STRAIGHT TALK by Hafeez Khan


During my university days in the late sixties and early seventies politics was reentering our civil discourse. After ten years under Ayub Khan, Pakistan transitioned from a “Basic Democracy” system to an “Adult Franchise”. The present borders of Pakistan were then known as West Pakistan where Zulifiqar Ali Bhutto had captured the hearts and minds of the populace. Riding a popular wave, Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party had swept the elections in 1970.

Emotions ran high in an electoral narrative that had pitched “haves” against “have nots”. Barber shops and “tharas”, shop platforms, were the venues of lively political debates where political hacks pursued their discourse. Students Unions had been revived after a long pause. Student groups vigorously pursued the politics of “Left” and “Right”. In a tightly controlled print media and a sole PTV channel, passions rolled onto the streets as expression of political opinions.

I was heavily engaged in Punjab University student politics. During a rally on Mall Road, we had just passed the YMCA building headed towards Old Campus when I saw a man with a razor knife with blood on it. Alarmed, our team surrounded the person, disarmed him and it emerged that he was a barber and a passionate PPP supporter. He was infuriated by anti-Bhutto slogans in our rally. He slashed his customer who supported us sitting in his barber’s chair and stepped out to take us on.

We are an emotional nation where politics dominate our daily lives. Fast forward to present day scenario and this infliction has gotten deeper rather than mature with time. I consider myself well travelled. I have observed political behavior and norms in many countries. Nowhere have I observed more obsessive preoccupation with politics than Pakistan. It is not that other democracies don’t care enough or are uninvolved. They give it an appropriate place in their daily lives without disrupting other pursuits and interests.

With multiple TV channels and newspapers opening up in Pakistan, the dominant ones are news channels. The major draw on these channels is political talk shows. Driven by ratings, the hosts and anchors create controversies where they may not exist. There are hardly any intelligent discussions. Each guest starts out with preconceived and oft repeated arguments and positions. They aim at scoring points to please their political bosses rather than having an intelligent discussion. Safeguarding their credibility is of no concern. Obnoxious and personal attacks are the order of the day with truth being its biggest casualty.

Politics seems to be the most favored form of entertainment. At some point we have to mature as a nation and stop being blinded by our emotions and personal affiliations. Pakistanis have serious issues that go far beyond the political theatre both internally and externally. There is a dire need to dwell on them and adopt a way forward that can guide Pakistan towards an appropriate path.

The systems governing the nation are broken. We don’t have financial resources to meet our needs, therefore each year we have to go out and borrow more. Over the years this debt accumulation has led to unsustainable debt servicing payments where we are always teetering on the edge of default. The rotten system is corroded and revenue collection has become virtually impossible. Greedy and self-centered rulers have mutilated the laws governing this activity. It is correctly termed as “State sponsored corruption” by former FBR Chairman Shabbar Zaidi.

Watching him on Arshad Sharif’s program “Power Play”, a sensible show, brought tears to my eyes. He had stepped down from his position for health reasons brought on by the resistance to his efforts at reform by mafias dominating all walks of our life. As an example, he was looking to expand the tax net to industrial consumers of various utilities. Out of 350,000 such users only 50,000 are registered with tax authorities. All his efforts to obtain their details from WAPDA, Sui Gas, banks and other institutions failed because they are all tainted by a corrupt pattern to defraud the taxman. It is beyond pathetic.

This “web of fraud” is widespread and rampant. According to Mr. Zaidi’s estimates based on records available, $125 billion have been siphoned off overseas through malafide and manipulated laws. One such bleeding wound is machinery imports being over invoiced by fraudsters with funds retained overseas and money laundering at a grand scale. All this has got to end.

On the other side of the spectrum, hybrid war on Pakistan’s integrity is raising its ugly head. The senseless slaughter of eleven Hazara miners has shocked the nation’s psyche. Sectarian conflict is brewing and there are protests around the country against this cruelty. The aggrieved Hazaras are demanding PM IK to visit them and reassure them. There are credible threats to the PM’s safety should he visit. A tough choice that has to be made sooner rather than later. Damage to a Hindu temple by a mob is another such example.

Hostile forces are testing Pakistani will and ability to survive. Unfortunately, on the political front partisanship and self-interest dominates. The nation has to do some serious soul searching and resolve whether democracy in its present form will permit reforms needed so badly. They have to recognize that Pakistan has issues beyond politics. The need of the hour is unity rising above partisanship for Pakistan’s sake.

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