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A post-Zia Pakistan?

August 16, 2015


The writer is a political and development economist.
The writer is a political and development economist.

INFLUENTIAL leaders continue shaping national fate posthumously through concrete legacies. Viewed so, unfortunately Gen Ziaul Haq arguably emerges as Pakistan’s most influential leader ever, whose legacies still haunt Pakistan decades later.

Time and health did not allow Mohammad Ali Jinnah to bequeath a definitive legacy which could clarify his vision for Pakistan given his contrasting speeches about state and religion. Ayub Khan’s legacy of a centralised polity and lopsided elitist development was quickly dismantled by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s socialist democracy project. Bhutto himself partially demolished this legacy later during his rule, while Zia demolished it even further.

Although Ayub and Bhutto’s legacies were not completely demolished, it is Zia’s legacies, however, that loom large over Pakistan today. His vision included maintaining a feeble democracy under establishment control; using militants extensively to achieve foreign and domestic goals; promoting Salafist Islam to control society; and radicalising society through madressahs and mosques. Subsequent elected governments were too weak to seriously challenge these legacies. Even Pervez Musharraf only slightly reversed the promotion of Salafist Islam and in fact strengthened policies regarding a controlled democracy and the use of militants for achieving state goals. Thus, among Pakistan’s long-ruling powerful leaders, Musharraf is the only one unable to craft a unique national vision.

The state is not going far enough to dismantle Zia’s legacy.

Of late, Pakistan has taken bold steps which raise hopes about the emergence of a post-Zia Pakistan. However, it is important to carefully review the extent to which the current steps are actually dismantling Zia’s four critical legacies listed above. Firstly, the events over the last one year have actually cemented the establishment’s grip over the elected regime and the security policy, thus reinvigorating the vision of Zia and other dictators. Secondly, the most visible step has been the crackdown on a wide range of militant groups which had emerged under Zia and Musharraf, often with tacit state support. However, the concomitant strengthening of establishment control over security policy creates doubts whether such a crackdown really represents a complete break from the tactic of using militants as tools of state policies.

During Musharraf’s rule, Pakistan became infested with numerous militant groups, which coordinated logistically and financially, but pursued different goals. These included the West-focused Al Qaeda; the Afghanistan-focused Taliban; the India-focused Lashkar-e-Taiba; the sectarian Lashkar-i-Jhangvi; the Pakistan-focused TTP; and the Balochistan-focused insurgents. The current crackdown largely targets internally-focused sectarian, TTP, Karachi and Baloch groups but spares India- and Afghanistan-focused groups. Thus, the current operation is perhaps less about abandoning the use of militants completely, especially for foreign policy goals, and more about shielding Pakistan from the boomerang effects of using militants for this purpose.

True, Afghan-focused groups are being nudged towards peace talks while India-focused groups are probably being kept on a tight leash against undertaking major attacks. But this represents changing tactics rather than strategy. So long as the militant use policy is not completely abandoned, Pakistan will remain vulnerable to attacks by new splinter groups of externally-focused militant groups and covert retaliation by foreign countries. But abandoning externally-focused groups completely would go to the core of the Pakis­tani establishment’s world­­­­­view. As of today, there is no concrete evidence that it is willing to make such huge changes, for doing so would undermine its ability to dominate Pakistan.

Thirdly, the goal of imposing Salafist Islam on Pakistan has been abandoned completely by both the establishment and the PML-N. However, some madressahs and mosques continue to spew radical thought without meaningful check by the state, even if it is not supporting them aggressively now. Thus, it seems premature to celebrate a complete national break from Zia’s devastating legacies. A complete break is also hampered by the non-emergence of new groups with fresh ideas and the backing of large sections of society to implement them. Thus, Bhutto’s strong, though partially flawed, ideas quickly demolished Ayub’s legacy; Zia’s strong, and even more flawed, ideas further demolished Bhutto’s remaining legacies. Today, the Pakistani political landscape is bereft of such strong new visions.

The landscape is dominated by the PML-N, the true heir of both Ayub’s economic conservatism and Zia’s social conservatism legacies, from whom fresh, strong ideas are as likely to emerge as the sun is likely to emerge from the west tomorrow. The PTI’s vision of change is unclear and seemingly limited in scope. The PPP is in irreversible decline. Thus, until new, powerful ideas emerge from society, the establishment will likely continue to implement a scaled back version of Zia’s vision.

The writer is a political and development economist.

Published in Dawn, August 16th, 2015

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