Friday, July 31, 2009

The Laziest Headline Ever, And Ethnic-Bus Politics In Karachi

So I was browsing the website of The News and came across a story about the City District Government of Karachi's venture on starting a CNG bus service. How did I know this was a story about the City District Government of Karachi and their CNG bus service? Well, the headline gave me a clue, but only just:

Right then. Thanks for being so descriptive, Jang Group! I mean, really. What would be an equivalent headline on the BBC website? "US President Obama"?

Anyway, the story is actually pretty interesting. I remember a while back reading about the CNG-buses venture of uber-popular Mayor/Nazim of Karachi, Mustafa Kamal, who thought the buses would help both Karachi's pollution problem and Karachi's traffic problem (which, let me tell those who aren't familiar with Karachi, are pretty appreciable problems). I also remember reading about how the transportation mafia/union (depending on your point of view) were doing all they could to stop it, for obvious reasons that rhyme with "shmottom-pline".

Well as it turns out, the struggle is not yet over. Check out the report linked to above:
A few transporters, whose buses ply on the same route as that of the newly-inducted CNG buses of the City District Government Karachi (CDGK), are attempting to block the bus service through strong-arm tactics, The News learnt on Thursday.

The drivers and conductors of two minibuses (Niaz Coach and Khan Coach) attempted to block the CNG bus service at Patel Para, Business Recorder Road on Thursday. Passengers on board one of these coaches informed The News that the operators of the coaches also attempted to force two female passengers off the CDGK bus. He said the operators of the coaches were furious and hurled brazen threats and said that either they would ply on the route or the CDGK buses would.

It was learnt that transporters are also attempting to block the CNG buses from Surjani Town where the CNG buses terminal is situated.

I find those whole thing quite tragicomically ironic. Nazim Mustafa Kamal, as we all know, is a rising (or risen, I suppose) star of the MQM, a/the Mohajir party in Pakistan. The transportation sector in Karachi, on the other hand, is controlled by Pathans. Now, Mohajirs and Pathans haven't exactly enjoyed the warmest of relations in Karachi. In fact, their relationship has been tense for over two decades, tensions which bubbled to the surface in 1986 becaauuuuuseeee (wait for it)


transportation issues!

Remember Bushra Zaidi? She was a Mohajir girl, a young student, who was run over by a speeding bus (driven, quite naturally, by a Pathan). A number of accidents had taken place due to reckless driving by buses in Karachi, and Bushra's death was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. The underlying problems between the two ethnic groups were enflamed by the incident, riots took place as Mohajirs attacked Pathan transport workers and Pathans retaliated, and about 60 people died. Not-so-coincidentally, the MQM took off in the next couple of years and became a real political force, in Sindh if not nationally.

And now we're back. Mohajirs against Big Transport. By the way, I am not claiming that this latest episode is in any way identity-driven; it's about economic issues and profits and market control, and not what color your skin is and what language you speak. But, as I said, it's tragicomically ironic.

Why Is Iftikhar Chaudhary Backing Off?

Close observers of Pakistani politics will have no doubt noted this story, in which it is claimed that the judiciary is backing off from charging former president Pervez Musharraf with treason.
ISLAMABAD: Chief justice turned down a request on Thursday to launch a treason case against former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, saying the Supreme Court lacked the authority.

Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry's remarks could reassure both the fragile civilian government and military establishment, as they can ill-afford any fresh crisis at a time when the country is fighting a Taliban insurgency.

‘This is not the proper forum to initiate such case. We are not authorised to do so,’ Chaudhry told the court.

The question I'm wondering about is: why? It's not as if the Chief Justice and the apex court have in the past shown any reluctance to overstep their bounds and tread where they are not authorized to do so. There are a few explanations I can think of.

First, the judiciary (and by that I mean Chaudhary) thinks Musharraf is irrelevant now that he is no longer in power. Therefore it makes little sense to waste time, energy, and political capital, and risk considerable political turmoil, for someone who doesn't matter anymore. Chaudhary might reason that his time is better spent getting in Zardari's way than punishing Musharraf, because the former is still central to Pakistani politics.

Second, Chaudhary and the court might have been chastened from the recent hullabaloo over the carbon tax and its rescinding. For the first time since March 2007, his actions were actually questioned and debated, rather than simply thought of as the delivery of divine justice. Most people -- and this is just a hunch; I have no data to back it up -- probably still supported his stance, but at least there was a discussion. When Ayaz friggin' Amir (of all people) takes issue with Iftikhar Chaudhary and the judiciary, you know something's up. The point is, if Chaudhary and his activist court was being debated in the public sphere for the mere reason of a carbon tax, he might have thought that trying Musharraf for treason for crimes that were no more egregious than those of every Pakistani ruler that has ever lived (including his closest political ally, Nawaz Sharif) might be a bit much.

Third, it would strike many (including perhaps Chaudhary himself, who by all accounts is a good man, if a misguided one) as hypocritical for the court to try Musharraf for subverting the constitution when, um, Chaudhary was the one who not only rubber-stamped his coup in 1999, but also in 2000 gave him the right to amend the constitution. Tricky business this, when people actually have long memories, don't fawn over you and actually examine the historical record, no?

Fourth, Chaudhary (like Musharraf) is a patriot, and might have reasoned that there is enough political turmoil in the country as it stands. He might also have been politely told by stakeholders as varied as Kayani and Gillani that this might not be an especially bright idea. Not in so many words.

My best bet is that it is a combination of numbers one and four, with two and three playing background roles. Or maybe this is much-ado-about-nothing; maybe Chaudhary is just delaying the moment at which Musharraf is tried, and not actually forswearing the possibility that he will be. Who knows?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Learn Masturbation Etiquette With Silvio Berlusconi

The polite and sagely Italian Prime Minister post coital advise to Ms. Patrizia D'Addario.

Ms. D'Addario asks:

"You know how long it is since I had sex the way I had it with you tonight? Months. Not since I left my man. Is [that] normal?"

Silvio replies:

"If I may, you ought to have sex by yourself. You ought to touch yourself with a certain frequency."

The original recording can be heard here.

Ms. D'Addario and 19 other escorts had been invited to (well, paid to attend) a dinner with Berlusconi, who upon meeting the young women humbly asked if they were interested in getting a going on TV, entering politics, or appearing on Big Brother. I'm sure he was just engaging them in a conversation and asking them about their goals and ambitions, as any gentleman would.

Comeback Kids

So it wasn't enough that Michael Schumacher came out of retirement, it now appears that Patrick Vieira maybe joining Arsenal on a pay as you play deal.

I don't know what to say about this one, and to be fair I'm not too inclined to believe this story. Its not like I don't think its a good deal - he'll cost Arsenal next to nothing and his experience will be valuable, especially now that Toure has left. But its just doesn't seem like something Wenger would do.

And bringing him will not be problem free.

1. Gilberto is going run after Wenger with an axe

Wenger let Gilberto go on the grounds that he was passed his best and his experience wasn't needed. Vieira can hardly walk so I'm not sure how he can justify bringing him back.

2. Bye Bye Cesc

Even if Wenger retains Fabregas as captain, there's no doubt that Vieira will be calling the shots and this may not go down too well with Fabregas. Also, Wenger will for once have to admit that he was wrong in saying that 'Arsenal have plenty of leaders on the ground,' if that was the case there would be no point in bringing back the giant, hobbling hack-job.

