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Let’s Talk About the Money

2 Jul

The Representation of The Peoples Act, 1976 (and not a recent Supreme Court ruling) mandates that candidates must not spend more than Rs1.5 million on their electoral campaigns for the National Assembly. All National Assembly candidates are required to maintain a separate bank account for electoral finances and submit receipts to their returning officer for expenses incurred in the campaigning process to ensure that they do not exceed the amount specified. But this number is an inconsequential joke for Pakistani politicians and is unknown to most Pakistanis who, under the same act, have the power to scrutinise any candidate’s electoral expenses. In April 2012, the Supreme Court in its ruling on the Constitutional Petition No 87 of 2011, upheld these rules and directed the Election Commission to monitor candidates’ election expenses.

The rules of electoral finance lie at the very heart of the democratic process. These regulations are put in place to ensure that elections, by virtue of their cost, do not become the exclusive domain of the filthy rich. Our criminal neglect of electoral finance is one of the reasons for the kind of democracy we live in. Requiring the Election Commission to implement this Supreme Court verdict will require capacity that the Election Commission does not possess. But this is where friends of democracy should be directing their energies if we really want to change the quality and calibre of those in power.

The lacklustre leadership in control of the country consists of those people who have the money and clout to contest and win elections, which in Pakistan are neither won nor contested on the basis of competence or the policy views held by the candidates. Instead, contested on the basis of power and money, those that have neither, stand spectacularly slim chances of ever winning an election. So, we can automatically write-off most of the upstanding members of society. Therefore, until we change (or implement) the rules of financing the electoral game, we are likely to end up with the corrupt but powerful in the national driving seat.

What could be sadder than a country that has to resort to thinking of who is the least corrupt, least dishonest or least incompetent when trying to decide who should hold one of the highest offices in the land? Continue reading


The Foreign Minister Wears Prada

29 Jul

Its not just Prada - She does Birkin too!

Hina Rabbani Khar was not my top choice for foreign minister. Others within the Pakistan Peoples Party were more qualified to be the country’s top diplomat. The blogosphere, email groups and Twitter feeds are buzzing with criticism from Pakistanis disappointed with Khar’s appointment as it epitomises the lack of merit, deep-rooteddynastic politics and the restrictive hold of the feudal classes on the political system. Criticism of her lack of expertise and the advantage offered by her family background are fair and deserve to be aired. What is not fair, and downright sexist, is bashing Khar on account of her looks and gender.

I’m not trying to be a wet-blanket feminist who tries to kill the fun in big boys talking politics and using ‘humour’ to add appeal to their writing. I like a good laugh too, but what I don’t like is a woman being singled out and ridiculed for things that her male predecessor was never targeted for, despite them bearing an uncanny resemblance to each other.

The dapper Shah Mahmood Qureshi was no less dashing or handsome as Khar is pretty. Especially when compared to some of his rotund, flame-bearded colleagues in parliament, much like Khar stands out when you compare her to her rotund colleagues. Qureshi was a sharp dresser, like Khar. Yet, while we have obsessed endlessly over the handbag she took to India, we never really paid much attention to the tie Qureshi wore at the joint press conference where prospects for India-Pakistan peace were butchered. I wonder why.

We’ve cried ourselves hoarse over Khar’s feudal background and her family’s influence in politics, but was there similar outrage among Pakistan’s mighty internet crusaders about Qureshi being the Shah Rukne Alam sajjada nashin, arguably the biggest source of his political clout? And there is also the small matter of Qureshi’s father having been the governor of Punjab, but somehow, in his case, familial linkages to the world of power and politics did not matter.

What does set Qureshi and Khar apart is the former’s longer record with the PPP. However, none of his previous experiences or portfolios provided any kind of training or expertise to head the foreign ministry. Yet this was not problematic in his case, as he dressed well and spoke English well. Khar dresses well too and can speak pretty good English. She has a degree in hospitality and tourism management which, some could argue, is better preparation for diplomacy than a law degree or experience with agriculture policy — Qureshi’s qualifications.

Hina Rabbani Khar’s appointment is symptomatic of many flaws in Pakistani society and politics, and are thus worthy of criticism. However, the kind of criticism that she has received is symptomatic of a deeply problematic gender bias in our society. Since her appointment, Khar has had to deal with slurs against her character, speculations about the methods she used to get to the top, snide remarks about her looks and accessories and a complete disregard for her intellect which has helped her manage several important portfolios.

