What is wrong with us?

The culture of defiance exists in Pakistan. It has been around since the colonial days before the birth of the country


Farrukh Khan Pitafi May 16, 2020
A general view of a road traffic and the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) building in the background, after Pakistan started easing the lockdown as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Karachi, May 11, 2020. REUTERS

Deconstruct this. The authorities are gradually relaxing the lockdown restrictions. This was to be expected. How long can a society suspend its economics and shutter its businesses? Not indefinitely. But when the threat is so widespread, self-evident and every day marks a new spike in the spread of the virus you expect some measure of common sense to prevail. The purpose of any lockdown or restrictions is to ensure the safety of the citizens. Therefore, when the restrictions are withdrawn you would expect the said citizen to be circumspect, careful, conscientious. That, however, doesn’t seem to be happening. Newspapers, television channels, and social media all keep sharing one troubling picture after another. No regard for the government’s guidelines. No regard for one’s own safety. Or for those who are most vulnerable to the disease.

But why? This is not an academic question. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, many of us have spent months formulating and delivering public messages carefully woven into the day to day political commentaries and debates. Pakistan now has more news channels than viewers. An exaggeration, of course. But it sure feels like that many. And all these channels have been focusing invariably on the same issues. Hence, ignorance of the subject is not the likely source of the mayhem we are witnessing these days.

So, what is it? Resilience? Denial? Deathwish? Remember the days when terrorist attacks were commonplace and after every attack, you would witness life swiftly returning to normal. Our media would call it resilience. I called it denial. A few cynics called it a deathwish. But none of that explains why it took the country 16 years to build consensus against the common enemy that had spared no one. And a fleeting consensus too. Could it be defiance? Defiance of the state and its authority? Of course.

The culture of defiance exists in the country. It has been around since the colonial days before the birth of the country. To borrow a term from Acemoglu and Robinson’s seminal work on failure of nations, people do not relate happily with the extractive, exploitative systems. Extractive? But how? Has the government not just disbursed a huge amount in relief? The colonial setup was exploitative but why confuse it with our own democratically evolved or at least owned institutions?

Because you and I are talking about two different realities. There are ways to prove that democracy is a farce in this country and no government exists where it counts. Do you want to try?

Of course, I am not alluding to the apocryphal narrative about stolen elections and hybrid systems. In fact, that narrative is the problem. It keeps you from looking under the hood. Where the real problem lies buried far deeper than the reach of polemics. It is easier to prove that democracy is a farce. How? But simply pointing out that none of the major political parties holds regular internal elections. That these parties are run by fiat. There is no internal mechanism to hold their leaders accountable. Of course, the party’s leader would, from time to time, introduce a quasi accountability process within the party but only to punish the dissenters.

The second part is more difficult to qualify. Pakistan has a constitution. This Constitution details the structure, functioning and the system of governance. After the 18th Amendment, the second tier of governance, the province, was further empowered. But while our media keeps obsessing about the federal and the provincial governments that is not the level where the common citizen lives. Your citizen lives on the ground floor. There we do not have any representative government.

Let me qualify this point a bit further. If you pay heed to the stories that grow from our culture, from the folklore to our once beloved TV shows like Sona Chandi, the symbol of authority was always local. The numberdar, the mimber, the councillors, these were the people you would call to help get out of the fight spots. But whenever we had a democratic government, provinces refused to devolve power to the local level. Every single time. This was convenient. The provincial leader would gather revenues from the local level without listening to the local bickering through a mix of modern and ancient bureaucracy. Modern — commissioners and policemen. Ancient? Patwaris and qanungos. Taxation without any local representation. The literal essence of an extractive system.

The self image of the provincial governments is amazing. They view themselves as the crusaders against the corrosive powers of a unitary system. But in reality they only usurp power from the only level that matters.

Now, let us for a second think that instead of the prime minister and the chief ministers giving televised speeches, your chosen local representative who lived next door was constantly informing you about the threats posed by the novel coronavirus and how it can be defeated. Do you think the impact would have been the same? Of course not. We are missing out on this great opportunity because we don’t have a government. We don’t have a government where it counts. Where a chosen representative lives among his constituents and is immediately answerable to them.

But that doesn’t mean other factors are not playing a part. Greed, hubris, ignorance and stupidity all play a role in how people are toying with their lives immediately after lockdowns. But the people who could influence their behaviour and effect a change are not playing their part. The clergymen have made it clear they would not close shops for just anyone and would not influence anyone’s behaviour especially when it is not about collecting funds.

Our vernacular press has also made it clear that it has no interest in educating us about simple scientific solutions. Where is the fun in that? Instead it would give us the most shockingly uninformed conspiracy theories imaginable.

Can any of this be fixed? I am not holding my breath. Nor should you. It takes countries a long time to start acting like a nation. We are simply not there yet. Sadly, it means we will keep prolonging our ordeals by our own mistakes. They say smart people learn from other people’s mistakes. But then perhaps we are not as smart. If you consider yourself among the gifted please do your part and try convincing people that social distancing measures are in their own best interest. Otherwise angels are very unlikely to descend from the heaven just to enforce a smart lockdown.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 16th, 2020.

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