Before it’s too late

As Pakistan enters into another year fraught with fresh challenges and old dilemmas, it is quite clear that its ruling elites – civil and military – are unwilling to learn from history. The crisis of governance in the country has spiraled out of control. We are heading towards grave internal conflict, the possibility of which has been bolstered by serious economic woes in the wake of high inflationary trends. Most importantly, the dilemma of reconciling our national security interest with a possible long-term economic agenda is becoming even more problematic by the day.

Radicalistan? Pakistan’s radicalization is now a threat to its society and the region. Whilst General Zia ul Haq will be remembered for institutionalizing extremism, most Pakistani governments, including democratic and quasi-democratic regimes have in the past, surrendered to the Islamist fringe. From Liaquat Ali Khan’s acquiescence to a terribly vague and confusing Objectives Resolution to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s unforgivable act of declaring Ahmedis as non-Muslims through a constitutional amendment, Pakistan’s long-term interest has always been sacrificed at the altar of short-term expediency and political survival. But the Pakistan of today is not a case of a majority beholden to a virulent minority; it is split from within and fraying at the edges.

Extremism has become embedded in our social fabric?: We are a country in transition. The old is cracking up and the new remains undefined and directionless. Over 65 percent of Pakistan’s exploding population is under the age of 26 and the coming generations will set the future course of the country. However, the portents are disheartening. Nearly 60 percent of youth surveyed in a countrywide poll (organized by British Council Pakistan) had little faith in democracy. Therefore, the glorification of former Governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer Shaheed’s murderer is not an isolated incident. It reflects a combination of societal changes in the broader context of religo-political transformation. At least three factors have greatly contributed to these phenomena.

First, the education system and its overtly pro-jihad bias (whether in madrassas or in state-run schools), has led to the construction of a particular mindset that shuns reason in favor of a theological or a hyper-nationalist discourse. Second, the institutionalization of mullahs and mosques with hefty state patronage backed by the zakat distribution systems ensure that public discourse is controlled and aligned with national security imperatives. Third, the sheer neglect of a social change agenda and absolute disregard for issues of social justice and a citizen voice means that there is an ever-increasing citizenship crisis. A large number of Pakistanis either enjoy partial citizenship rights (Balochistan, many parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and even Karachi for that matter) or none at all (Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Azad Jammu and Kashmir to name a few).

Statelessness: Above all, Pakistan has also become a polity without a state. We have a colonial version of a police force – brutal and extractive – and over the last decade, it has been under severe attack by militants and organized terrorist groups. The courts are dysfunctional and corrupt at the lower levels. Even worse, they are becoming increasingly conservative in their approach to legal discourse. Be it the issue of whether Pakistan is to be secular or not, how much land reform is ‘halaal’, issues of women’s rights and more recently, the fate of terrorists, we have subordinate courts which are simply not delivering justice. At the same time, the traditional systems of justice have either broken down (in FATA or elsewhere) or become instruments of the powerful at the local level and, more importantly, turned incompatible with the requirements of the twenty first century.

Since the past one decade, the real crisis to hit Pakistan has been the annihilation of the local state. The abolition of the district magistrate to enforce state writ was meant to give way to local democracy (never mind its patrimonial nature). However, the reversal of the local government system after eight years of experimentation and the inability of political parties at the centre and the provinces to create new local governance frameworks has increased the disappearance of state writ. The situation is chaotic: there is a law, which is no longer under implementation and the ‘new’ draft laws are stuck in a political quagmire in Punjab and Sindh (the two most populous provinces of the country).

No change-agenda: Such has been the extent of the endemic crisis that no political party or even its nemesis – military-technocratic cabal – has a coherent agenda for social change. Take the manifestos of the mainstream political parties in Pakistan: they read like neo-liberal recipes with cosmetic or worse populist rhetoric. Oppositions rarely work towards finding a solution and the ruling parties are completely beholden to international financial institutions (IFIs) for maintaining a simple cash flow.

This is why Pakistan’s elites and a paralyzed civil service have entrusted the task of policymaking and solutions to a handful of international development organizations. The policy solutions, neither home-grown nor widely debated, remain closed-door exercises and inherently non-participatory.

Blame it on geo-politics: Many in Pakistan blame Western strategic interests and our frontline status in the War on Terror as the key reasons for our failures. However, this is only a partial story. The truth is that Pakistan’s elites have used the frontline status as mere instruments to achieve leverage for financial flows while keeping their rapacious plundering intact or to retain ‘foreign’ support for prolonging regimes, which are unpopular and praetorian in nature. However, there is a growing realization in the civil-military circles that the game has slipped out of their ambit and gone into the lawless minefield known as Pakistan. How else could one describe attacks on Presidents, the GHQ, police and paramilitary installations, not to mention rampant terror attacks on civilians? State ineffectiveness has meant that the inherent powers and functions of the state have perhaps moved too far into the ‘non-state’ domain. It is no longer the case that Pakistan’s security establishment is fully in control of proliferating militant organizations and mafias.

