Ban if you can...

12 May 2016


The writer is a former caretaker finance, planning & development minister, and has served as chairman of the Sindh Revenue Board.
The writer is a former caretaker finance, planning & development minister, and has served as chairman of the Sindh Revenue Board.

THE act of banning the Urdu movie named Maalik encapsulates the Pakistani leadership’s confusion where the media is concerned. The ban appears to stem from an overwhelming feeling among Pakistan’s politicians that the current media discourse which continuously labels politicians as corrupt, including a film like Maalik, is in reality a conspiracy against democracy.

Consequently, a number of politicians will in private allude to the ISPR influence on the movie rather than the movie director Ashir Azeem’s brilliance as the cause for the movie being influential. Democracy, however, is more complex and the politicians may not like it but the truth lies elsewhere.

The practical reality of Pakistan is that it has the larger part of its population shut out of any stake in the state. There is no given name for this part of the population as a class and no empirical wealth or education statement that defines it. In order to give this class a name for the purposes of this article one may call it an underclass.

The defining feature of this underclass is that persons comprising it have no connection with the state of Pakistan other than possibly a national identity card. In real terms, what it means is that if a cop stops or arrests a member of this underclass the person will not be able to make a phone call and get relief — such a person will either have to pay or become a crime statistic.

Banning ‘Maalik’ encapsulates the Pakistani leadership’s confusion.

For persons belonging to this class, access to state-supplied health, education, utilities, social welfare and transport depends upon the largesse of the state officials supplying the service rather than any enforceable right which arises due to being a citizen of the Pakistani state.

For members of the underclass normal issues that are fundamental to governance like corruption or merit are of little consequence. For them merit is not, in the foreseeable future, going to enable them to jump across the social deficit built up over generations.

If they get to vote members of the underclass develop a relationship with the politician hoping it will translate into a relationship with the state. The politician is the only hope for them to enter the state’s patronage structure. Their only hope!

In Pakistan, the underclass sits uncomfortably with another class which has had access to English-based education and finance through a generational advantage. Let’s call it the overclass. A generation ago, their fathers or grandfathers either found their way into the state or state-regulated sectors through the colonial system or personal initiative. They included civil servants, lawyers, doctors, bankers, journalists, armed forces officers, businessmen and multinational employees.

In the absence of democratic checks, they were able to generate individual wealth which included English-speaking education for their children and houses across Defence Housing Authorities. Their defining feature is that they have a network where someone knows someone in an emergency when dealing with the state, be it cop or clerk.

Economically, this class is the repository of the wealth, knowledge, capital and skills which are available in Pakistan and are, therefore, the key to the economic growth of Pakistan. They look to established state institutions like the military and the judiciary for protection. Merit to them is a self-evident truth. Due to their education they support democracy but cannot understand the politicians’ management of it which to them is clearly detrimental to both the economy and the development of the underclass.

The members of the overclass have a sense of entitlement to the state and demand that the state provide the services and end corruption like a modern state. The major disconnect for the overclass is that with Pakistan’s economy the way it is even if Pakistan had an ideal merit-based development system with an ideal taxation system it would still be a generation away from delivering for the underclass. Meanwhile, the crude structures that the politicians leverage are the only structures that give hope to the underclass.

Pakistan’s ability to set a direction will lie in the ability of politicians to understand that while the overclass may not be their actual support base it shapes local and global perception through media and movies like Maalik.

To survive, politicians will need to manage the interface between the politics demanded by the underclass and the management demanded by the overclass. Banning Maalik will not make the perception of politicians it presents go away but allowing it to play will at least show that politicians do not just ban if they can.

The writer is a former caretaker finance, planning & development minister, and has served as chairman of the Sindh Revenue Board.

Published in Dawn, May 12th, 2016