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Pollsters, pundits and astrologers

Published Nov 05, 2012 03:11am


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IN ancient Rome, soothsayers would study the entrails of freshly killed animals to peer into the future. Other civilisations have used the stars, Tarot cards and holy texts to divine what lies ahead.

Although in these more rational days, pollsters have taken on the role of oracles, many still find comfort in horoscopes: witness the popularity of newspaper columns giving advice based on your date of birth. And while I am generally pretty cynical, there are a couple of instances of weirdly accurate forecasts based on stars and numbers that have shaken my scepticism.

I was serving as information minister at our embassy in Washington in 1990, and one of the tasks of our small press section was to collect newspaper cuttings relating to Pakistan and the region every morning, and circulate them among senior embassy staff. These would also be sent to the Information Ministry in the weekly diplomatic bag.

In April or May, I forget which, a subordinate called my attention to a pretty lightweight magazine that carried a syndicated column by a nationally famous astrologer. She predicted in that article that Benazir Bhutto’s government would fall that August. In the event, it was toppled by the president with army support on Aug 6.

Granted, the PPP government was shaky, and was being constantly destabilised by the opposition and the military establishment. But how on earth did the astrologer get the month right? At the time, I just told my subordinate to chuck the article away as we couldn’t circulate every bit of rubbish that was printed about Pakistan.My second example of eerie predictions came in 1999, soon after Musharraf’s coup that sent Nawaz Sharif packing. I was over for dinner at my old friend Javed Mashadi, a serious student of astrology and numerology. Remember, this was the period when Pakistan had been hit by every sanction in the book due to the military takeover, as well as our nuclear tests a year ago.

Javed very seriously announced that according to his calculations, he could see ten good years for Pakistan’s economy coming soon. All those present jumped on him, asking how could he make such an absurd prediction when the economy was virtually flat on its back. He shrugged and said he didn’t know how it would happen, but that’s what he could foresee.

Sure enough, we soon had 9/11, and Pakistan became the favourite destination for western leaders, and Musharraf became their blue-eyed boy. Loan write-offs, grants, aid and military toys for the boys poured in. Suddenly, our foreign exchange reserves expanded to a healthy level, the stock market boomed, cheap loans became available, and the middle class expanded dramatically.

While I will not share Javed’s next prediction because of its disturbing nature, I am fixated by all the forecasts being made about the US presidential election on Nov 6. While pollsters have been working overtime to predict the outcome, astrologers have not remained idle. Madame Arcati, again a syndicated American columnist, sees a close race that ends in Obama’s favour.

According to her, the incumbent is a Leo, and on election day, his moon sign transitions Leo, or some such mumbo-jumbo. Romney, apparently, is not as fortunate, and is doomed to lose by a small margin. While she could have easily arrived at this conclusion on the basis of opinion polls that show Obama with a small but persistent lead, I have learned better than to completely discount such predictions.

Some astronomers like Lynn Hayes are playing it safe by concluding their forecast by saying that there will be no winner, although she doesn’t say how such a result is constitutionally possible. One serious article explores a scenario in which both candidates are tied at 269 electoral college votes each. In such an unprecedented situation, the House of Representatives, where the Republicans have a majority, will elect Romney as president. The Senate, where the Democrats are expected to retain their majority, will vote for Biden as vice president.

To guard against fraud, both parties are deploying thousands of volunteer attorneys to train Republican and Democrat foot soldiers to monitor the vote and report any malpractices. The Democrats are especially active on the legal front in the key swing votes that will determine the outcome of this very tight election.

The risk is that charges and counter-charges will land up in courts across the country, delaying the announcement of the outcome. Imagine a scenario in which the whole world holds its breath while recounts are ordered by courts in several close contests. As it is, Democrats have still not forgiven Al Gore for throwing in the towel too early during the highly controversial recount in Florida in 2000. Many feel that if he had continued his legal battle in the Supreme Court, the outcome – and history – would have been very different.

As the long and hugely expensive campaign builds to its climax, the rest of the world needs to thank the American people and system for the entertainment they provide us every four years. After spending around a billion dollars each, both parties are stretching every sinew in the home stretch.

Even though Obama has continued to maintain a small lead in the polls, the tiny percentage that separates the two candidates remains statistically insignificant. Apart from the excitement of watching a closely run race, the result matters to the whole world in a way no other election does.

While many Pakistanis think a Republican victory would be better for us, there is no suggestion that Romney would reduce the number of drone strikes against terrorists in our tribal areas. On the other hand, if he is elected, the chances of an attack on Iran would increase.

So all said and done, I would bet on Obama to scrape home in a tight finish. Frankly, I would welcome such an outcome, if only because he is a far more intelligent and honest person than Romney, a candidate who has reinvented himself so many times that it’s difficult for anybody, including him, to know what he stands for.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (10) Closed

Shahid Hashmi Nov 05, 2012 03:59am
The presidential contest in the US is even at this time and most pollster give a slight edge to Obama in the electoral college. At this time the undecided voters are minimal probably between 1 to 2%, I think Romney has a better chance pulling a surprise victory. My reasoning is based on on my observation of previous presidential election in the US where at the last minute the undecided typically breaks more in favor of the challenger than the incumbent. It is because the undecided had four years to evaluate the incumbent and if they have not decided at such a late stage the chances are they are not convinced that the incumbent could do a good job in the next four years and so these voters will vote for the challenger by a slim margin which in this even race could be the deciding factor.
sf Nov 05, 2012 10:30pm
By the way I wonder who are these undecided and what is their IQ tnat have taken them almost 4 years and are still not sure.
Syed-S Nov 06, 2012 10:20pm
NASAH (USA) Nov 05, 2012 08:46am
The formidable coalition of minorities and the liberal white men that the Democrats have built is going to win the election -- soon the white republican men will be a minority in the United States.
Jawed Reza Sheikh Nov 05, 2012 08:27am
With regards to Benazir's fall DAWN's friday columnist Mr. Amir Ayaz had also written an article in July titled " THE GUNS OF AUGUST" in which he had predicted that Benazirs's Government would fall in August 1990.
pathanoo Nov 05, 2012 07:12pm
Dear Irfan, Today you lost any respect, and I had a lot, for you. Obama an intelligent and honest person?????? Either you are absolutely biased or totally clueless. One more time in the past, I said that you are an expert on matters relating to Pakistan and the region, and I respect that expertise of your's, the honesty, integrity and the courage you display; but you have no clue when it comes to prognosticating America and Americans. Lastly, as we Americans say," Would you like to share the weeds you are smoking?"
noor Nov 05, 2012 02:14pm
I enjoy reading Mr Irfan Hussain's columns. However Mr. Hussain is wrong when he says Obama is more intelligent. Perhaps he has not watched the first Presidential Debate when Romney cleaned Obama's clock!!
Astrologer Nov 05, 2012 06:33am
Irfan Hussain ji, Just giving you a heads up. The world of astrology revers the INdian / Vedic astrology which originated as per the descriptions in the ancient books, along the longitude and latitude of swat and Kashmir Valley In Pak / India. Learn to respect your own history
Jeff Nov 05, 2012 11:48am
The fear is that US may get a President who does not believe in global warming, evolution, DNA or genes, and even the vastness of universe where life may exist on some exo-planets. According to laws of physics, if a planet is in a habitable zone, (water and carbon is almost universally found, which are second ingredients) life will take form and then evolve locally. After years of search, Craig Venter has proven by experiments formation of low form of life on Earth from elements alone. It is science that has make America great.
MP Nov 05, 2012 08:31pm
This is the first time I disagree with Irfan Husain on every point mentioned in this article. I hope to write to him after tomorrow.