3. Walcott loses ball, my dead grandmother gets the ball, jogs past Vieira and Silvestre and SCORES!

Vieira can't run. Silvestre is slow. Gallas cries and whines. A lot. Senderos thinks in 5 different languages before doing anything, by the time he's finished thinking the ball's in the back of the net. Thomas Vermicelli is Dutch (okay so maybe that's not always a bad thing, but one can't expect him to fit in the team right away).

We need some really solid players in defence, and I don't want Vieira detracting us from buying a quality defensive midfielder as well as another defender (or two).


But man, its going to be fantastic to see Vieira back. Though I'd prefer if he was brought back as a defensive coach, or cheerleader, or just to eat pizza on the bench during a Manure game.

One last thought, if Arsenal sell Eboue for around 7 million Pounds they'll have 46 million in the kitty; Sergio Aguero anyone?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Why Is International Cricket Divided Into The Haves And Have-Nots? And Is It A Good Thing?

About a month back, in response to suggestions that there was a "big four" in international cricket (Australia, India, England, South Africa), I undertook a very crude statistical analysis of whether or not there is an "elite" in cricket with respect to scheduling (you can click here to read the piece). The basic and tentative results of that analysis was that yes, there is an elite in cricket with respect to schedules, but it is not the big four but the big two (Australia and India). At the other end of the spectrum, I found that Pakistan and Sri Lanka were the teams most likely to be screwed as far as the "big" teams of international cricket are concerned.

In this post, I would like to deal with some of the common justifications given for this imbalance, and also tackle whether or not these are fair and valid justifications.

1. Security

It will strike many observers as unsurprising that Pakistan and Sri Lanka lead the teams most bereft of cricket against other top-class teams. After all, these are the two countries that have suffered the most domestic political violence amongst the international sides. The logic goes thusly: since teams will be reluctant to tour Pakistan and Sri Lanka, they will end up playing less cricket than everyone else. In other words, it's not a scheduling issue, it's a security issue.

This explanation accounts for part of Pakistan's light schedule but doesn't go as good a job of explaining Sri Lanka's case. Even in Pakistan's case, both South Africa and England have toured the country after 9/11, and played test series there. The only team to unambiguously cancel their series in Pakistan has been Australia (in 2002, the series was moved to Sharjah and Colombo; in 2008 it was basically canceled). And despite India's canceling their tour to Pakistan recently, it doesn't make that much of a difference to the actual numbers since India and Pakistan had played each other so much anyway.

In Sri Lanka's case, the explanation is even less valid. It was only in the 1990s that teams really expressed reluctance to tour Sri Lanka; since then, all teams have played regularly in Sri Lanka (though not very much). The security logic also doesn't go a good job of explaining why New Zealand, for instance, has played only seven tests each against India and the West Indies since the beginning of this decade.

In short, the security explanation, while the most obvious, is not actually particularly compelling when explaining the discrepancy between the Pakistan/SL pairing and the Aus/Ind pairing.

2. Attractive talent/money

The attractive talent explanation holds that teams with more marketable superstars will necessarily play more cricket than everyone else, and teams with fewer superstars will not. This is because boards want to recoup as much money as possible with television rights and attendance fees, and the best way to do that is ensure the public will be interested in the product, and in turn the best way to do that is to have superstars playing.

This argument is a fairly solid explanation for the scheduling of international cricket. As said earlier, the most biased in terms of scheduling have been Australia and India, and these two teams have had the most superstars within their ranks through this decade. Australia have been the best team in the world by some distance for a long time (until very recently), and even though India has only sporadically challenged for top-team status in international cricket, they have had many marketable superstars (Sachin, Dravid, Ganguly, Sehwag, Yuvraj to name just five).

The attractive-talent explanation also does a good job of explaining Sri Lanka's and Pakistan's predicament. Once Wasim and Waqar retired in 2003, Pakistan hasn't had an attractive or big-name team (Shoaib could have taken their place, but he's basically thrown away his career). Sri Lanka, despite being an excellent team, have been short on charisma, with the exception of Murali and Sangakkara. This argument also accounts for New Zealand's relative deprivation of big-boys cricket; if you take out their rivalry-induced schedule against Australia, they would be right there with Sri Lanka and Pakistan at the back of the bus, not a surprising result when you consider that they're one of the most boring/workmanlike teams around.

3. Quality of cricket/closeness of series

Number three is a close cousin of number two. While number two was about individual talent, number three is about collective talent. By this logic, teams want to schedule cricket against the best teams, irrespective of who they are, because the best teams ensure good cricket is played out there on the pitch, which is what everyone wants to see.

This explanation is almost completely belied by the evidence. For one thing, South Africa has been for large parts of this decade either the best or the second best team in the world, and yet its schedule shows very little bias (click here to see a team-by-team breakdown of their schedule). India, which has been more a middle-of-the-pack team for large parts of this decade, shows a lot of bias in its scheduling. Moreover, West Indies, by almost all accounts the worst "big" team of the decade, actually show remarkable amounts of bias in their scheduling too -- for some reason, teams continue to play them a lot despite them sucking. This explanation also cannot account for Sri Lanka's sad state; they've been as good or better than India since 2000, but they play much less cricket against the big boys (India, England, South Africa, Australia). In short, the "best teams play the most cricket" thesis is simply wrong.

4. Incompetence of boards

This explanation basically holds that teams with the worst-run boards will have the least big-team cricket, because (a) no one from other boards wants to deal with these fools and/or (b) these boards are incapable of fighting for their teams at scheduling meetings because they're not taken seriously.

In Pakistan's case, I feel this argument is extremely valid. This is made clear by the recently released future tours program, in which Pakistan plays such little cricket it's actually ridiculous. We play fewer tests than everyone but Bangladesh and fewer ODIs than everyone but Bangladesh. It's not close either, and if you don't believe me, click here for a nice table showing the extent to which we've been screwed. Or rather screwed ourselves. I have no doubt that this is in large part due to the sheer incompetence of Ejaz Butt and his cronies, who -- lest anyone thought such an eventuality impossible -- is proving a worse chairman than Nasim Ashraf.

However, as a general explanation, the incompetence explanation is quite weak, because the Windies have had a fairly dysfunctional board for a long time too, and yet play loads of important cricket. By contrast, New Zealand have a pretty well-run and well-organized board, and they're still cast aside by the wider cricketing world. In short, while it may well explain one case fairly well, we can't regard this is as a good theory because it does a terrible job of explaining the other cases.

Before closing, I want to make a general point. The fact that scheduling is left to the discretion of individual boards is a unique phenomenon in international team sports; off the top of my head, I can't think of another sport where the teams get to decide who they want to play and when. By chasing money and the short-run benefits of attractive cricket, boards around the world are ensuring that slowly but surely cricket dies. What do you think would happen to football in Spain if Real Madrid and Barcelona decided that they were going to play each other more than they would against everyone else? Disaster, that's what.

It also speaks to a breathtaking arrogance, whereby some boards and teams think they're "more deserving" of cricket against certain teams than others are. It ensures more divisions and conflicts amongst the international boards, at a time when boards need to band together more than ever before. And it leads to lopsided results and record books; Younis Khan and Andrew Strauss have basically played the same number of tests despite Younis breaking into international cricket a full four years before Strauss.

