Saturday, February 13, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: POLITICAL IMPRESSIONS

Thanks to Dost Publications for the review copy

PUBLISHED IN DAILY TIMES / 13 FEB 2010

Many would call it a wasteland where governments and old problems get recycled, institutions never get a chance to evolve and good intentions remain unrealized. Against such a backdrop, some people have an unerring sense of direction which brings moments of clarity in an otherwise murky scenario. Dr. Aftab Ahmed may have possessed such ability. Political Impressions is a collection of his articles that have appeared in prominent English dailies over the years.

21 articles, spanning 13 years from 1987-2003, have been arranged in three sections. They give readers a brief glimpse into the life of founding fathers who visualized a secular Pakistan, a reality check about headline making events of the time, topped off with proposed reforms to avert the slippery slope brought on by what can only be classified as a policy of benign neglect. Separately, they represent a well grounded analysis of Pakistan’s political scene. Together, they reflect the dichotomy between the charted vision and established practices.

In the first section titled ‘Concept’, the writer takes a look at secularism from two perspectives and elaborates upon Iqbal’s version of a nation inspired by a secular Turkey instead of an insular Saudi Arabia. In ‘Quaid’s concept of Pakistan’ Jinnah’s views on minorities have been compared to the Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) pledge made during the founding of Medina when Jews were granted equal rights. The first two articles about ‘Iqbal‘s concept of a Muslim homeland’ - (I & II) appeared in different publications five years apart but are essentially the same, so one can be skipped. Portions from ‘democracy and party organization’ (Reality) also re-appear in ‘the parliamentary system and political parties’ (Reforms).

If ‘Concept’ shows visions of the professed destination for a ship at anchor, ‘Reality’ highlights the gradual shifts brought on by failures of parliamentary democracy in Pakistan among other things, due to the short-sightedness of its leaders who did not exploit their party’s strength or build ‘well organized and strong political parties’. It laments PPP’s U-turn that led them to make wrong choices on various pretexts. He wonders if ‘politics of consensus is possible’ in the year 2000 and comments on ‘Prospects after Agra’ where the author has on good authority that Indians will not compromise on Kashmir whatever else they may agree on. In ‘military rule with a difference’, he hopes Musharraf would get a consensus because ‘politicians matter’ and ‘cannot be ‘wished away’ and admires Musharraf’s restrained approach towards Indians in the face of open hostilities in ‘Prospects in New York’.

An analysis of the 1958 coup in light of American and British papers appears in the ‘…genesis of 1958 coup….’ The British papers – secret confidential documents relating to Ayub era (1958-69’), have been complied by Roedad Khan and recap the British High Commissioners conversation with President Mirza - the man disdainful of democracy, elections and constitution despite the HC’s observation of a ‘widespread demand of elections’. The American papers – secret/confidential dispatches between US embassies and State department reveal the American’s kindly stance towards Ayub and Ayub/Mirza’s joint opinion that ‘only dictatorships work in Pakistan’.

The author notes the contrasts between the Brits and the Yanks; Ayub did not confide in the British who stayed on the fence, he did however get the Americans to give a green-light to the projected future.

‘Reforms’ takes charge of an off-course nation by proposing requisite administrative/political reforms. ‘’Reforming the bureaucracy’ (I, II) is about the interchangeable nature of the assignments of political leaders and bureaucrats with one responsible for policy formulation and the other dealing with its execution and neither sticking to their designated roles. ‘Pakistan needs a truly federal democratic system’ details the anomalies in the territorial division of Pakistan . Here the writer draws his own conclusions that go against the set up of a centralized government in a country where regions have distinct identities and governance should be under a truly democratic federal system that respects the political, economic and cultural aspirations of its people without trying to ‘steamroll their diversity in the name of ideology’. He believes in ‘the process of devolution/decentralized power to ensure participation of people, only made possible when organized, broad based political parties act as ‘conduits between society and state’.

‘Power aspect of devolution’ examines the limitations of the devolution plan in light of certain obvious truths and disturbing practices by powerful MNA’s, MPA’s and bureaucrats where neither wants elected representatives of local bodies to run the districts. ‘Administrative reforms: an elusive goal?’ where experts tasked with producing a lean and effective bureaucracy in the 90’s considered cutting federal governments 5 tier system down to 3 by removing the deputy secretary and offering additional secretaries a golden handshake. He refers to his own involvement in Civil Services administration as a Member/Secretary of Anwar-ul-Haq Commission on civil services (1978-79) where he formulated recommendations which differed in the approach taken by the Ijlas Haider Zaidi Committee in later years.

Dr. Aftab Ahmed was a scholar of the Urdu literature, has written on contemporary and classical Urdu poets and received the Prime Ministers literary award in 1998 for ‘Bayad-e-Suhbat-e-Nazuk’ - a book of sketches of renowned literary figures from our times. This is a posthumous publication of his works. Political impressions may not be every ones cup of tea. It could, however, be served as a remedial draught to an ailing system.

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