Economic decline: Our economic woes today are a direct result of the larger and deeper governance malaise. What could be more unfortunate than the fact that Pakistan, located in a global high-growth zone (China and India are growing at 10 and 9 percent respectively), is struggling to maintain a 3 percent growth rate? In terms of social indicators, we are not far from sharing these with the world’s poorest regions where high infant mortality rates and incidence of polio are considered as indicators of public health. This is not to claim that India and China have achieved improved resource distribution (India’s poverty is a huge challenge), but they are rapidly lifting people out of poverty and moving forward. On the other hand, we are still groping for the next tranche of an IMF loan to buy oil for consumption and other key import items, or simply to stay afloat.

This is once again related to the way we have defined ourselves in relation to the world. We are eager to get Kashmir liberated but happy to blame the USA, India and others for the insurgency in Balochistan. Our trade with India is negligible compared to its true potential and there is an absolute lack of consensus on vital issues such as a functional tax system. A substantive portion of the country’s [defence] expenditure remains beyond public oversight and ill-conceived and patronage-based development programmes cater to contractors’ mafia embedded, now in civil-military elites.

Bleak future for many: But the real challenge, as noted above, remains the lack of faith of Pakistan’s youth in the country and perhaps for good reason. Employment levels are static or falling and Pakistan needs 7-8 percent growth rate to cater to the requirements of the increased workforce. Vocational training programmes managed by the federal and provincial governments are farcical (there is still a course on repairing black and white television sets) and, therefore, the younger population finds it hard to see much hope for its future. This factor alone will prove to be the defining one for Pakistan. The country will need to make the right choices sooner than later: whether it wants to retain the status quo set of policies geared towards national security obsessions or move to a set of more rational choices which include trading with India, focusing on expenditure reductions (especially in defence) and giving up on socially expensive projects of raising proxies for controlling the neighborhood.

The chances of course-correction are slimmer than ever. The political elites are battling for their very survival in the face of an increased threat from the extremists, and the timetable of NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan has provided Paksitan’s security establishment with an immediate prospect of regaining its eroded strategic depth in Afghanistan. But the cost of these choices is far too great for the country to bear anymore. Obsessive hatred for India and the inclination for a Taliban solution mean that extremism will deepen and further damage Pakistani society beyond redemption.

Short-term is explosive: In the short-term, this self-created mess is getting worse. Recent indications that another unnatural Islamist alliance is emerging out of anti-blasphemy mobilization are noteworthy. Rarely have the Deobandis and Barelvis joined hands to fight the moderates in the political spectrum. Even more rare is the case of high profile support from lawyers, sections of the media, police (note the conduct of Rawalpindi police while dealing with Salmaan Taseer’s murderer) and subordinate judges (more sentences under blasphemy law have been awarded in recent weeks). The ruling moderate parties are on the defensive, fearful of a 1977-type Nizam e Mustafa movement and the opportunity that it provided to the military to capture power. The current convergence of Islamist parties and groups spells doom as a potential Taliban government in Kabul would like to do business with a resurrected Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal in Pakistan, while the ineffectual moderate parties will lose the elections due to high inflation, the persistent energy crisis and associated unrest. Leading economists of the country are gradually agreeing on a bleak scenario in the immediate term.

It is, therefore, vital for the political parties with high stakes in the system to arrest this situation before it gets out of hand. Similarly, Pakistan’s security establishment must also review its current policies, which may fan further militancy and extremism given what repeated military interventions have done to civilian institutions. There remains no alternative to taking bold and radical policy steps. Some of them are within the purview of quasi-democrats such as installing local government system (a sequel to 18th Amendment), public campaigns against extremism and reforms in education. Above, all there is a dire need to find a consensus on economic reforms. Matters such as Afghanistan and India policies can at least be debated by the national and provincial assemblies and also from the platform of the media. After all, both the PPP and the PML-N want trade with India. Silence or opportunism would not do the country any good when it is on the brink of caving in. The political parties also control the police force and other law enforcement agencies where reforms can be introduced.

We cannot be oblivious of the fact that Pakistan’s quasi-democracy might be the nation’s last chance, before a tide of part real, and part manufactured extremism engulfs the country. However, this is a realization that our myopic political class needs to undergo before it is too late.

Leave a Reply