The ICC, if it had any brains or balls, would issue standardized series for everyone -- if Australia want to play five tests against England because of their historical rivalry, then they have to play five against everyone else too. Cricket should follow the way football teams play routinized schedules, before the division of haves and have-nots does any more damage.

Annals Of Right-Wing Punditry

Two videos to brighten up your day. The first is Bill O'Reilly claiming that Canada's life expectancy is greater than America's because, well, America has more people.

Paul Krugman, upon hearing this, says he needs a drink.

Moving along, please watch Michelle Malkin's interview with Matt Lauer. There really are no words to describe this performance so I won't even try. My favorite bit was right at the end, where she ends her little speech with this ridiculously smug smile. Ugh.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Farewell and an Apology

Due to a variety of professional obligations, I regret to say that I will no longer be blogging at Five Rupees. I have always tried (how successful I have been is open to debate) to blog to the best of my ability. I will no longer be able to devote the time to maintain an acceptable quantity and quality of blogging.

I have been very protective of my identity while blogging. Because of that, in the past, I have revealed parts of my life on this blog that are simply untrue. Given I am already an anonymous blogger, this was more than dishonest, it was needless. I apologize for this. Five Rupees values its honest and accountable relationship with its readers, and does not wish in any way to jeopardize the trust you have in us. For those words to have any weight this apology is necessary.

Lastly, I would like to thank Ahsan, AKS and NB for giving me an opportunity to blog here. I am even more thankful to the spirited, intelligent and engaged readers who have truly made blogging at Five Rupees such a pleasure

Will Anyone Care If The New York Times Never Files A Foreign Affairs Story?

There's been a lot of noise in the last few months about the impact of the internet on the future of journalism. The basic point that has been made is that in this new-age digital environment, newspapers and "old" media can't survive, because their content is distributed for free. They pay a lot for the production of information (i.e. journalists' salaries, expenses and so on) and get nothing for it. Ergo, they're going out of business, so much so that there is a website that chronicles these stories at the convenient location of Seriously.

One issue that comes up is a complaint by journalists that blogs and the wider internet world are helping put newspapers out of business, but are going to regret the day when newspapers aren't around to do their work for them. And to an extent, that's true. Newspapers do fulfill an incredibly important role -- especially national newspapers. But I think journalists overstate the extent to which this will matter.

Consider that self-serving hand-wringing from establishment media outlets usually centers on the high cost of gathering news abroad. We are told it is not cheap to send correspondents to Sarajevo or Baghdad or Shanghai or whatever. Ok, I accept that. But I don't think I care. In particular, as someone who reads a lot of news from various sources, I can't say I will especially miss their foreign news coverage were it to disappear tomorrow. On the issue of Pakistan, which I know best but I'm sure there are other cases, I usually end up shaking my head at how wrong and ill-informed these reports really are.

Why do I know they're wrong and ill-informed? Because I read the Pakistani press, which if you think about it, might be a better source of information on Pakistan than the NYT. Do you see where I'm getting here? Why should I have the NYT or CNN tell me what's going on in Bosnia or Pakistan or India or Singapore or Iceland or wherever? I can just read newspapers and blogs from Bosnia, Pakistan, India, Singapore, Iceland or wherever.

Look, I love journalists. I think they play an important role in having a well-informed public. But to be honest, it's not as if we're never treated to serious dereliction of duties from them. And it's not as if they're not wrong an awful lot. And they really tend to inflate their self-worth; they're not really as important as they think they are. As long as the countries I care about have a viable national press (and no one seems to be suggesting the death of journalism to that great an extent), I think I'll be ok.

What do you guys think? Am I being too flippant about the demise of foreign-based journalism?

Monday, July 27, 2009

I Can't Promise This Will Be My Last Sarah Palin Post

You know what the world really needs? A Palinese-English translator. Google, get on it.

In the winter time it's the frozen road that is competing with the view of ice fogged frigid beauty, the cold though, doesn't it split the Cheechakos from the Sourdoughs?

Source: Gawker

Welcome (Updated Below)

Photo credit: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty

Please allow me to dedicate this song to the newest member of the Blaugrana:

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Supreme Court versus Pervez Musharraf

A situation many had feared, some had hoped for but no one is indifferent to has come to pass. The Supreme Court will rule on the legality of Pervez Musharraf's imposition of the Emergency on November 3, 2007. There is absolutely no doubt that Musharraf violated the Constitution on that day (and many other days besides). Opponents of Musharraf and military rule in general would argue that a Supreme Court verdict against Musharraf would be a positive step for Pakistan, that the country would finally be holding past rulers responsible for their sins and upholding the Constitution. I'm agnostic on that point. For now, I'm more interested in how political forces may be realigned in the short- to medium-term future in light of the Supreme Court's decison to hear the case and its likely verdict declaring Musharraf's actions unconstitutional.

The President and the Prime Minister

It's pretty well established that PM Gillani does not want to kowtow to Zardari. There are also rumours of a rift between Gillani and Interior Minister Rehman Malik, a key Zardari ally. If the Supreme Court declares Musharraf's November 3 PCO illegal, his subsequent actions, most prominent of which is the NRO, would cease to be the law of the land. This, to put it mildly, would not please Zardari. It is not outlandish to expect that Gillani will come down on the Supreme Court's side, although he would be smart to find a way to hedge his bets.

Gillani is said to have played a key role in the return of Iftikhar Chaudhry and the other PCO judges, so one should not dismiss his importance in the upcoming saga. But, when weak prime ministers have tried to challenge their powerful overlords, the results have not been pretty. Mohammed Junejo never revolted against General Zia but even his mild rebellions sealed his fate. And if the PPP MNAs are forced to choose between Zardari and Gillani, I would expect them to support the President, even if their sympathies lie with the PM. If this comes to pass, the PML-N will certainly welcome Gillani.

For Zardari, the situation is even more complicated. When the judges were restored many of us suspected a back-room deal had been hashed out whereby the NRO would not be questioned. Zardari should have realized that Iftikhar Chaudhry would always be a wild card in any such deal. Once he was restored, there was very little incentive for Chaudhry to abide by any such deal. It will be politically impossible for Zardari to pack up the court, giving Chaudhry free reign to pass judgement on whatever he pleases. The situation is terrible for Zardari and he may have only one lifeline. Which brings us to...

The Army

Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Pervez Kayani's role in the return of the judges is said to have to been key. He, in his capacity as head of the ISI, was also part of the deal that brought Benazir back to Pakistan. Very little is known about Kayani's political implications but he seems to value stability above all else. Stability, in this case, would mean the continuation of the status quo. It is too soon for the army to intervene directly but they will be maneovering behind the scenes. They are also Zardari's best bet for this headache to disappear.

There have also been conflicting roles about the army's view of Musharraf. This is a no-brainer for me. Even if the army disapproves of Musharraf's action and would like to see him punished, his trial would set a precedent that the army can be held accountable for its actions. I don't see that hapenning. As a compromise, I can see the army allowing the Supreme Court to declare the PCO unconstitutional but refusing to concede to a trial for Musharraf. This is where Zardari can play his role by pardoning Musharraf, and leaving the Supreme Court without a constitutional basis on which to put Musharraf on trial.


