Pakistan at 70 is no longer young. Some trends have become unmistakably clear over the past few decades and they do not make for a happy tale. The seminal tragedy of South Asia, the 1947 Partition which tore apart Punjab and Bengal, continues to shape the hawkish present and bigoted future of Pakistan and India. The trauma of the communal bloodletting at Partition seems to have been underestimated by the ruling elites of the two countries in the initial years of independence. Over the past few years, the echoes of that violence have reverberated more and more strongly — and have now come to dominate the political scene. India is now ruled, for the most part, by committed Hindu fundamentalists some of whom admire Nathuram Godse, the man who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. Pakistan’s ruling elite, meanwhile, is enthralled — seeing in Modi’s rise the vindication of our own worst communal bigotry and fundamentalism.
The phenomenon of religious extremism in Pakistan has turned into an avalanche that has wrecked hopes for pluralism and inclusiveness for at least the next few generations. The deplorable security situation — created mostly by armed extremists — feeds off a massive subterranean current of religious obscurantism. The state has been unable to offer anything resembling a coherent counter-narrative. The most significant ideological game in town appears to be that of political Islam — particularly the most troubling elements within it.
Meanwhile, the ruling elite in Pakistan appears ever more distant from any consensus on how power is to be distributed. The civil-military chasm continues to widen, and it has become far too accepted a fact of life in Pakistan that it is the security establishment which holds ultimate political power. Civilian politicians must play along or face the consequences. It seems unlikely that there will ever be some form of impartial accountability for the unconstitutional interventions and coups of the past.
Moreover, even in those sphere of decision-making, which are still left to elected civilian politicians, there is a severe crisis of legitimacy. The urban middle-class has become virulently opposed to electoral legitimacy — and is willing to countenance any means of dismantling the established mainstream political order. While democratic progress has been noteworthy in the last one decade, the Parliament remains the weakest segment of power-matrix; and Pakistan’s political elites must accept some responsibility for this.
All three of the crises mentioned above — that of rising religious extremism, civil-military imbalance and erosion of the parliamentary political system — are fuelled by a basic failing on the part of the elites. The inability to provide any form of economic justice to tens of millions of Pakistanis will always feed our many demons. With millions of children out of school, and abysmal healthcare for a vast majority of population, social development should have been our priority. Sadly, it isn’t.
There are some potentially positive developments taking place — which might help to address the issues mentioned above, if managed correctly. The deepening of strategic ties with China, despite the understandable misgivings in some quarters, on balance suggests that Pakistan can still count on significant international ties. Chinese economic engagement with Pakistan, in the form of the mammoth China Pakistan Economic Corridor will provide an opportunity to boost many sectors of the economy. If the relationship is managed wisely and the gains distributed judiciously and fairly, Pakistan’s economic woes can be reduced if not eliminated. But addressing the challenge of poverty needs much more than CPEC. It requires a fundamental change in how national resources are managed, distributed and allocated. The bitter realities of climate change and water scarcity are going to hurt poor the most.
The presence of a vibrant civil society, which finds expression on electronic and social media despite all the repression by state and non-state actors, is another positive prospect — despite the many valid criticisms of it. The rise of a loud, confrontational electronic media on television channels is itself a promising process, despite the many failings and weaknesses of the media players. They may be a rowdy lot, given to sensationalism, jingoism, conservatism and selective outrage, but they do provide a platform to all sorts of voices which did not exist before. Social media deepens such possibilities — and it is no wonder that the state is deeply worried about controlling, curtailing and regulating it.
The future is deeply uncertain for Pakistan at 70. Finding a way out of our current predicaments will be a complicated and uphill task.
Long Live Pakistan!
Daily Times, August 14, 2017