She is not alone in facing such sexist onslaughts. Women in Pakistan who dare to look good and take pride in their femininity while wielding political power, like Sherry Rehman, will have to suffer numerous baseless insults about their character, integrity and competence. Only by turning themselves into an elderly maternal figure do women manage to get themselves taken seriously. Now that’s a pity. I don’t see men scurrying about to become brotherly or fatherly figures to the average Pakistani woman. Why must this be a woman’s lot if she is to be in power in Pakistan?


Published in The Express Tribune, July 29th, 2011.


Pakistan’s Eight Great Education Debates

25 Apr

Pakistan’s education sector confronts a number of serious policy challenges. Jinnah Institute’s Paper “Pakistan’s Eight Great Education Debates” analyzes critical policy debates confronting the education sector and proposes policy solutions to Pakistan’s education policy dilemmas.

Executive Summary

The Government of Pakistan has declared that the sector is in a state of emergency. However, what has been lost in popular debate is that there isn’t one education emergency to confront. The sector faces a multitude of emergencies; each one equally critical and crucial to the creation of an efficient and effective education system.  If Pakistan is to achieve the miraculous turnaround in this sector that it needs, it needs to start with answering the following critical questions confronting the education sector today:

 More Spending or Smart Spending?

“Less than 1.5% of Pakistan’s GDP is spent on the public education sector” – Education Emergency ReportPakistan is one of the lowest spenders on Education in the South Asian region. Despite this, education budgets allocated to the provinces go unused each year. According to the Education Emergency report, some provinces spent less than 60% of the budget allocated to them. With low capacity to spend, should Pakistan be spending more on education or using budgets allocated to education in a smarter way? Continue reading

Only those committed to Pakistan should lead it

20 Apr

According to the News today:

NA bill to hit MPs with dual nationality

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan Muslim League-Q on Tuesday introduced a bill in the National Assembly that seeks the disqualification of parliamentarians and members of the federal and provincial government who hold dual nationality and own foreign accounts and property. The bill also applies to the armed forces and judiciary.

The private member’s bill, moved by PML-Q parliamentarian, Raza Hayat Hiraj, was not opposed by the Pakistan People’s Party chief whip and Federal Minister, Syed Khurshid Shah, and was referred to the concerned standing committee of the House. Shah claimed no PPP leader had dual nationality or foreign accounts and property.

The bill applies to all individuals who maintain an account in their own name or in the name of spouses, children or dependents. It also applies to those who hold a dual nationality or have permanent resident status of any other country, whether in their own name or in the name of spouses, children or dependents. The bill applies if an individual holds an office of profit or interest in any company or organisation established in a foreign country. It applies to any individual who owns any property whether free hold, lease hold or even in the form of licence, assets or shares or any interest in any company based in a foreign country, whether in his own name or in the name of his spouse, children or dependents, and if he/she carries out business, including any commercial activity, in any organisation or establishment based in a foreign country, whether in his own name or in the name of his spouse, children or dependents.

I picked up this issue about a year back and wrote the following about it. I am glad to see that legislation is being moved to make this happen. Have not read the proposed legislation in this regard so cannot comment on it but this seems like a move in the right direction. Here is the article I wrote on it about a year back:

The Citizenship of the Leadership

In order to become a member of parliament in Pakistan, one needs (or rather needed) a bachelor’s degree (this could be real or fake – according to the chief minister of Balochistan, there is no difference), lots of money, political connections, dubious morals and the right surname.

One can either be born into such good fortune or marry into it. Post the accident of birth or arrangement of fortunate marriage the path to political power is fairly straight and we have been hounded by the specters of dynastic and incompetent politics since Independence. So I began to wonder, if the constitution had any safeguards to prevent us from such inept leadership.

A quick study of the document revealed that there is a whole list of conditions under which a person is rendered ineligible to run for political office. The conditions range from corruption to insanity. Interestingly, the one condition that the document is vague on is the issue of citizenship, particularly dual citizenship. According to the constitution, one can be disqualified from being elected to parliament if, “he ceases to be a citizen of Pakistan, or acquires the citizenship of a foreign state …”

I’m not a constitutional lawyer or a lawyer at all – but even to my untrained eyes, this language seems vague. So while we require political leadership to be sane and moral we don’t require them to be only Pakistani? Pakistan allows its citizens to hold dual nationalities so why deny politicians this legal right? Continue reading

Blow This House Down: There are Better Ways of Spending $31 Million

16 Feb
The government wants you to know it has its economic priorities right. That it is serious about fixing bread-and-butter issues—for Parliamentarians.

In the houses of Parliament: Praying for more housing for Parliamentarians?

