OVER A COFFEE : Waqar to Imran: the water car syndrome — Dr Haider Shah
To a varying degree, we are all addicted to our national mythology. We are always in need of mythical personalities. If there is none we create a mythical personality to worship it
When the news item about water kit run car first appeared in the social media, I summarily dismissed it as yet another crazy claim of attention seeking individuals. But soon the hype attained its zenith when two widely watched TV shows ran special programmes on the claimed invention and its inventor, Mr Agha Waqar. On our Rationalist Society, members were of the view that our electronic media was spreading bogus claims of babajis and fake scientists. Thinking a bit differently I contended that the TV hosts did the right thing by inviting the inventor to present his claim because the news item was already making rounds in the social media and it was sensible to pass it through the filter of scientific scepticism.
A masterpiece on the subject has already appeared in a national daily from Dr Pervez Hoodbhouy and since he is not only a reputed physicist but also a widely respected rationalist thinker, I do not feel I can add anything further to the debate. However, I wish to look at the issue not in isolation but as a part of a general malaise that afflicts the whole society. How quickly the claim turned into media hype and then became a part of our national mythology with the help of social media and our patriotism-drenched anchors is not just limited to the water-fuelled car of Waqar. This is just one of the symptoms of a bigger syndrome, which needs to be understood before we can deal with claims of similar sort.
To a varying degree, we are all addicted to our national mythology. We are always in need of mythical personalities. Children in the west adore Santa Claus and tooth fairies in their early years of life but a little older, they gradually realise that those were just fairy tales. We on the other hand need the comfort of imaginary legends and self-created myths all the time. If there is none we create a mythical personality to worship it. For instance, Dr A Q Khan enjoyed the mythical status of the atomic bomb maker for about three decades. Believers are believers. Even the fact that he confessed his shady part in running an international smuggling racket has done little to shake the faith of his followers. With Khan not in the forefront, the media has now bestowed the same status on the chief scientist of the country, Samar Mubarakmund, who used to complain in the past that the credit of his labour was unjustly bagged by Khan. From Thar coal in Sindh to gold deposits in Balochistan, Mubarkimund is cited everywhere as the superman who will solve not only our energy crisis but also fill the coffers with treasure-troves of gold. Billions of hard-earned rupees are being thrown to finance wild goose chase of elusive dreams.
With the advent of Ramazan, corporate sermonisers on various TV channels are seen lecturing us on taqwah (restraint) and perhaizgaari (righteousness). Prominent among them are those who are known for claiming false academic qualifications in the past. Attired in glittering outfits, they show us sumptuous iftar dinners and then tell us that Ramazan teaches us how to feel the hunger of the less fortunate ones. We all believe them and they do brisk business as they encash our inability to sift myth from reality.
The country has been facing regular power outages. In certain areas, people remain without electricity for more than 10 hours on daily basis. People therefore want Nasim Hijazi’s ‘Shaheen’ to appear from nowhere, and riding an Arabic horse, rescue them from all worries with his miraculous powers. Agha Waqar’s challenge to the fundamental laws of thermodynamics was warmly accepted because people saw in him the imagined messiah. The water car syndrome is not limited to technology alone. It is best manifested in our political discourse as well. According to our political mythology, created by a few establishment-leaning TV hosts and religiously promoted by zealots of Imran Khan, the country is on brink of collapse and only a prophetic figure like Imran can save the country. In 1920s, Hitler’s supporters dismissed all politicians as corrupt and traitors and Hitler was presented as the true patriot and only leader. In the same vein, all political parties in Pakistan are brushed aside with a scornful contempt and Imran is believed to be the promised messiah. Waqar made a few tall claims but he at least did demonstrate his car working. Imran Khan remained MNA for five years and we hardly remember any speech from him on the floor of the assembly. On the political integrity yardstick, we see clear U-turns on his publicly announced pledges with respect to Altaf Hussain and Sheikh Rashid. He has not remained a part of a government so we can only judge his transparency in terms of the finances that he exercised control over. The disregard shown to widely accepted norms of corporate governance in the case of Shaukat Khanum finances and the thick clouds over his London flat disposal are the kind of issues that should alert us to the fact that there is no room for prophets in politics. Anyone who is a candidate for power must present himself to same tests of scrutiny without exception. If there are those who believe that by electing SHOs, our thana (police station) culture and corruption will be abolished, and that without any tax policy our revenue will be doubled, and by supporting Taliban and other extremists international investment in Pakistan will quadruple, then in all honesty I find Agha Waqar’s water kit claim much more credible.
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org