Nawaz Sharif must be delighted right now. He wanted the judges restored. They were restored. He wanted his disqualification from electoral office removed. It was removed. He wanted Musharraf to be put on trial. The Supreme Court is trying to do that too. I see this as a win-win situation for him. If Musharraf is tried, he can claim the credit. If a deal is hashed out, Nawaz Sharif can play the martyr and say he was folied by the 'establishement'. Imagine that. Nawaz Sharif positioning himself as the anti-establishment candidate. Either way, he will remain the most popular political figure in the country.

The Supreme Court

No matter what happens with Musharraf, the Supreme Court has shown that they will be a thorn in Zardari's side. Since I don't believe Musharraf will be tried, the SC will continually prick Zardari on issues like the carbon tax rather than bleeding him to death with one huge judgement. For the first time in Pakistan's history, the judiciary is a key political players. I have often voiced disagreement with their tactics but I'm also glad that an antagonistic judiciary will be around to keep Zardari's dictatorial tendencies in check.

Pervez Musharraf

Musharraf is currently in London. He should stay there. If he has an itch to travel, there is plenty of family in the US to welcome him. If the winter's get too harsh, I've heard Australia is lovely at that time of the year.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Weighing The Summer Transfers: Will Real Dethrone Barca?

Well, it's been quite a summer. Real Madrid have spent an ungodly 214 million Euros. So yeah, I think they were slightly affected by that 6-2 shellacking at the Bernabeu in May.

To be honest though (and I say this fully aware that this could come back to bite me in the ass), I'm really not worried. Well, let me qualify that. Kaka worries me. Albiol is worthy of respect. But Cristiano Ronaldo and Benzema? Not so much. Let me explain why.

On Ronaldo, I know I'm going to be accused of irrational Messi-induced bias, but I really don't think he's one of the world's five best players. I feel safe in saying that were I to start a team from scratch today, I would take each of Messi, Iniesta, Kaka, Essien, and Gerrard above him. I know some of our readers will disagree (vehemently) but that's just the way I feel. For all the talk about how he's a complete player, he is actually incapable of doing two things every "complete" player does easily: make a simple pass if it's the right thing to do, and track back. The former will not be a massive problem at Real because he will play as a forward. The latter will be because, last I checked, Real's central midfield is still decidedly average by top-European-club standards, and none of the strike-force (including Kaka) are going to track back. This is a problem because in Spain, possession is more valuable and at a greater premium, so you have to work harder to get it back. If you don't, you can be in trouble.

More to the point, I think Ronaldo is easily -- easily -- the most selfish player I've ever seen. This may have been okay back at Old Trafford where the whole world revolved around him and his wishes. The way Sir Alex Ferguson played guys like Park (!) in big games, the way Rooney, the poor sod, basically played as a wing back in away games in Europe, the formation, everything.

This, lest you be under any misconceptions, will not be the case at Real, where he will be only one of several massive egos. Again, I know this could come back to bite me in the ass, but I was really, really glad when Real signed him, because I figured that's the best and easiest chance for dressing room disaster. You think guys like Raul and Kaka and will be as deferential? Fat chance. Good luck to Pellegrini, who by all accounts is a good man, but will have his work cut out. In sum, I don't really fear Ronaldo; I think United having a good season this year (which I also predict) will puncture this Ronaldo myth that's been built up over the last couple of years.

As for Benzema, I haven't seen too much of him, but whatever I have seen, I've been impressed by. But then again, I could have said the same thing about Higuain! I mean, does this purchase make any sense? I almost think it was just to spite Barca, who wanted the Frenchman to replace Eto'o (more on that in a minute). So while I think Benzema is a good player and could possibly becme great, I don't see the value he adds to Real, unless they're planning on getting rid of Higuain (which would be very stupid).

So that's my basic synopsis of Real's spending: kudos on the Kaka purchase, and a big fat we'll-see on everything else. They will be better in May 2010 than they were in May 2009. But with the number of massive changes in their set-up, I'm not so sure they will be better from August to December 2009 than they were in the middle of last season, when they won 18 out of 19 games and kept the pressure on Barca. If they start off slow as they try to figure things out, they could end up dropping too many points for it to matter anyway (though titles are never won before Christmas, they can damn well be lost).

As for Barca, well, it's been a quiet transfer season, has it not? They signed Maxwell (a defender from Inter) and have probably (though not confirmed) pulled off Ibra-for-Eto'o-plus-lots-of-money, which is probably too much, but then again, the way City and Real have inflated prices, and the eagerness with which Pep wants to see the back of Eto'o, you do what you have to. In a perfect world, Barca would have signed David Villa (who wanted to come, and who would have been a better fit from a stylistic standpoint), but Valencia were being dicks about it, so whatever. The upside of Ibra is that he gives Barca a Plan B -- the absence of which almost undid them against Chelsea, and did cause them to lose to United two years ago. When you combine this with the signing of Brazilian striker from Keirrison (who will be on loan this year), as well as the ascension of Gai Assulin from the youth ranks this year (ultra-talented product whose Youtube videos you should really check out), I think Barca will be ok up front, despite the departure of La Liga top scorer over the last five years (not to mention a goal scorer in two Champions League finals).

The problem, as I see it, will be in central midfield. With the African Cup of Nations in the middle of the season, Keita and Yaya Toure will be gone for a significant portion of the season. And with Iniesta and Xavi basically having played football for two straight years without a break, Barca's midfield is an accident waiting to happen. If one of Xavi or Iniesta suffer an injury then what, pray tell, are Barca supposed to do? This is why the failed bid for Ribery is such a big deal -- more than all this Eto'o/Villa/Ibra nonsense, Ribery was the real target this summer. He could have played in the midfield with those two, substituted one of them, and played in Henry's position too, since the latter is getting up there in age. As it stands, the midfield situation is very dicey. Incidentally, Mascherano still remains a possibility, and were he to hop over, I'd feel a lot more comfortable.

Actually, one thing that Pep could (but won't) do to lessen the load on the team is play a 4-4-1-1, with Messi in the hole just behind Ibra, and given room to float. Pep could play Yaya Toure, Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta in a quasi-diamond, giving them less area to cover. This will also have the added benefit of moving Henry to the bench, because I don't think he can play 40 games again this year. I don't think Pep will actually do this, but it might be worth a thought.

So with all that said, I would say Barca still start the season as favorites, as long as they stay healthy. In Europe, as always, anything can happen. In fact, I predict that Real will actually do better in Europe than in Spain -- I don't know why, I just have a feeling. But, as a Barca fan, would anything be sweeter than winning the Champions League again? You know where the final is next year, right?

Prediction time.

Top five in La Liga: Barca, Sevilla, Real, Villareal, Atletico
Copa del Rey: Who the hell knows?
Champions League: Chelsea
Number of meltdowns in Real dressing room: 4
Number of times Mourinho asks himself why he always ends up with headcases as center-forwards: 17
Number of times the W asks "where's Guardiola?" when I'm watching Barca on the weekend: 32
Number of times I roll my eyes at aforementioned question: 32
Number of times I doubt my sexuality when I see Messi: 412

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Poll Post

You can comment on this week's poll here, if you so desire.

Remember, I'm not asking whose show is funnier. I'm simply asking which person is funnier. There's a distinction there.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Midweek Links

Too tired to write a preamble

Who knew Jeffrey Goldberg has such a wonderful sense of humour?

The News continues its tradition of drug-induced editorials. The opening sentence is classic.

