Pakistan came into being in August 1947. It was the result of a movement in British India for the creation of a separate Muslim-majority state.
The movement was navigated by lawyer and politician, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and his All India Muslim League (AIML).
The League, especially after 1940, had opted to merge its ‘modernist’ Muslim disposition with a more populist strand of politics.
By the mid-1940s, it was able to sprint past a number of other political outfits claiming to represent the Muslims of India.
The League positioned itself at the centre; or between the right-wing Muslim religious groups on the one side, and Muslim-dominated secular outfits on the other. Both of them were accused by the League of having the backing of the party’s main opponent, the Indian National Congress.
The League’s impressive victories in the 1946 election (especially in the Punjab province and Bengal), paved the way for the creation of Pakistan. The Muslim League became the new country’s first ruling party.
Pakistan’s first decade as an independent Muslim-majority state was unstable. Its founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, passed away just a year after the country’s creation, and Pakistan’s founding party, the Muslim League, fell into disarray, weakened by in-fighting.
The party struggled to come to terms with the many problems besieging the new country. Pakistan had received very little by way of industry and resources and its two wings, West Pakistan and East Pakistan, were more than 2000 kilometers away from one another.
The Muslims of India had agitated for a separate country in India as a minority. In Pakistan, this minority had become a majority.
But it was a Muslim majority made up of various ethnic cultures, languages and communities. It also had various Muslim sects and sub-sects, apart from Christian, Hindu, Zoroastrian and some Sikh communities.
As politicians spent most of their energies firefighting personal battles and issues, the state, mainly dominated by the bureaucracy and the military, tried to impose a singular concept of Pakistani nationhood.
This concept was said to be based on the ‘modernist’ Islamic constructs of Muslim scholars such as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Mohammad Iqbal; and which attempted to dissolve identities based on ethnicity and Islamic sects/sub-sects.
But all this was attempted through a myopic procedure that attempted to bulldoze the state’s concept of nationhood without any democratic or consensual process. This opened up cleavages between the state and various ethnic groups.
The state’s narrative was largely modernist but suspicious of democracy and ethnic identities. And, even though, attempts were made to streamline right-wing religious groups, the narrative was equally suspicious of them as well because most of them had opposed the creation of Pakistan.
Growing political instability triggered by political infighting; intrigues between politicians and the bureaucracy; and the weakening of the economy, saw the military under Field Marshal Ayub Khan impose Pakistan’s first Martial Law (1959).
Stability, growth, implosion
From 1959 till 1966, Pakistan experienced unprecedented economic growth and political stability. Ayub Khan ruled with an ‘iron hand,’ keeping opposition from religious parties and those from the left in check.
The religious parties attempted to trigger agitation against Ayub’s ‘overtly secular policies,’ whereas leftist outfits criticised his ‘state-backed capitalism,’ ‘cronyism’ and his refusal to grant ethnic groups democratic autonomy. Both fronts failed to dislodge him.
Economic growth (mainly achieved through rapid industrialisation) infused confidence in the state and society. The state’s narrative under Ayub became even more modernist. It explained Pakistan as a modern Muslim-majority state and one of the most advanced in the Muslim world.
However, confidence led to an ill-planed war against India in 1965. The war ended in a stalemate, but it negatively impacted the country’s economy and polity.
Economic gaps between classes became stark giving leftist groups an opening to launch a widespread movement against Ayub.
By the late 1960s, the regime had been cornered by enraged political, workers and student outfits, and Ayub was forced to resign. He handed over power to General Yayah Khan who imposed the country’s second Martial Law.
In 1970 he held the country’s first election based on adult franchise.
A new beginning
The 1970 election brought forth populist politics in Pakistan. Most of the seats were won by leftist parties which had been opposing Ayub’s state-backed capitalist policies. In East Pakistan, the election was swept by the left-leaning Bengali nationalists.
Though the religious parties were largely trounced in the election, however, they did manage to get more than a dozen members elected to the National Assembly. They had never had more than 3 members in any legislative body of the country before 1970.
The leftists (including ethno-nationalist groups), as well as the religious parties had been kept at bay by the modernist/centrist ruling elite of the country. But both came to the fore after East Pakistan broke away in a civil war (and became Bangladesh); and ZA Bhutto’s left-leaning and populist Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) came to power in December 1971.
The new government inherited an economy that was in shambles and a polity reeling from the effects of the break-up of the country.
The situation changed the state’s narrative as well.
Out went the one that was driven by ‘modernist Islam’. The religious parties blamed it for causing the ‘East Pakistan debacle.’
Under Bhutto, a new narrative was being formed. It was shaped by blending together a populist notion of nationhood and political Islam.
Pakistan’s economy picked up in the early 1970s, but suddenly began to nosedive after 1974, especially due to the international oil crisis and the haphazard implementation of the government’s ‘socialist policies.’
By 1976, Pakistan was in crisis again. Ayub’s economics had given birth to an expanding urban middle and lower middle-class which felt left-out and hard done by Bhutto’s populist brand of politics and policies.
