KARACHI: There has been a shift from one dominant institution to multiple institutions in Pakistan which has transformed into an urban country where provision of goods is now a privatised process. These thoughts were articulated on Wednesday by political economist Dr Akbar Zaidi invited by the Karachi University faculty of arts to deliver a lecture on “The Changing Nature of Pakistani State”.
Dr Zaidi framed his lecture under two broad themes: institutional and societal changes. Opening his talk by discussing the predominance of certain institutions since the 1950s, he said that there has been a dramatic shift with the exception of one institution that continues to play an important role.
“From 1957 onwards, the Pakistani state was highly centralised and had three main actors. According to anthropologist and social scientist Hamza Alvi, during the 1970s and the 1980s, the army, the feudal class and the bureaucracy played an eminent role in Pakistan’s decision making. Now that has changed: the feudals are no longer powerful actors.”
He referred to current political and non-political actors to buttress his statement. “If one looks at Imran Khan, Tahirul Qadri, Nawaz Sharif and Altaf Hussain, they are not jagirdars,” he said.
There were no two opinions that the army continued to be the most powerful institution, he said. “Since 1957 until 2007, the army has played an important role.” But afterwards other powerful actors such as the judiciary, parliament and the media emerged, he added.
Beginning with the judiciary, Dr Zaidi said that even though former chief justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry was highly controversial, the judiciary emerged as a powerful institution under him. “Earlier the judiciary was hardly independent and always endorsed the army’s actions,” he said.
Coming to the media, the political economist said that it too emerged as a contending power in 2007 due to the plethora of television channels. He added that the media was still playing an important role and referred to the live transmission of Imran Khan’s Azadi March and Tahirul Qadri’s Inqilab March in Islamabad. “Someone made a pertinent point at a talk show, saying that if TV cameras are removed from the red zone there will be no revolution. Everyone is glued to their TV sets these days so much so that we have forgotten what is happening in the rest of the world. In fact we have even forgotten what is happening in the rest of the country.”
He briefly touched upon parliament as another contending actor. He felt that its role had been disappointing when it could have been more assertive, but the discussion of defence budget in both the houses, the calling of a former ISI chief to explain the Osama bin Laden debacle, the questioning of intelligence officials in the Mehran Bank scandal were significant developments.
‘Only one per cent pays taxes’
About societal changes in Pakistani state, the second theme of his lecture, Dr Zaidi said that major public-service enterprises had been privatised. Citing education as one instance of privatisation, he said that there used to be one private university, the Aga Khan University, and one public-sector academic institution, Karachi University, 30 years ago in Karachi. “In my research work in rural Sindh, I met people who told me that they’d prefer sending their children to private schools since teachers don’t show up in government schools.”
Security and electricity were other instances of privatisation. “So what is the state’s role if it cannot provide basic utilities, security and education to its people,” he asked.
Referring to Imran Khan’s civil disobedience movement and non-payment of taxes, he said that the state had been unable to deliver even on the tax front. “Only one per cent of the population pays its taxes. We have one of the lowest tax to GDP ratio in the world.”
He pointed out another significant societal change, which was in the informal manufacturing sector. “It may seem that the likes of Nestle and other fast-moving-consumer products dominate the manufacturing sector but the fact is small-sector provides employment to about seventy per cent population of Pakistan.”
Dr Zaidi also mentioned the state’s monopoly over violence, as that too had been ceded to militant and mafia groups, which he said was also an important societal change.
Talking about the transformation of rural areas into urban centres, he said that during his research work in Punjab and Sindh, he found towns with the presence of road infrastructure and access to modern forms of information technology. “The concept of far-flung areas has changed. According to a research study 98 per cent of Punjab lives only two miles away from the main road. And 73 per cent have mobile phones. Consumerism is widespread in small towns. Therefore, Pakistan is now an urban country. This is a significant demographic trend.”
‘Who is calling the final shots?’
The attack on Hamid Mir was significant according to Dr Zaidi as it was the first time a major media house accused the spy agency of being allegedly behind the attack. “This has never happened before in the history of this country.” One can see that the army that had earlier ceded some space to the media, the judiciary and the parliament is now repositioning itself. The discourse was changing again but the army could not go back to its earlier interventionist position, he said. “From politicians to the media, everyone is saying that a military coup is no longer an option. If one is watching TV these days one can see that both Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri are at pains to explain that they are not looking at the military for a governmental change. The military is still a powerful entity but its power has decreased with the emergence of other actors. It could only close down Geo, that is all they could do. I call this progress,” he added.
However, an audience member challenged his viewpoint questioning who is really calling the final shots in this country. “It was Kayani who restored the CJ and the judiciary and even now it is behind-the-scenes in all the significant political developments in the country,” she said.
Published in Dawn, August 21st, 2014