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The chatteranti

God knows, Pakistanis have reasons to hate their politicians. But they have checked out the generals for four decades and, wiser for that experience, have no intention of returning to their embrace.

Written by Shekhargupta |
September 7, 2011 4:20:29 pm

You’d be surprised to realise how it is much more likely you would get away with saying something entirely facetious and silly, but get into trouble when you try making a serious, sincere point. That, at least, has been the story of my life. At a series of public functions in Pakistan several years ago, I said Pakistan was in many ways as imperfect a dictatorship as India was an imperfect democracy: the central argument being that just as India had not been able to accord all its citizens all the freedoms that a democracy of this quality should have, Pakistan had not quite been able to deny their people all the freedoms that a classical dictatorship should have. That is why a reasonably free media functioned even under Musharraf, an Indian editor was able to say rude things at the launch of a newspaper (by now the widely respected Daily Times) and there was a reasonably independent judiciary; not the kind of things you would see in Saddam’s Iraq, Ahmedinejad’s Iran, or even China and Saudi Arabia.

It instantly got me in trouble. The NDA was in power then and the attack came from saffron blogs and pro-BJP columnists on well-known websites. It was as if this Indian editor had gone to Pakistan and given his country a bad name by finding faults with its democracy and merits in Pakistan’s dictatorship. What is happening right now, after the terror attacks, and particularly in Mumbai and among our upper classes has to be seen in that context.

The Pakistanis, over the past year, have braved bullets, assassinations and dictatorial persecution to throw out a general and give themselves at least half a democracy. Whatever happens on Pakistan’s western flank and in its fundamentalist underbelly, the basic instinct of its elites, intellectual and social, its media and professional classes is to seek to strengthen their very fragile democracy, and to seek more of it. God knows, they have reasons to hate their politicians. But they have also checked out the generals for four decades and, wiser for that experience, have no intention of returning to their embrace. And exactly at the same time, the same classes in India have turned themselves into a lynch mob against the political class and, by implication, the whole democracy. The one institution the Pakistani elites are suspicious of is their military. The one institution Indian elites respect and adore today is their military. You’d wonder just what is going on.

Since TV chat shows, SMS and chain emails have become the main forum of our domestic debate and political discourse among the upper crust, it is safe to go by the evidence of what you see and read there. Any number of illiterate emails and SMSes now float around, not merely cursing politicians, but spreading utter falsehoods about the Constitution and laws. There is one, for example, that says that our Constitution (article 49-O, it specifically says) entitles us to go to a polling booth and say we do not want to vote for anyone, and if the number of such votes is higher than votes polled by the leading candidate, the election will be set aside and nobody will be elected. So that is the way to fix the political class which, realising that, has kept that article under wraps. Now most of us passed our class X Civics a long time ago, and God alone knows how, so let’s not question anybody’s knowledge of our Constitution. But none of the thousands of very well-educated, rich, successful, respectable people through whom this silly mail has passed and been forwarded, have bothered to check that venerable document. For, if they did, at least one myth would have been set at rest: Article 49 deals with something very important, but it is not the right of negative vote, but the protection of our monuments. Similar, stupid, flippant and dangerous mythologies continue to be built: that we spend more on the SPG than on the NSG, the implication being that we value the lives of our prime minister and president more than those of ordinary citizens. Nobody checked the facts, probably because if they turn out different, they may demolish the entire hypothesis. Why let facts come in the way of holy indignation?

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So the same leading lights of Mumbai’s genteel classes, who never shed a tear when nearly 600 Mumbaikars lost their lives in several terrorist attacks, now walk around with candles because the threat has moved beyond local trains to rocking coffee shops and bars — incidentally, they still do not bother to light a candle in front of the CST station where more lives were lost than at both the hotels put together. More than the hypocrisy, however, it is the message they send out to their countrymen that is worthy of mention: that the political class has failed us, so please do not vote (“those who come in through our vote are more dangerous than those who come through the boat”), or exercise that right of non-vote, however mythical may it be. The virus of Mumbai’s elites seems to have even been caught by the creative classes; the latest Amul hoarding exhorts the “real” terrorist to show up, and has a neta surrounded by black cats. We have had several leading film and creative personalities demand that Pakistan, or at least its terror camps, be carpet-bombed. And on Thursday night Kabir Bedi declared on NDTV in his grave baritone that “we” have “incontrovertible” evidence of “ISI, Lashkar and Jaish” involvement and should start attacking them inside Pakistan. After all, he said, that is what the Americans are doing in Waziristan, etc, and what can the Pakistanis do except protest feebly? Further, he suggested that we learn from Mossad and carry out “targeted assassinations” of the bad guys in Pakistan. How much peace that strategy bought Israel over the decades is not a question that this intellectual of the sixties would ponder over much. In fact the only really sexy idea to come out of all this rage is that we should stop paying taxes. Great idea, but must it be confined to Mumbaikars alone? Don’t the rest of us also have issues with our government?

To be fair, it is easy to see where this rage is coming from. These attacks have brought terror to the doorstep of the classes which had long divorced and insulated themselves from our very system of politics and governance. Over the years as our governance has declined, or failed to keep pace with our society or economy, all of us learnt to become individual, sovereign republics. We send our children to private schools, get treatment only in private hospitals, have our own security in gated communities, never need to use public transport, even own our own diesel gensets to produce power, and in many parts of the country, arrange our own water supply, either through our own borewells or tankers. Then we suddenly get hit in one area — physical safety, law and order — which is still entirely in the hands of the government. Knowing how thick-skinned our politicians are, and believing all the most horrible stereotypes about them, we see no possibility of changing them. So we now look for desperate measures: compulsory military training, conscription, NSG for every city. The armed forces, we say, are the only institution that can bring about this change. Pakistan has been owned by its army since its creation and see how much worse its law and order is, how the country suffers from daily terror attacks by its own, and how large swathes of its territory are nothing but extension campuses of its most notable contribution to the modern world: a university of jihad.

Yes, our governance sucks. But the solution for the upper crust now is not to secede from it as well. Law and order is not public health, government schooling or power supply. The whites in South Africa tried doing that and it did not work. The racist governments of the past liberally gave them automatic weapons and some of the richest homes around Johannesburg used to carry signs that said: trespassers will be shot. But it did not buy them more security. Their homes just became bunkers, or high security prisons in which they locked themselves up.

The solution lies in returning to the “system”, and challenging and changing it from within. Just as the poorer and the middle classes do around the country. As a story by Vandita Mishra in this paper’s Friday edition showed, even in these times of anger and cynicism more and more Indians are coming out to vote. They do not love their politicians, they usually vote them out. But they do it by using the power of the vote, not by disowning it. Or, look at it another way: we, in our little charmed circle, can vent our rage on chat shows and in cyberspace. But the children of our farmers and working classes will always be there, to vote out bad governments on polling day, and to get into uniforms — khaki, olive-green or black — and risk their lives fighting terrorists for our sake.

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