In 1977, a movement powered by the urban bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie, and navigated by the now emboldened religious parties challenged Bhutto’s regime which, eventually, was toppled in a reactionary military coup.
In July 1977, General Ziaul Haq declared the country’s third martial law.
Change of guard
In the 1980s Pakistan’s evolution was navigated towards a completely uncharted territory.
With the coming to power of the Ziaul Haq dictatorship, the state of Pakistan changed course by altering the state’s old narrative based on ‘modernist Islam.’
Though this narrative had already begun to erode during the populist Bhutto era, it was discarded (along with Bhutto’s populist notion of nationhood) by Zia.
Under Zia, religious entities were given greater legislative powers to supposedly help the regime turn Pakistan into an ‘Islamic state.’
Due to a civil war in Afghanistan, Pakistan became a recipient of huge American and Saudi aid. Zia rolled back Bhutto’s ‘socialist policies,’ and this, along with foreign aid, created an economic boom.
But this boom was quite unlike the one experienced during the Ayub era. It triggered a rather anarchic form of capitalism and a two-fold growth in institutional corruption and crime.
Due to the regime’s intransigent social, political and cultural policies, the Pakistani society retracted. From being populist/extroverted it became conformist/introverted.
Zia was killed in a plane crash in 1988. But the seeds sown during his regime would begin to sprout events and effects from which Pakistan is yet to recover.
The downward spiral
A pleasant but short-lived breeze of euphoria blew across the country when it witnessed a peaceful transition of power from a military dictatorship to a democratic system (November 1988).
But the coming decade that had promised effective and democratic resolutions to the many social, religious and political issues that had cropped up during the Zia dictatorship, failed miserably to accomplish what it was expected to achieve.
Though, throughout the 1990s the country remained driven by democracy and civilian political parties, the truth was, the political parties lacked the cerebral and strategic resources and acumen required to effectively challenge and neutralise those forces that had been fattened by the Zia regime and had managed to retain their hold over the country’s politics and polity.
Just as the Ayub Khan coup in 1958 had (initially) been popular, the military coup pulled off in 1999 by General Pervez Musharraf too, was largely received with a sigh of relief and even joy by most Pakistanis.
Tired of the political chaos, corruption, intrigues and ethnic and sectarian violence that had plagued the 1990s, Pakistanis looked forward to a period of some sort of stability.
In the first five years of his dictatorship, Musharraf managed to inject this sense of stability. Ethnic violence greatly receded, the economy bolstered, various radical religious and sectarian organisations were banned, and neo-liberal capitalist maneuvers strengthened the economic status of the middle-classes.
However, the feel-good sentiment that the regime managed to inoculate in its first few years was achieved through political repression.
Also, it was awkwardly paralleled by the rise of resistance to the regime by violent religious outfits that began to emerge after Musharraf agreed to join the United States’ ‘War on Terror.’
By 2005, the upbeat economic and cultural disposition of the regime and its achievements began to steadily crumble due to the government’s selective action against extremist outfits (eliminating some, patronising others). The gradual erosion and rollback of the economy began to polarise the Pakistan society into liberal, moderate and conservative segments.
Musharraf was forced to resign, soon after the two main opposition parties, the PPP and the PML-N, won the 2008 election defeating the pro-Musharraf PML-Q.
But this did not stem the rot. The new PPP-led regime was besieged by a failing economy, rising cases of extremist violence and crime, and by its own incompetence. The government seemed paralysed and out of breath, and the state’s writ continued to erode in numerous areas across Pakistan.
The PPP was swept out by the centre-right PML-N in the 2013 election. Prime Minister Nawaz’s government inherited a disaster.
The economy was spiraling down, terrorism was at its peak, an extremist mindset seemed to have deeply penetrated every section of the polity and the state and there was new populist entity in the shape of Imran Khan’s PTI hell-bent on toppling the regime.
For months the government seemed to be paralysed, baffled by the magnitude of the problems facing it.
Then, in December 2014, one of the worst incidents of extremist terror in Pakistan shook the state, government and society from its defeatist slumber.
When terrorists killed at least 144 students at a school in Peshawar, the government instead of capitulating, finally grew some teeth.
Backed by the new army chief, General Raheel Sharif, the regime began to initiate various unprecedented maneuvers that saw Pakistan shifting its political and ideological paradigm once again.
The state and government began to return to the narrative of ‘modernist Islam’ that had begun to erode in the 1970s and was replaced by an entirely reactive one from the 1980s onwards.
But the new narrative is more pragmatic than ideological. It simply suggests that to make Pakistan an important economic player in the world, certain radical steps are necessary.
These steps include the proliferation of free enterprise and foreign investment which, in turn, requires Pakistan to change its security policies and crackdown on anything threatening the erosion of local and international economic confidence.
Optimists have already predicted that Pakistan is well on its way to pull itself out of the quicksand which it created (and then fell into since the 1980s); whereas the skeptics have advised caution.
They say it was just too early to predict anything conclusive because the mountain through which the country is now trying to drill a tunnel, has been piling upwards for over 30 years now.