ABC will be auctioning off some of the props from Lost. Since we strive to entertain you guys on a daily basis, would our readers mind setting up a fund and buying me Mr Eko's Jesus stick?

The Daily Telegraph uses the Cyber Crime Bill as a way to tell Zardari jokes.

The New Republic grades Tom-Friedman's joke-telling abilities.

Pakistani newspapers love their awful puns:

PM re-hires Mr Lone, who is no longer alone

Were you guys aware that Pearl Jam still exists? And they don't suck? And they sing happy songs?

What Are Pakistan's Nuclear Weapons For? (Updated Below)

I can safely predict that there will be quite a bit of buzz generated by this story in today's NYT, where a bunch of military and ISI officials basically tell the Americans that the Afghanistan surge isn't a particularly sound idea. The message from the military establishment is: look, a surge there will lead to more trouble near the Balochistan border, and we're not going to send troops there to police the Taliban and their local affiliates because we're not moving a single soldier from the Indian border -- enough already.

Now, there are a number of points and questions that immediately come to mind here. Let me go through them one by one.

1. The Afghanistan surge could very well be a bad idea

Just because the ISI and Pakistan military say something, doesn't necessarily make it wrong. In this instance, it might be wise to consider the wider strategic implications of President Obama and his decision to basically bet his presidency on Afghanistan. As Stephen Walt said the other day, it is quite curious how drastically the American mission has changed from "targeting al-Qaeda and its leadership" to "nation-building in Afghanistan and defeating the Taliban". In any event, it's unclear to me what exactly the job additional troops are supposed to do. I have to tell you, I've been reading a lot on insurgencies and civil wars and guerrilla conflicts for my dissertation, and the more I read, the more I question what exactly the U.S. is trying to do in Afghanistan.

2. How deliberately managed does a leak have to be before the NYT tells its readers so?

The most shocking thing about the article for me was not the actual revelations contained therein, but the process by which those revelations were made. This is how the article itself describes it:

Pakistan’s critical assessment was provided as the Obama administration’s special envoy for the region, Richard C. Holbrooke, arrived in Pakistan on Tuesday night.

The country’s perspective was given in a nearly two-hour briefing on Friday for The New York Times by senior analysts and officials of Pakistan’s main spy service, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence. They spoke on the condition of anonymity in keeping with the agency’s policy. The main themes of the briefing were echoed in conversations with several military officers over the past few days.

One of the first briefing slides read, in part: “The surge in Afghanistan will further reinforce the perception of a foreign occupation of Afghanistan. It will result in more civilian casualties; further alienate local population. Thus more local resistance to foreign troops.”

Note three points: one, this is right before Richard Holbrooke's visit to Pakistan and follows closely Hillary Clinton's visit to India. Two, the ISI organized a bloody briefing for the NYT. Three, they used Power Point ("one of the first briefing slides") -- this instantly makes me respect them more. I really didn't think they had it in them. Well done, guys. Well done.

Anyway, this is so clearly a deliberate and manipulated leak that I don't even know what to say. And the NYT has done the ISI a nice little favor by dutifully publishing it on the front page of the most famous newspaper in the world.

3. What are Pakistan's nuclear weapons for?

Everything I have ever read within the fields of international relations and security studies suggests that the possession of nuclear weapons guarantees a state's core interests. There is a quite a bit of disagreement on what else nuclear weapons guarantee, but this much is pretty much a consensus: a rival state will not launch an invasion of your homeland as long as you have nuclear weapons. The reason is simple: doing so risks nuclear annihilation for the potential invader.

With that in mind, I have to ask: what are Pakistan's nuclear weapons for? It is clear that even in times of relative calm (such as the present, as opposed to the period immediately following the Mumbai 26/11 attacks or the parliament attack in December 2001), Pakistan's military establishment is wary of thinning the military presence on the Indian border even slightly. Again, I am not asking why Pakistan doesn't completely demilitarize its border -- that's obviously out of the question.

But what exactly was the point of the costs of international sanctions, pariah status, and everything else attendant with testing nuclear weapons, when Pakistan refuses to trust the very core purpose they are supposed to fulfill? If Pakistan treats its eastern border as so at risk that it deems it completely out of the question to scale back its presence, then it is basically acting as if it doesn't possess nuclear weapons, correct? Or am I missing something?

I'm not trying to be snarky here. I'm genuinely curious: what are Pakistan's nuclear weapons for?

UPDATE: Before the jokers amongst you start giving me your one-liners, please note responses such as "to guarantee A.Q. Khan and his family an untold fortune" and "to scare the shit out of the rest of the world" won't be appreciated.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The PPP's Nepotism Problem Goes Global

You know that legacy politics in Pakistan is a big deal when even the Canadians (I think, or maybe French) are making fun of it. The video isn't all that funny, I just think it's interesting how the rest of the world is laughing at us.

Has The Phrase "Rolling Over In His Grave" Even Been More Appropriate?

Oh, Kurt. I wish you were here. I really, really do.

The 30 seconds between the 2:15 mark and the 2:45 mark may just have been the greatest of my life.

(Via Sullivan)

Excerpt Of The Day

You've got to love those Nazis. This passage is from Stathis Kalyvas' The Logic of Violence in Civil War. In this instance, he is discussing the perils of thinking that you will escape violence in a civil war simply because you are ideologically/ethnically/religiously affiliated with the people in control in your area.
Consider the following example from occupied Italy in 1944: a man from Neviano Arduini, a province of Parma, was waiting for the Germans at his front door. "He was a Fascist, so he welcomed them, when he saw them. They ordered him to show his documents, he got in and came out with his identity card in one hand. He was hardly out, when he was shot in the head and killed. Just so, in front of his children. Then they ordered his wife to cook some eggs and ate them, right there, with the corpse lying on the ground" (Minardi 2002: 6).

Monday, July 20, 2009

This May Be the Funniest Thing I've Read All Week

Granted, the week just began. But I doubt there will be anything as hilarious as Vanity Fair copy-editing Sarah Palin's resignation speech. Consider this the death blow that finishes off the work of their stabbing last month.

The Missing Ingredient

Here's something I wrote at the conclusion of the second test between Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It's about the geographical origins of our players and the way it typifies their style.

Back when I was a child, I was subjected to atrocious PTV coverage of cricket with godawful commentary and even worse ads. One of the ads was by Movenpick, which tried to convince us that the ingredients for its ice-cream came from all over the world: that the chocolate in its chocolate ice cream came from Switzerland and that the pistachios in its pistachio ice cream came from Italy, even though I knew for a fact it was just a product of some nutter in his basement, using the same dodgy syrups that gola-ganda wallahs use.

It later struck me that the same dynamic which purportedly underpinned Movenpick’s ice-cream was reflected in the composition of the Pakistan cricket team: geographical specialty. In Pakistan, there are three basic repositories of cricketers: Karachi, Lahore, and Everywhere Else. And with only a few exceptions, players from each display similar tendencies and traits.

Cricketers from Karachi are street-fighters. The get in your face, and they don’t take nonsense from anyone. They are always up for a mid-pitch chat and are usually the mentally strongest of Pakistani cricketers. These characteristics are born of the environment which they grow up in – an unforgiving and grim city, the country’s capital of commerce and business and industry, a hodgepodge of ethnic and sectarian groups living side by side. In such surroundings, only the strong (and cunning) survive. You figure out unconventional ways to get ahead, take shortcuts, and work hard. There’s nothing pretty about Karachi – a concrete jungle with few sights of natural or constructed beauty – and there’s very little that’s pretty about Karachi’s cricketers. But similar to the relationship between the city and the country at large, Pakistani cricket teams have historically relied heavily on Karachiites, from Hanif Mohammad to Javed Miandad to Rashid Latif to MoinKhan, because these are the people who provide the backbone and fight.