On Feb. 8, a joint committee of the National Assembly and Senate approved plans to build two blocks of family-sized apartments for 100 legislators and 500 of their domestic help at a price tag of Rs. 2.7 billion or $31 million. The complex will take three years to complete, and feature an underground tunnel that leads to Parliament. Presently, Islamabad has 358 apartments for its 442-strong Parliament. The contract was won by Habib Rafiq, a privately-held company that’s been in business some 50 years. It’s also owned by a close friend of the prime minister’s. But while that relationship is no crime, this project is.

In a country where sessions of Parliament are marked by poor attendance, rewarding lawmakers with housing they may or may not actually use is a questionable allocation of state resources. That their private servant armies will be subsidized is equally atrocious. Luxury Lodges-gate turns one stomach because the country is still recovering from its worst natural disaster and holding out for more foreign aid in the name of flood survivors. I know, tsk tsk.
Funding for the housing complex comes out of the Public Sector Development Programme, the moneybag for goody-goody projects like improved education and health services, and poverty alleviation. The cash-strapped federal government recently cut PSDP funding by Rs. 100 billion to Rs. 180 billion. If legislators approved the complex because they couldn’t find better ways of scratching their spending itch, here are some suggestions: Continue reading

Talat Hussain, You Genius You (via Kala Kawa)

25 Oct

A great deconstruction of popular journalist Talat Hussain’s latest column for the Express on Angelina Jolie’s wicked ways and—- oh btw — the even wickeder ways of the current government

This blog is quickly changing into an extended rant. However, when the Islamic Republic throws up cretin after cretin and provides them with substantial media space to air their views one can’t help but rant. Talat Hussain, lovingly known as Flotzilla in some circles due to his ‘heroics’ on the Gaza Peace Flotilla, has recently penned a column in the Urdu Daily ‘Express’. The subject of this column was Angelina Jolie’s recent report to the United … Read More

via Kala Kawa

Horsing Around

21 Oct
I never knew Horse Racing existed as an organized sport in Pakistan. I am obviously ignorant. Horse racing in Pakistan even has a website. And newspapers, produce the results of horse races. Recently Dawn printed a list of horses that participated in a race. JQ sent me this list of names.

The names are reproduced here as they appeared in the paper, without editing. My favorites are in bold. Continue reading

Dark Justice

7 Oct

Two years ago when determined men and women, clad in black coats, marched down the streets of Pakistan in the face of police brutality, they stirred up the long dead hope that a new era where the rule of law held supreme was dawning. With this movement, the belief that a positive societal transformation had started, began to take root. Pakistanis’ proudly claimed that this struggle had transformed lawyers into champions of the rule of law instead of the rule of personal or group whim, which has dominated and destroyed Pakistani institutions for decades.

Two years later, the same lawyers are marching down the same roads but for different reasons; to demand the transfer of a civil judge. They are no longer reminiscent of the valiant flag bearers of the civil society force that marched for the rule of law. As they attack judicial officers, police and media people performing their duties, the flag bearers of the rule of law movement seem to have thrown down their standards and turned back the progress made by the earlier struggle.

While most people have focused attention on the violent confrontation between the police, lawyers and media persons, little attention has been given to the legitimacy of the initial demand that escalated into institutional confrontation. Demanding en-masse, marching in the streets or attacking the offices of judges does not constitute due process for complaining against a judge. Demanding the transfer of a judge is not within the legal or moral rights of members of the bar. Continue reading

Our “Aversion” to Introspection

1 Sep

Patriotism is a powerful sentiment. But not when its logical outcome is a myopia that allows us the intellectual and moral space to ignore depravity in our midst. In the aftermath of the Sialkot lynching, powerful and evocative pieces were written by Fasi Zaka and George Fulton questioning the current state of our moral and social fabric. Given the recent spate of condemnable events in our society such as the inhuman episode of vigilante justice, the brutal killings of minorities and the subsequent silence of large segments of our society, the authors wrote pieces designed to shock our sensibilities in the hopes of creating much needed national soul searching.

What they got instead was the label of reactionary, cynical, unpatriotic and most damningly, the pasting of scarlet letters that spell “western liberal” on to their writings. This is a dangerous slope to be on. Deconstructing evil is a mark of civilisation, and those who refute self-criticism in the face of man-made tragedy are complicit in the worst kind of self-congratulating nationalism. Hand-wringing or cynicism may well evoke tedium, but rubbishing critical reviews of moral slide is way more damaging than the discomfort provoked by George and Fasi.

