A few weeks ago, my friend Mani Shankar Aiyer, a former Indian minister, visited Lahore. Now maybe it is his South Indian origins or his civil service training, that despite his Cambridge training (full disclosure, I studied at Oxford!), he does not give up on peace in South Asia. When he was Consul General in Karachi in the late 1970s he gave over 300,000 visas, when he was working with Rajiv Gandhi he pursued peace with Pakistan, and when Dr Manmohan Singh came to power, he relentlessly argued for better relations with Pakistan and the rest of South Asia. Such consistency, clarity and conviction are seldom found in politicians these days.
So when Mani came to Lahore he spoke about peace: peace even in these turbulent times when both Pakistan and India are mirror images of each other, and when the prospects of just dialogue are at their lowest ebb. Quite naturally, Mani also spoke about his own country, which has seen a radical transformation in the last few years, and hoped that the 70% who did not vote for the BJP in 2014, might come together next year and bring about a change. He also spoke about the brawl over the picture of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, in the Aligarh Student’s Union hall, and called him the Quaid-e-Azam (the great leader), just as Mahatma Gandhi had called him several times. And he spoke about the founder of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, the progenitor of the BJP), V D Sarvarkar, and his belief in the two-nation theory, long before Jinnah embraced it. For us historians, there was nothing new or odd in what he said. Any sensible person would think that the portrait of Jinnah in Aligarh, which has been hanging there since 1938, was a non-issue, that a lifelong Congress member would like to see the BJP out of power, and that Sarvarkar did indeed believe in the two-nation theory. But as soon as Mani uttered these words there was brouhaha in the Indian media and almost everyone was up in arms against him, some even going to the extent of demanding that his citizenship be revoked! Amazed at the reaction to his almost benign speech, I asked some Indian journalist friends what the real issue was and almost all of them said that it ‘was not the right time’, as the Karnataka elections were due.
This one comment made me think about what it really means when we say ‘not the right time?’ When Mani came in February 2018, elections in Meghalaya were due and Indian commentators, again, lamented that his peacenik comments were not ‘at the right time’. With 29 states and seven union territories in India which have elections throughout the year (2017 witnessed nine, while 2018 will have a total of 5-6 elections), I wonder when really is the right time for someone to speak at all?
Similarly in Pakistan, just last week in fact, someone at launch of Nasim Zehra’s book From Kargil to the Coup said that while the book was good, it ‘wasn’t the right time to launch it’, to which Nasim wryly replied that she had been working on it for nearly a decade and so didn’t really care about the ‘right time’. Again, the release of the book by General Durrani and A S Dulat, The Spy Chronicles, has raised cries of ‘not the right time’. It is as if there is a magical ‘right time’ for everything. Maybe the jotishi and the pir (or pirni, if you may) have a common link here, since both tell you the ‘right time’ for things to do. Perhaps India and Pakistan, even after more than 70 years, aren’t really that different still. Perhaps the belief in some supernatural order of things, limits us from accepting things as they are. Or perhaps, we simply don’t want to know the bitter truth.
While there are several psychological, societal and political explanations for the ‘right time’ syndrome, I think the most important one is that we, at least in Pakistan, deep down, still do not believe in democracy. Democracy at its core is something unpredictable — since if people were predictable and had static needs and preferences, then there would be no need for elections. The ruling class would always know what to do and when to do it and all shall be in order. However, the beauty of democracy, flawed as it is in many ways, is predicated in its unpredictability. The ‘will of the people’ can and should change with time, and develop further. The fear of the unknown should not deter us from derailing this already tottering caravan of democracy in Pakistan, but a firm trust in the people and their will, should guide us to better pastures. Waiting for the ‘right time’ will only make us look back and keep us from understating ourselves, our problems and their solutions.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 6th, 2018.
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