Cricketers from Lahore too betray their origins. Lahore is a city of gardens and basant, of fun and frolicking, of grand mosques and red brick architecture. It is, in short, a classical and beautiful city. The cricketers it produces mirror these characteristics. They tend to be attractive in their play, technically correct, and easy on the eye. Think of Wasim Akram in full flow, or a Mohammad Yousuf cover drive, or Imran Khan’s wind-up just before he bowled (and please save the emails; Imran Khan may be a Pashtun, but his cricketing education took place in Lahore, at Aitchison). Cricketers from Lahore, as well as other big cities in Punjab similar in their DNA to Lahore such as Multan (think Inzamam) and Sialkot (think Zaheer Abbas), have generally provided the flair for the national team.

Finally, there’s Everywhere Else. Little can definitively be said about Everywhere Else, for the region stretches from the Hindu Kush to the Arabian Sea, from the Durand Line to Rajhastan. But because cricketers from Everywhere Else tend to come from more obscure backgrounds, they have to do more to be noticed. To that end, they tend to one thing well, and nothing else, because it is that one thing that will stand out at the various camps and trials from which Pakistani talent is plucked. Waqar Younis (Burewala) or Mohammad Asif (Sheikhupura) show this to be true: enormously talented with the ball with almost unnatural gifts (Waqar’s pace and direction, Asif’s control and seam movement), but like all other Everywhere Elsers, these two – at least at the beginning of their careers – were incapable of doing anything else. No matter, because Everywhere Elsers fulfill the all-important role of outrageously talented specialists.

Of course, these are gross generalizations, and there are always exceptions. Pakistan’s most successful opening partnership ever shows the flip side of these characterizations. There have been few more languid and beautiful players in Pakistan’s history than Saeed Anwar, who batted like a typical Lahori, especially when playing through the off-side. Saeed, as we well know, was born and bred in Karachi. By the same token, Aamir Sohail was an extremely strong and punchy individual, street smart to a fault, and combative in almost everything he did. He, of course, is a Lahori through and through. In general, however, the point stands: Karachiites provide the fight, big city Punjabis the flair, and the Everywhere Elsers fill in the gaps.

This gets us to a diagnosis. Pakistan’s second innings in the second test against Sri Lanka spoke volumes. The one player to provide the most fight was, quite naturally, Fawad Alam. And where is he from? Karachi, of course. Did Fawad and his ungainly shuffle make anyone forget about Lara or Kanhai or Gower? No. But, pardon the expression, he showed balls – Karachi balls. No one else did, except for perhaps Younis (who showed with his dismissal that, owing to his originating from a different planet, he defies such geographic characterizations).

Fawad’s role speaks to a larger problem: for quite a while, the hardnosed Karachiite role in the national side has been completely vacant. There is no one that opposition teams hate playing against, no one to rile them up, no one to get in their faces with constant chatter and a game to back it up. Asim Kamal had the mental fortitude and the talent but lacked the opportunities, Faisal Iqbal had the motor mouth and the opportunities but lacked the ability, and Shahid Afridi – well, aside from his superlative performances in the T20 World Cup, he has wasted his quite considerable talents; if anything, his performances against South Africa and Sri Lanka showed us what could have been for the last decade. To get back amongst the elite in international cricket’s small fraternity, Pakistan needs more Fawad Alams. Put differently, it needs more Karachiites.

Fortunately, the new chairman of selectors is Iqbal Qasim, himself from the port city. If ever there was a time for the chairman to play regional favorites, now is the time. For Pakistan’s test team, there really is nowhere else to go but up.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

YouTube of the Day

If you're out on the streets battling KESC, you might want to recruit John McEnroe, Leander Paes and Robert Kendrick.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Links For The Weekend

It's been a long time since I had a links post. Let's get right into it.

This was a really interesting article in the Washington Post a few days ago on the crazy hours that White House staffers keep. Whatever we may say about leaders and politicians, one thing we should note is that politics is really, really hard. I know I can't function very well if I get less than seven hours of sleep two nights in a row. You read this piece and I guarantee you'll have a greater appreciation for what these people do. Doesn't mean you have to like them or support their policies, mind.

Courtesy reader Karachi Khatmal in comments, this has to be the most amazing thing ever. It's a bunch of clips from Barack Obama's book (the audio version). Curse words never sounded more awesome. Please check it out.

According to Hamas, Israel is supplying the Gaza strip with chewing gum that boosts sex drive, in order to corrupt Palestinian youth.

I had a post planned on this whole abolition-of-local-government issue, but then I got lazy/sidetracked. I will instead outsource it to Saesneg and Mosharraf. Make sure to read the comment of one Al Kazan on Mosharraf's piece.

Technological glitch + this story = too much irony for any one person to handle.

Courtesy Naqiya, check out this brilliant segment featuring Rachel Maddow and Pat Buchanan. Classic stuff, really.

A great Joy-of-Six piece in the Guardian, featuring great team goals. Some fantastic clips there, and make sure to check out some of the comments too. Somewhat inexplicably, the list featured neither this Argentina goal from the 2006 World Cup...

...nor this Barcelona goal against Liverpool. Barca basically kept the ball for a full four minutes before Overmars was released.

A great little passage from Milan Kundera, probably my favorite fiction writer, on history/historiography. On the basis of this, he would make an excellent interpretivist.

Glenn Greenwald has an excellent piece on the hypocrisy of the mainstream media in their celebrations and commemorations of Walter Cronkite's life.

Many of you might have already seen this, but in case you haven't, here's a Hillary Clinton interview with Dawn right before her India trip. What's with Dawn and these major interviews? Dial it back a notch, will you guys?

Courtesy Farooq, please check out the only two people quoted in this Times of India article on our government's Cyber Crime Act. This can only mean one thing: Fatima Bhutto is in love with me, wanted to see our names together, and arranged for this by calling up her peeps at the ToI. Listen up, Fatima: I'm spoken for, ok? Just back off already.

What the hell is an e-cigarette? More importantly, who in their right mind will ever say the following: "You know, I've just had two chicken tikkas from BBQ Tonite with 3 parathas. You know what will really polish this meal off the right way? No, no, not a Benson. An e-cigarette." By the way, for the kids out there, smoking is bad. Don't do it. For the adults out there, yes, I know: I shouldn't lie to kids.

Those Obama-isn't-an-American-citizen rumors from the nutjob right have really stepped up now. A soldier to be deployed to Afghanistan refused to go, on account of the "fact" that Obama is not his commander in chief, since he's not President, since he's not American. Please read this World Net Daily (fringe right-wingers) article and note (a) the triumphant tone, and (b) the creepy advertisements.

An interesting poll: 37% of Indians expect Asif Zardari to do the right thing in world affairs. Is it a good or bad thing that he inspires greater confidence in India than in Pakistan?