One response to the writings of these two author’s points to the fact that we are no better or worse than other parts of humanity – the Rwandans committed genocide and the Israeli’s regularly throw grenades at boys armed with stones. Does raising the bar on barbarity justify all that under-performs in its dark shadow? Genocide and forced occupation are hardly a standard to set for inhumanity, much less cite as justifications for ignoring the rot in our society. Does the barbarity of other parts of the world justify the atrocities in our backyard? Continue reading

Prem Chand Pakistani

2 Aug

Prem Chand at a session of the Youth Parliament of Pakistan

When did humanity become subservient to religion? When brilliant and dedicated young Pakistani, Prem Chand perished in the tragic crash of Air Blue flight 202, someone thought it necessary and appropriate to label his coffin with the derogatory slur “kafir” which means infidel. It’s a sad day for a country when one of its most talented young citizens is labeled, even in death, not by his nationality, or his local affiliation or his name but by a bigoted slur.

Labeling a dead Pakistani’s coffin in such derogatory terms is a sad reflection of the priorities of our society and our desensitization to humanity. In the last few years, we’ve seen an exponential increase in religiosity of our society but unfortunately it seems to be accompanied by a decline in humanity and morality. The insensitive labeling of Prem Chand’s coffin is a prime example of this.

Also, this deplorable event is a sad reflection of the dominant understanding of citizenship. Pakistan was “created for the Muslims of India” but its reality has always been very different. Pakistan has been home to people from very different religions and religious strains. And people from these diverse backgrounds have been faithful sons and daughters of the soil for centuries. The are active and productive citizens of the Pakistani state but somehow they are not recognized as such – not even in death. And this is a national tragedy.

One of the things eating away at the fabric of the Pakistani state is our over emphasis on all kinds of affiliations but a national one. And really, Pakistanis arent to blame for this. The state has not created a compelling national narrative through education or service delivery that could help people rise above divisive distinctions. The modern nation-state, according to Benedict Anderson,  is nothing but an “imagined community.” Its a group of people bound together by an imagined connection not necessarily a real one. This imagined connection isn’t simultaneously dreamed up by the millions that eventually form the state but is crafted and created through institutions such as various arms of the government, or the media. Unfortunately, our institutions have failed to provide any sort of cohesive national narrative that would allow Pakistani’s of all shades, shapes and sizes to come together.

Our collective imagination has been constantly inundated with the idea that our nationality is defined only by our religion. Therefore, if you are Muslim, you are Pakistani. You maybe Muslim and Pakistani but you could be a whole host of other things and still Pakistani. This narrow definition of nationalism must change. We need to create compelling national narratives that recognize Prem Chand as Pakistani first and anything else second. The young man who dedicated his short but remarkable life to the service of other fellow Pakistani’s deserves to be honored in his death because if Prem Chand, in death, is to be labelled a kafir and nothing else, then we who have done much less for this country and its people deserve to be called Pakistani even less.

Below is an excerpt from a letter written by a friend of Prem Chand’s that was published on fellow blogger, Ali Abbas Zaidi’s blog:

“It’s very painful for me to write to defend such gem of a person. But in a society like ours where people are discriminated on the basis of their faith, It’s essential to show these religious bigots their real face.

Prem chand was born to a poor family and was its lone feeder. He belonged to Sanghar, Sindh. He was 25 and was married and also had children. He, however, looked younger than his age and we also used to crack jokes on him for this which he thoroughly enjoyed. He certainly was not a “man” and had those boyish looks. He was doing masters from Sindh university, something pertaining to Social work. He not only called himself a social worker but his text messages also bore this signature. The signature was later changed to “YP Minister” when he was made minister for Youth affairs, culture and sports in previous session of YP. This honour was well deserved as he had prepared and presented a comprehensive research report on state of social welfare in Pakistan. He was hardworking, dedicated and sincere. His educational back ground was such that he could not make flowery speeches.
He was not good at speaking English and his Urdu also had that pinch of Sindhi accent but this never deterred him to stand up and speak whenever he wanted. He was a patriot and loved pakistan, worried about it as much as we “muslims” do, brought resolutions, prepared them, asked for help,  tried to pinpoint and resolve all the problems that Pakistan faces, spoke against India on water issue and had no qualms on the prospect of going to war with her. I say all this to show that he was “normal”. He was not alien or “Indian”.”

It is with heartfelt sorrow that I write this post and extend my deepest apologies to the family and friends of Prem Chand for the deplorable actions of those who dont deserve to be called even human. I only hope and pray that Prem Chand’s death will spark  introspection and discussion on what it means to be Pakistani and who is deserving of this label and who isn’t. 

You can read more of the moving account of Prem Chand’s friends about his brief but meaningful life on Ali Abbas Zaidi’s blog here. and for more analysis on this issue see this article on the blog Pakistaniat which aptly describes this sad event as ” Prem Chand: His Death Was a National Tragedy; How His Coffin Was Treated a National Disgrace

How sad but how true!

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