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Faulty comparisons

Updated May 11, 2017

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IMRAN Khan has a gift for communication. The former cricket legend is no spellbinding orator. He is also partial to making crude jibes unworthy of anyone with ambitions of becoming prime minister. But he does know how to make a simple observation and repeat it incessantly until it becomes firmly lodged in the minds of his audience.

With his latest talking point, Imran invites people to compare Pakistan under its current prime minister to the days of Gen Ayub Khan. Back then, the US president indulged in backslapping bonhomie with the Pakistani coup-maker. Crowds lined the streets of Manhattan as the Sandhurst graduate waved to them from an open-top convertible. In one photograph, Ayub can be seen joshing around with Lyndon B. Johnson, pretending to slap him.

And then there’s Nawaz Sharif, who, even after three decades of meeting US presidents, still manages to be daunted by the occasion. When he met Barack Obama, Nawaz fumbled for his glasses and avoided eye contact as he struggled to concentrate on his cue cards. When Donald Trump called, the prime minister was so thrilled at being called a “terrific guy” who does “amazing work” that his office couldn’t resist publishing the full transcript of the conversation.


Ayub wasn’t feted in the US because of a Pakistani economic miracle.


If the point of international politics is to be treated importantly by the US president, then Imran is pushing at an open door. Ayub got Jackie Kennedy to visit Pakistan. Nawaz couldn’t even lure Obama to Raiwind for his favourite daal and qeema. But the problem with such superficial comparisons is that they ignore crucial details of history.

In his nostalgia for the 1960s, Imran often cites a book supposedly authored by the Nobel Prize-winning Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal. In The Asian Miracle, Imran claims, Myrdal likened Pakistan’s development to California’s. The problem is that Myrdal never wrote a book by that title, or made any such claim. The closest he comes is a three-volume work called Asian Drama: an Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations, written during the Ayub years, with a sobering chapter on Pakistan.

“It is a very poor country without a history of political identity or national allegiance,” Myrdal writes. The only miracle he perceives is the fact that Pakistan survived. At several points he notes the simmering resentments that would ultimately lead to the break-up of the country. “The East provided about three-fifths of the country’s foreign exchange earnings, but virtually every index of prosperity favoured the West by a large margin.”

For two decades, East Pakistan exported more than it imported, but the neglect of the Bengali population, Myrdal notes, convinced them “that their wealth was being drained away for the benefit of West Pakistan”. Disaffection in East Pakistan, he adds, “was tinged with an almost anti-colonial resentment, particularly against ‘Punjabi imperialism’.” Similar feelings were aroused in Karachi when Gohar Ayub’s thugs attacked the Urdu-speaking population there.

Ayub came to power in 1958, declaring his coup ‘a revolution’ and blaming democracy’s failure on the weather. It was a system, he wrote in Foreign Affairs, “totally unsuited to the temper and climate of the country”. (As Ayub concedes in his autobiography, “I was not a very bright student”.) Much-touted land reforms, Myrdal notes, maintained high ceilings on land ownership and barely redistributed “two per cent of all cultivated land”, stabilising the position of hereditary landlords.

These landlords became the beneficiaries of Ayub’s ‘green revolution’, lavished with subsidies and loans. The other beneficiaries were a new industrialist elite, to whom the government supplied cheap machinery, raw materials and interest-free loans. Neither of the two groups encountered trouble from tax collectors. Economic growth rose, but inequality soared. Mahbub ul Haq found that two-thirds of the country’s wealth lay with 22 families.

On the foreign policy front, Ayub made Pakistan a Cold War ally, inaugurating the country’s dependence on American aid. In a second Foreign Affairs article, published in 1964, Ayub appealed to the United States to stop giving aid and arms to India, arguing that Pakistan was its only true regional ally and warning that India would soon revert to “her traditional anti-American policy”.

If Nawaz wrote anything as ingratiating, you can imagine Imran’s reaction. The truth is that Ayub wasn’t feted in Washington because of any Pakistani economic miracle, or the fact that he spoke English confidently and dressed well. His principal value to Kennedy and Nixon was as a member of four mutual security arrangements, making Pakistan, as the field marshal put it, “America’s most allied ally in Asia”.

Populists like Imran often speak of faded glories, reassuring their supporters that they can be easily reclaimed. If given a chance at power, they vow, I will make the country “great again”. The irony is that the same past they evoke is responsible for many of the problems they rail against today.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, May 11th, 2017