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The excitement of a broken gramophone record

In Lahore at the Avari – where my irremediable poverty regularly takes me – I listened to Ishaq Dar going on and on about how they were going to change the economic landscape of this God-gifted country. The figures he was spouting sailed past my ears, as was only to be expected. He was trying to sound convincing but was not wholly succeeding.

I stood the oratory for about ten minutes and then flipped channels. Jack Nicholson in a B grade movie – great actor but less than entrancing picture…so I returned to the finance czar, but could stick him only for a few minutes more, then started flipping channels again. (Stephen Hawking once said there was nothing more mindless than flipping channels.)

Why do our impresarios have such a poor sense of occasion? Here the country, the entire big mess of it, is sweltering in heat and loadshedding and here the finance czar, and numerous other legislators besides, are decked out in fancy suits, striped shirts, ties and looking very smart…the Yousuf Raza Gilani formula all over. From cardboard specimens we seem fated to endure, a sense of propriety is perhaps asking for too much.

Anyway, my idea of a good budget is the music of fat cats squealing, of robber barons howling. But this being hailed as a ‘business-friendly’ budget, the fat cats have reason to sound happy. Concessions to big business, cosmetic taxation measures and nothing remotely radical, the burden of sustaining the expenses of the Islamic Republic remaining where it has always been: on the jackasses whom, in our more inspired or generous moments, we call the awam. And promises galore, always pitched in the future tense, and the awam waiting for miracles, as they have since 1947.

My favourite capitalist – he who heads the cement and numerous other guilds – was seen sitting in at some of the pre-budget meetings presided over by Quaid-e-Mohtram (Respected Leader) which is how Mian Nawaz Sharif is addressed in the party (no kidding…Kim II-Sung would feel at home). And my favourite capitalist was looking quite pleased with himself. As an untutored economist this is how I judge the economic weather. The happiness of the Ambanis (this I use as a metaphor) is not a good sign for the rest of us.

And broadband licences (3G or whatever) are soon to be auctioned. We know what happened in India, a Raju as communications minister proving extremely helpful to the Tatas and the Ambanis. Who’ll get the licences here? Exciting times lie ahead.

As prime minister in the 1990s, one of the Respected Leader’s first steps was the privatisation of the cement industry. We know who snapped up the biggest plants. And know what? Hardly had the echoes of that first move subsided before cement prices hit the roof. Trust cats to always land on their feet, fat cats first of all.

And Dar said they would revive the railways, indeed waxing so lyrical on this subject that I almost had to rub my eyes in the effort to recall that of all governments in our colourful history, it was only a Sharif administration which actually went about dismantling a rail line or two. Now we hear talk of bullet trains and rail links to Kashgar and beyond. We are a poetic people and there is no end to our exercises in this genre.

Why not begin with reclaiming lost and encroached-upon railway land, starting from Chakwal and the nearby town of Dhudial? Maybe then doubting souls, schooled in cynicism which along with the painting of trucks is the leading Pakistani art, put greater trust in the heady vision of speeding trains slicing through the Himalayas and heading towards exotic Kashgar.

With all the hullabaloo about energy crisis and loadshedding, anyone could have been forgiven for thinking that some kind of a financial emergency would be declared, all available resources commandeered to get rid of ‘circular debt’, not in 60 days as the finance czar has assured a sceptical nation but in a week or ten days. One might as well have cried out for the stars.

Change, change, shouted our paladins, Imran Khan in the lead, over the last year or so. Nawaz Sharif, going a step further, spoke of revolution, the irony of a capitalist baron speaking such language escaping him completely. To reinforce this refrain my friend Shahbaz Sharif, self-proclaimed Khadim-e-Aala of Punjab, would recite Habib Jalib – again the irony of it missing him – and bang the podium and gesticulate wildly. Revolution in mime…no one could do it better than them.

As a great Jalib lover SS would surely have heard of these verses:

na jaan de do, na dil dey do/bas apni aik mill dey do,

ziyan jo kar chukay ho qaum ka/bas uska bill dey do.

When in the mood he should try out this particular nazm.

And wait until electricity prices – power tariffs – go up. That will be some revolution. It’s not that tough decisions are not needed. They are indeed, but it would help if their pain is equally shared, between the fat cat classes and the great awam of political legend.

Here’s the rub: when the fat cats are all talk and Raiwind palaces and just have no time for the idea of revealing their assets to the public, are they in any position to preach austerity to the armed forces? As it is, the defence budget is up by 15 percent. Put everything together, items declared and hidden, and total defence expenditure is a whopping burden on a debt-ridden country.

True, the army is in a state of war and that costs money. But the public would the more cheerfully put up with this burden if the army was not, at the same time, into such gaudy and useless things as defence housing authorities, and generals becoming real estate tycoons. The army in a state of war and its top echelons engaged in the business of real estate: there would be fewer contradictions sharper than this. Which other army in the world, pray inform a befuddled public, is engaged in similar enterprises?

So it is not the hard times or privation which matter so much, as the glaring inequality on display. Pakistan was never an equal society; the richer classes were always better off. But now with things more uneven, selling the idea of sacrifice is a more difficult undertaking.

So fewer speeches and homilies, my masters, and more work, less Jalib merely in verse and more Jalib in action. Mustafa Kemal as commander of 19 Division stood with his men in the Gallipoli campaign close to the firing line and that is why they rallied to him. That is also why he could issue that famous order: “I don’t order you to fight. I order you to die. In the time it takes us to die, other troops and commanders can come and take our place.” Heroes are made of such deeds, not tinsel and barely-concealed hypocrisy.

Then we talk of scaling the heights and plumbing the depths when our curse is mediocrity and smallness of mind and imagination. From where do we get courage and vision? The final verdict must be that of Faiz: “Chale chalo, keh woh manzil abhi nahi aayee….” (proceed, for the objective we seek is still not attained).

Email: winlust@yahoo.com

Ayaz Amir, "The excitement of a broken gramophone record," The News. 2013-06-14.
Keywords: Social sciences , Political science , Political leaders , Political process , National issues , Economic issues , Budget-Pakistan , Loadshedding , Poverty , Ishaq Dar , Jack Nicholson , Yousuf Raza Gilani , PM Nawaz Sharif , CM Shahbaz Sharif , Habib Jalib , Lahore , Pakistan , India , Chakwal , Punjab