Alright, back to work for me. Have a good weekend guys.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Which Novels Would You Kick Out of the Literary Canon

Noah Millman at The American Scene has an interesting twist on the usual desert island question. He asks which books you would vote off a desert island. The rules are quite simple. The novels should be generally well-regarded and should not be a minor work by a major novelist. So, while Midnight's Children would be eligible, The Moor's Last Sigh would not.

Here's my list:

1: James Joyce- Ulysses

I am not including what is widely considered to be the greatest novel ever just to be a contrarian. I have genuine difficulty getting past the first 50 pages and I must have made at least half-a-dozen attempts. I even took a class on Ulysses at college but dropped it after a week.

I'm a huge comic-book fan and when the Watchmen movie came out a lot of friends borrowed my copy. Most came away disappointed. I would explain to them that to appreciate Watchmen they needed a solid grounding in superhero comics, needed to understand just how much the quality had dropped by the 1980s and understand the conventions of the genre. Watchmen was an act of revolt against superhero comic strictures and to make that the first comic you read is akin to trying to make sense of the French Revolution without knowing anything that came before it.

Fans of Joyce have made a similar argument about Ulysses. They argue that Ulysses was a successful to redefine the novel and throw off its shackles. I even read a piece calling it (and this was meant as praise) an act of terrorism against the novel. If that is the best case that can be made for Ulysses, I just don't buy it. Superhero comics needed to be reinvented in the 1980s, the novel was doing just fine in the 1930s.

I'm humble enough to admit that the fault must lie in me. I may even attempt to read Ulysses some time in the future and hope I have become smart enough to get it. Until then, I'm chucking it in the ocean. I might add that the only reason One Hundred Years of Solitutde isn't on the list is because I have exactly the same objections to it as I do to Ulysses.

2: Ayn Rand- Atlas Shrugged

I doubt this will be a controversial choice. Very few people above the age of 16 (other than right-wingers with the mental faculties of a 16-year-old) defend the literary merit of Rand's novels. She has only two stock characters: strawmen and the caricatures who take them apart. John Galt may be the worst example of this. His speechifying bears no relation to language as spoken by human beings. Plot exists only to further her political propoganda. instead of using characters towards whom she is unsympathetic to further our understanding of human impulses and emotions, she merely categorizes them as The Looters and is done explaining their motivations.

3: Jack Kerouac - On the Road

As the legend goes, Kerouac banged out the novel in a six-day frenzy. It shows. There are passages of lyrical genius, but one has to wade through too much pointless dreck to make it worthwhile. There really isn't much to say about On the Road - which in itself is a indication of how ordainary it is. On the Road has often been compared to improvisitional jazz, something else I that sounds much better in theory than practise.

4: F. Scott Fitzgerald - The Great Gatsby

I actually quite like this short novel but am including it on the list because it is vastly overrated. The plot wouldn't be out of place in a soap opera and the character's actions seem driven by plot needs. Yet, the final sentence ("So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past) is so perfect it lends what came before it a gravitas it doesn't deserve. Never before had such brilliant writing been wasted on a story so thin and unsatisfying.

5: Herman Mellville - Moby Dick

If you just removed all the dull ocean and whaling tutorials, there's a decent adevnture story hiding in there somewhere. Good luck finding it though.

Over to you guys. Make your lists in the comments and explain why I'm such a dumbass.

Breaking News: Barca Sign Ibra, Eto'o Going To Inter

Wow. I don't know if this is worse or better than signing David Villa. Proper analysis to follow, but just wanted to let you guys know.

Blog Recommendations And Thoughts On The Pakistani Blogosphere

Three recommendations for you guys today.

First, on U.S. politics, I don't believe I don't have Five Thirty Eight linked on our blog roll over on the right hand side of this page. I've been reading it for more than a year now; I basically got into it for the statistical analysis of the U.S. election and primaries last year. I read it pretty regularly even now, and it always has interesting (and non-statistical) posts. It's very empirical and well-reasoned, so check it out.

On the Pakistan side of things, two really excellent blogs you guys should check out. First up is Roznamcha-Bach maintained by Saesneg (no, I don't know what that blog title refers to either). It's really smart and well-written. The second is erase and rewind maintained by Saba Imtiaz. It is also really smart and well-written (I wish I had better adjectives, but in these cases, it's appropriate). I highly recommend both of them, and making them a part of your daily read.

By the way, the only reason I'm not recommending Saba's sister's blog (which is also very good, but I'm going to be spiteful and not link to it) is because I'm trying my level best to coerce them to consolidate their blogs. Seriously, does it make ANY sense to you guys that two sisters, who both have a blog, who both blog about basically the same things, would do it in different places on cyber space? I mean, what the hell happened in their childhood that forced them to do this?

On a related note, I want to make a couple of comments about the Pakistani blogosphere before I go to bed. Back when we started this blog almost three years ago, there were basically a grand total of zero Pakistani blogs that I read. I mean sure, there were a couple around that functioned as news aggregators or comment-free-for-alls, but there was little insight, analysis, and enjoyment to be had from perusing these blogs. There may have been a couple of exceptions but I must have been unaware of them.

I would say that over the last eighteen months, that has really changed (or maybe I have just been introduced to them that recently). There are some really smart and interesting and funny Pakistanis and Pakistani-origin people out there, making the Pakistani blogosphere vibrant and energetic and intelligent. Are there some really bad blogs out there? But of course. But they are being balanced, at least in my view.

One thing that has been good to see is that many of these blogs put forth views and analysis that we would not find from mainstream sources in Pakistan (no, Herald and Newsline, you don't count as mainstream). It's funny, I had a conversation about this exact topic very recently: I was interviewed the other day by this woman doing a report on, amongst other things, the state of the Pakistani blogosphere.

I told her, in so many words, that it was great to see some liberal (and I mean politically liberal, not my-dad-drinks-scotch liberal) voices out there, certainly more than proportionate to our true number as part of the population (my best guesstimate is that of the Pakistani population, about 0.5% is liberal the way I define it, and of the Pakistani blogosphere, about 30-35% is liberal the way I define it). She asked me why that is. In my opinion, selection biases can probably explain most of that discrepancy. We have to ask: who, amongst Pakistanis, is going to have a blog? Well, for one thing, it's going to be someone with an internet connection (that instantly disqualifies a vast majority of the population, don't you think?). For another, it's likely to be someone educated. For yet another, it's likely to be someone young, who actually reads other blogs and so knows what the hell a blog is.

Yes, it's true that not all young, educated Pakistanis with an internet connection are liberal (trust me, I know from personal experience). But certainly young, educated Pakistanis with an internet connection are more likely to be liberal than the average Pakistani. Thus, the average Pakistani blog is more likely to be liberal than the average Pakistani mainstream media source (though I'm positive that Zaid Hamid would destroy all of our readership statistics combined if he were to ever get a blog; luckily for him is not yet taken).

Anyway, the basic point is this: it's great to see so many good Pakistani blogs come up in the last couple of years. May this trend continue well into the future, and may the government's dumbass Cyber Crime Act not interfere with that growth.

Speaking of good Pakistani blogs, does anyone know what the hell happened to Rabia at Grand Trunk Road?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Guest Post: An Argument For Judicial Activism In Pakistan

A couple of days ago, Bubs wrote a post that criticized the Supreme Court's actions vis-a-vis the carbon tax. Aqdas Afzal, an adjunct faculty member at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, wrote and sent me a rebuttal, not just concerned with the carbon tax but judicial activism in general. Without further ado...

