I WAS delighted to learn recently that my old and much-missed friend, Eqbal Ahmed, has received a posthumous award from the Bangladesh government for his principled opposition to the Pakistan Army’s murderous campaign in erstwhile East Pakistan.
Sadly, he has yet to be honoured in his own country. When his name cropped up in emails in connection with his award, I was reminded of an argument we had in the mid-1990s during Benazir Bhutto’s second stint as prime minister.
Basically, Eqbal was highly critical of her ‘lack of vision’. I had replied that in our context, what we needed was a leader with sound management skills, rather than a visionary. I argued that delivery, not dreams, was what people needed. Eqbal, being a visionary himself, strongly disagreed, and the argument continued late into the night.
Nearly two decades on, this argument is still unresolved. Imran Khan offers us a vision of a Pakistan free from corruption, foreign aid and oppression. In his Pakistan, justice will be everybody’s right, there will be no power-cuts, and milk and honey will flow across the land.
Nawaz Sharif offers us sound management and prosperity built on hard work and efficient business principles. He makes no claim to cleanse the system, but does promise good governance.
The PPP offers neither vision, nor a clean and effective administration. Its basic appeal lies in the fact that it is Pakistan’s only truly federal party with roots in all provinces. But for voters with pressing everyday problems, this is hardly enough. Nor are they impressed by the boast that the PPP was the first political party to have completed a five-year term. They want to know what was achieved. The answer is: very little.
Pipliyas will point to the 18th Amendment and the inter-provincial accord over the division of resources as major achievements. And so they were, but neither has had any immediate, discernible impact on people’s lives.
Of more immediate concern is the breakdown in law and order, and the escalating corruption. The shop-worn slogan of ‘roti, kapra aur makan’ carries little resonance in a Pakistan transformed since the late 1960s when this mantra was first voiced.
The other kind of vision on offer is the one being peddled by the religious right. This is a Pakistan where the Holy Book replaces the Constitution; where a khalifa rules supreme; and where life returns to the utopia that is supposed to have existed in the days of early Islam.
Apart from Zia’s attempts at imposing this ideal on us, the clerics had their chance in KP and Balochistan provinces where they were helped to achieve power by Musharraf in 2002. Few who went through those experiences would want to see them repeated. But this vision is on offer yet again. However, while a vote for it might get you to paradise, it is unlikely to get you to power.
These parties, broadly speaking, have the best chance of being part of a ruling coalition after the May elections. But visionaries are not easily shoehorned into partnerships with pragmatic parties.
Nevertheless, our clerics have shown over the years that they have no problem in cutting deals with politicians holding opposing views. Imran Khan, on the other hand, is more comfortable in the company of religious parties than he is with secular ones.
The one thing that unites all these parties and politicians is that they are all bereft of any radical ideas on the major issues of the day. For instance, there has been hardly any discussion about what our position should be on Afghanistan after the coalition forces pull out in 2014. Given the magnitude of the expected fallout, this ought to have figured prominently in what passes for debate in Pakistan.
Do we know where the major contenders stand on relations with India and the US? Do they have any fresh ideas on how to break the deadlock with our giant neighbour? Or on how to maintain ties with Washington? Have they even thought about wresting foreign policy back from the army?
Domestically, hardly any of them has uttered a word on Pakistan’s killer population growth rate. We are easily the most fecund state in the region, and for decades, this has been the elephant in the room. Our rapidly growing numbers have caused many of the problems we face today, ranging from water shortages to power cuts and unemployment. And yet, none of our major political parties has a position on this crucial issue.
The fact is that in Pakistan, politics is about power, not policies. It is true that to implement policy, you have to have power. However, our politicians want power for its own sake.
In the early days of the last PPP government, one of its members revealingly said on a televised discussion on corruption: “It’s our turn now.” While he and his party were widely pilloried at the time, the fact is that this attitude reflects the real approach to politics in Pakistan.
In our political history, we had two visionary politicians who set out to transform the country: Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Ziaul Haq. While poles apart in other respects, they both attempted to drastically change the status quo. Both met with partial success, and created the mess that we are still living with.
For instance, the education system has yet to recover from the major surgery it was subjected to. Bhutto nationalised the system, and Zia Islamised it. Largely as a result of these experiments, educational standards continue to fall, and millions of children are condemned to study in either ramshackle state schools or madressahs.
Bhutto politicised the bureaucracy, while Zia tried to Islamise it. Again, it has yet to recover. So between a visionary and a sound manager, I would pick the latter.