new provinces. Such hard to execute and easily reversible adventures can never be a solution to our problems caused by the absence of a provincial finance commission, powerful local governments, and bicameral legislatures for the federating units where a territorial house ensures the rights of all districts.

Let’s also talk about our intelligentsia, shall we? If you look at the public discourse in the developed world it is dominated by young, dedicated professionals. Not by the jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none journalists (generalists) like me, or retired career government officials like many of you. This merit-based discourse might be informed by your and my input because our experiences and knowledge cannot be written off either but its voice will essentially remain predominantly young and prudent. In the absence of such a merit-based system, where exceptions occasionally do surface the majority that fills the void is of the born again revolutionaries devoid of any meaningful insight or regard for the long term interest of the country, adamant on wearing their hearts on their sleeves ready to chop down the hands extended in their support. Often for the sake of ambition.

And finally, the twin crises of patience and critical thinking threaten to seal the fate of this nation. As long as the ruling elite feels obliged to play to the gallery, placate jingoistic sentiments to survive and the yes men around the rulers pretend there is nothing wrong with that, the country is bound to teeter on the brink because real reform then cannot begin. If you want to progress you will have to learn to tolerate the opinions of those who want to speak truth to power. Stop labeling patriots as traitors because then you will also not be able to prove your patriotism.

Also, I don’t know if you are as tired of the demands to pick a side every few months as I am. But somebody should tell these dumdums that that choice was made years ago and that’s why we all are sitting in your boat. Ergo all our sufferings. About time you decide how to bring the boat out of crises.

I see many other things left off of the writing on the wall. But I think this much bitter truth must suffice for now.

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

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