The restoration of the judiciary as a result of the peoples’ movement for the better part of 2007 and 2008 is a big positive for the Pakistani political system. The restoration of the Iftikhar Chaudhry Court has not only provided a balance between the powers of the state and the society – with the society being successful in this instance – but has also provided a much needed success story for the citizens of this country. This success story will provide an optimistic counterpoint not only to the hapless average citizen, who has all but given up on the government but also to the intellectual elite – the brain trust, if you will – who do not tire from harping “something is rotten in the state of [Pakistan].”

The Iftikhar Chaudhry Court has taken a driving seat role in providing relief to the aam aadmi – the common man. Consider, for instance, the very latest pronouncement from the Court in which the Court temporarily stopped the government from charging the recently imposed carbon tax resulting in an immediate relief in gasoline prices for the aam aadmi. In another instance, the Court stopped the National Electric Power Regulatory Authority (NEPRA) from increasing the prices of electricity and has directed the Authority to review its decision to increase prices. The imprint of this new driving seat role can also be seen at the level of the High Courts which have extended their ambit to social policy.

Certain quarters have labelled this driving seat role of the Iftikhar Chaudhry Court as “judicial activism” and have declared it to be detrimental to the stability of the political system. I beg to differ. Having a Court that takes an active position on all matters of economic and social policy is a positive thing, especially within the context of a developing country like Pakistan that has poor-quality institutions. Let’s try to analyze the value of this new driving seat role by looking at the following key questions: What is judicial activism? Is such judicial activism unprecedented in modern democracies? Is judicial activism always good? Is there need for judicial activism in Pakistan?

What is Judicial Activism?

Despite the fact that Prime Minister Gilani recently mentioned that he believes in judicial activism...”, judicial activism is not always cast in such charitable terms. There is no single agreement on what judicial activism actually is. The term, however, usually refers to a biased interpretation by the court based on its personal beliefs as to what a particular law means as opposed to the interpretation of an un-biased, informed and neutral observer. The term also refers to instances in which superior courts make social and economic policy, that is, when judges “legislate from the bench.” In other words, though there is no consonance of views on what actually constitutes judicial activism, it usually has a negative connotation and represents a situation in which courts take an active position on economic and social matters.

However, judicial activism should not be confused with the role of the Supreme Court of Pakistan as the final interpreter of the constitution. This final interpretation is called judicial review. The constitution, through section VII, allows for specific powers of judicial review for the Supreme Court of Pakistan. This means that the Supreme Court may strike down any law passed by the National Assembly that the Court find’s unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has been regularly playing its constitutional role by assessing the constitutionality of laws passed by the National Assembly.

Judicial activism, then, is activism from the bench that goes beyond the day-to-day judicial review. Imbued with activist leanings, judges may pass verdicts that speak to the needs and interests of a population that is not being served by its government – due to inefficiency, corruption or disconnectedness. Activist judges may also pass verdicts which may not be popular but conform to the standards of fairness and justice. For instance, an activist Supreme Court in Pakistan may one day order the assimilation of government and private schools so as to not keep creating a semi-educated underclass. An activist Supreme Court may one day also address issues involving social and distributive justice and seek to analyze the viability of land reform in this country. In short, judicial activism is not judicial review. It goes beyond, whereby judges take a driving seat role in making economic and social policy.

Is Judicial Activism unprecedented in Modern Democracies?

In the United States, the Supreme Court has, from time to time, catered to the interests of the US population by coming out with verdicts that would have been impossible to implement politically – Roe v. Wade, I think, would be the best example of that. Moreover, the Court has really stayed ahead of the curve as far as protecting criminals from self-incrimination under duress (police torture) by guaranteeing protection through the Miranda rights.

The Supreme Court of Israel is considered one of the most activist courts in the world. For two decades the Supreme Court in Israel has consistently come out with “activist” rulings that were just, if politically unpopular. For instance, the Supreme Court in Israel consistently entertains appeals from Palestinians that seek recourse against the excesses of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).

Across the border, the Indian Supreme Court also has a tradition of judicial activism. The Court has recently accepted to hear a petition against the Delhi High Court’s setting aside of a law pertaining to criminalizing same-sex marriage.

Is Judicial Activism Always a Good Thing?

No. Judicial activism is not always the best thing for chiefly three reasons: First, those who oppose judicial activism argue that by engaging in activism, courts transgress on a turf that is not theirs’ to begin with. Social and economic policy making is, it is argued, is the sole province of the elected branch of the government – the legislature. Unelected judges, it is argued, have no legitimate right to overrule or strike down the policy choices of elected representatives.

Second, exercising judicial activism and preventing an elected government from making appropriate economic or social policy subverts the process of accountability inherent in a democratic form of government. Faced with an activist court, any elected government can divert blame on its ineffectiveness to that of an “activist” and “meddlesome” judiciary. Thus, it can be seen that there is some inherent tension in having an activist court as it often questions an elected government’s economic and social policy choices.

Last, judicial activism is a slippery slope. Judges need to tread very carefully in taking activist stands on matters of economic and social policy. Such caution is important as riding roughshod over the legislature or the executive will invariably create institutional gridlock. This gridlock if unresolved will have the potential to push the entire political system towards a collision - something we have seen happen all too often in this country.

Is there need for Judicial Activism in Pakistan?

Absolutely. Nearly all stipulations about the supremacy of the legislature in economic and social policy making, assume a minimum level of efficiency and transparency in the institutions of governance in a democracy. The situation in Pakistan is far from that. Both corruption at the lowest level and rent-seeking at the highest make Pakistan a tough place to survive for the aam aadmi. According to Transparency International, the civil society organization that leads the international fight against corruption, Pakistan ranks 134 out 180 countries in the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) released for 2008. The National Corruption Perception Survey (NCPS), carried out by the local chapter of Transparency International, shows that Police is no. 1 on the list of corrupt institutions in Pakistan.

The general dissatisfaction with ineffective and corrupt government is ubiquitous in Pakistan. There is a huge disconnect in this country between the rulers and the ruled. The rulers, perhaps, do not understand the daunting challenges the aam aadmi faces in the daily cycle of 24 hours. Either that or the elected representatives are unable to look beyond their myopic personal interests. To quote the editorial that appeared in The News on July 8, 2009 “ [t]he people have no spokesman. Leaders have repeatedly failed to act on their behalf.” Albert O. Hirschman, a leading intellectual, wrote in his Exit, Voice and Loyalty (1970) that a population’s dissatisfaction with its government can be ascertained through exit (emigration) and voice (protests). It would tautological to mention that both have gone up exponentially in this country.

Therefore, against the backdrop of an inefficient, corrupt and disconnected government that conveniently forgets to deliver on pro-poor policy promises like price relief for the most basic food commodities – relying on the politically expedient cash transfers program, instead the courts have taken on a very important responsibility on their shoulders. Through judicial activism, honest, conscientious and hard working judges can force this government to be efficient, honest and in-sync with the broader interests of the nation.

In sum, then, judicial activism has a negative connotation and carries the potential of bringing the business of the state to a grinding halt. Nonetheless, judicial activism becomes a necessary evil in countries like Pakistan where governments are inefficient, corrupt and disconnected. Speaking figuratively, the Iftikhar Chaudhry court is the veritable Atlas carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Eventually, our future is a function of the choices we shall make as a society. We must, however, not let this Atlas shrug.