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The pagodas of commerce

August 15, 2013

YESTERDAY, Pakistan celebrated its 66th birthday. Had it been a person, it might have confided to itself the sentiments Countess Sophia Tolstoy wrote in her diary when she reached the same age: “My 66th birthday, and I still have all my old energy and passion, the same acute sensitivity, and, people tell me, the same youthful appearance.”

Would that Pakistan had been that fortunate! It cannot pretend to have its old energy. In fact it has no energy left at all, the energy policies of every government since the 1970s notwithstanding.

It has run out of passion, the force that “can elevate the soul to great things”, the tsunami of political conviction that brought it into unexpected existence in August 1947.

Its sensitivities are no longer acute. They have become dulled, deadened by intolerance and bloodshed, brutality and carnage.

Today, having weathered storms over the past 66 years, Pakistan’s ‘youthful appearance’, like any vessel of that vintage, has been replaced by the image of a once-proud ship, launched with a light manifest, now overcrowded with uncontrollable passengers, its paint peeling, its rudder beyond repair, its bilge awash with the untreated detritus of previous captaincies, its hull coated with barnacles of self-interest, and its crew in a state of near mutiny. It is not a pretty sight, nauseous even to those who do not suffer from seasickness.

It was not always like this. There is a generation that can still remember a capital city called Karachi where waves from the grey Arabian sea lapped the stone columns of the Jehangir Kothari Parade at Clifton, when Bunder Road would be washed and swept clean every evening, where a fish dish and salmonella were not synonymous, where religion was a private matter and politics as non-hazardous as a game of cricket.

That generation can recall a Lahore which had tongas drawn by horses more spirited than those that pulled the gracious Victorias in Karachi, a Lahore that was vibrant and alive, a crucible of education, a cradle of culture, and a hospitable stage for every sort of performing art. Had William Wordsworth been Pakistan’s Poet Laureate that morning of Independence Day on Aug 14, 1947, he would have repeated: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very Heaven!”'

When did we begin to lose faith in that promise of paradise?

It would take more than a thousand words to analyse why Pakistan finds itself in its present predicament. It would take many minds to explain where we went wrong, why each generation has not been able to improve upon the efforts of its predecessors. It would take many mouths to decide the wisdom of ignoring the high road, and choosing instead the low road to mediocrity and under-achievement.

Perhaps the earlier analogy of Pakistan as a ship of state can be bettered by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s famous anthropomorphic comparison of a state with the human body: “The sovereign power represents the head; the laws and customs are the brain … commerce, industry, and agriculture are the mouth and the stomach … the public income is the blood … the citizens are the body and the members, which make the machine live, move and work….”

Has the body politic, Rousseau asked rhetorically, an organ to declare its will? Even as he asked it, he knew the answer: that organ was the government, and in a democracy, an elected government. The measure, therefore, of the performance of any government must be the health of its body politic.

It is too early to assess the performance of the present government. Good decisions, like unwelcome medicine, require time to take effect. Bad decisions, like poison, tend to work instantaneously. Decisions by governments are no exception.

On a macro level, though, it has become clear even to non-economists that Pakistan has been transformed from a nation which aspired once to industrial self-sufficiency to one dependent upon commercial imports. The Industrial Development Bank of Pakistan, its successor Pakistan Industrial and Investment Corporation of Pakistan, the Pakistan Industrial Development Corporation (originally WPIDC, and then truncated after 1971 to PIDC), the Ministry of Industries, and the once all-powerful Planning Commission have surrendered the stage to the single-portal Board of Investment. Our future growth is dependent upon the hunger of private initiative and the appetite of foreign investors.

If one was to look for traces of public policies — on population control, health, education, industry, aviation, shipping, to name only a few — one would find nothing more on the ground than the tracks of intentions. Like Pakistan Railways, there are rails but no trains, destinations but no traffic.

In 1913, one of the tallest skyscrapers in New York City known as the Woolworth building stood completed. Because of its neo-Gothic design, and as a tribute to the business house it symbolised, it became known as the cathedral of commerce.

Today, Pakistan could well be described not as a cathedral but as a chapel of commerce, or to be more accurate, a warren of small chapels — each dedicated to a different patron saint, ready to answer prayers with the flick of a pen or on a disposable post-it, at the price of a pecuniary indulgence.

Are our governments at fault for not pursuing industrialisation? Or is it simply a fatalistic acknowledgement of the times, an acceptance that internationally Chinese pagodas have replaced the US cathedrals of commerce?

The writer is an internationally recognised art historian and author.