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A spitting image indeed

July 26, 2012

LOOKING at it dispassionately, it is evident that middle-class Indians have acquired many reckless and jarring values from Pakistan.

Mindless consumerism pervasive in India today is something Pakistanis have indulged in for decades — the fawning slave-master nexus with Washington DC and, not least, the nascent attraction for mixing religious bigotry with RDX. In all these, Indians have followed Pakistan’s lead.

When Dr Manmohan Singh landed in Washington on his maiden visit as prime minister, the children of his top officials — including the foreign minister, the foreign secretary and the national security advisor, among others, not to exclude the prime minister himself — lived in the US. To catch up with Pakistan such a post-Nehruvian push was necessary.

Giving the military an excessive role in guiding foreign policy (in the name of strategic advantage in Siachen, for example) is another element that wasn’t originally there in India, quite the opposite of what has been the norm for Pakistan.

I think this is what Fahmida Riaz lamented in her biting poem ‘Tum bilkul hum jaise nikley, ab tak kahaa’n chhupey thay bhai?’ (You’ve turned out just like us, where were you hiding all this while, brother?) A friend of reason and ready wit from across Wagah once dilated upon the idiomatic Urdu expression of unnees-bees ka farq to set the quotient of consumerist gluttony between India and Pakistan. According to him the difference was in the ratio of 18:21. Why not the idiomatic 19:20, though? “If I say unnees-bees, my Indian friends will feel offended,” he chortled.

Much of the early consumerist dichotomy can be explained by the fact that crony capitalism came to Pakistan way before it was ushered into India in the 1990s. I had heard of a distant cousin who was addicted to Coca-Cola a couple of decades before anyone in India knew of the cultish American drink. In fact there was such a groundswell of opposition, a veritable mass movement against it, that the soft drink was expelled from the country by the government that restored India’s democracy in 1977.

Earlier, international brand names such as Burmah-Shell, British Petroleum and Esso were eased out from postcolonial India in a drive to seek a self-reliant, egalitarian and level-headed society. It is another story that the generic name of engine oils used by motorcar mechanics continued to be Mobil Oil (popularly pronounced mobiaayel) for several more years to come.

Call it populism if you will, but Indira Gandhi’s campaign to nationalise private banks in the late 1960s had popular support just as her curbs on royal privileges and a halt to privy purses for feudal scions, a relic of the colonial period, found mass approval. In this regard Bhutto’s populism with similar egalitarian motifs may have followed the example of a pre-consumerist India.

An early role model for middle-class Pakistanis was perhaps the dapper founder of the country himself vis-à-vis the Indians, who mostly followed Gandhi in shunning ‘conspicuous consumption’ as wasteful.

Gunnar Myrdal records in Asian Drama — An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations, a peerless study of the South Asia of the 1960s, how Pakistani diplomats had an edge over their Indian counterparts in conviviality and social graces, given the right occasion. But for Ziaul Haq’s divine intervention the equation might have remained in Pakistan’s favour, though to no great advantage to its hapless masses.

There was a time up to the 1960s when tourist pictures from Pakistan on the 3D Viewfinder showed Pakistanis dodging around in their Toyotas when Indians were happily lumbering on in their very basic Landmasters, a forerunner to the Ambassador. A class of women flaunted jeans and goggles when their Indian counterparts still donned old-fashioned baggy shalwars.

Khushwant Singh wrote of the Lahore match during the revived cricketing ties with India in 2004 when beautifully attired Pakistani women thronged Gaddafi Stadium. There was only one woman in a burqa and she was the mother of an Indian player, Khushwant Singh observed. To make up for the lapse, if it was that, the Indians have mustered up skimpily clad women as cheerleaders for their cricket matches. The women are mostly foreigners in case the village elders are watching.

We all have learned, however, that cultural percolation from above has not worked in Pakistan just as its economic variant — the neo-liberal school of top-down development — has failed miserably. The idea that well-meaning men and women with borrowed liberal motifs could become the trendsetters for the masses, comprising mostly illiterate men and women, has recoiled hard.

If there was any hope for a modest advance it was snuffed out with an official push for religion to pervade all spheres of life. India is following that roadmap to disaster. Instances where villagers have defied the state to issue Taliban-like edicts against women — what they wear and who they marry, etc — have increased. Urban zealots driven by religion — Hindu or Muslim — have not resisted the temptation to use RDX to stress their point.

And now Anna Hazare’s men see similarities between Messrs Asif Ali Zardari and Pranab Mukherjee. Just as we watched Mukherjee being sworn in as India’s new president, with all its perks, including constitutional immunities against criminal investigation, not to speak of prosecution, Hazare’s team delivered a simultaneous demarche, launching an indefinite fast to expose as-yet unspecified corruption involving the new resident of the British-built Presidential Palace.

Allegations about probity apart, there is not much more in common between Mr Zardari and Mr Mukherjee. One is a political head of his country who has given top priority to peace dialogue with India, the other holds a largely ceremonial post and was not known in his political avatar to push for anything except what helped India’s big business.

It must be this terse image of Mr Mukherjee that prompted the terrorist Omar Sheikh to ring up President Zardari from his prison cell pretending to be the Indian foreign minister. The security alert that followed happened because Pakistanis don’t seem to trust India as a responsible neighbour. If anything, they are likely to see it more as a spitting image of themselves, increasingly so.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

jawednaqvi@gmail.com