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Clients and patrons

July 06, 2019

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The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.
The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

KARACHI’S outskirts smelled of perfume and my father was outraged. It was 1959, I was just over eight years old, and president Dwight D. Eisenhower had stopped briefly in Karachi at the invitation of president-general Mohammed Ayub Khan. No city dweller then alive and aware could ever forget this visit. But few of them saw it for it was, a sign of things to come for the next 60 years.

Public and private buildings across the city had been spruced up weeks earlier. Decorative lights installed, roads re-carpeted, welcoming rehearsals performed in schools, and a massive musical fountain (later demolished) was especially constructed. Businesses, shops, and schools were ordered shut that day thus enabling three quarters of a million people — one of every three city residents — to line the roads holding banners “We like Ike” and to cheer the motorcade.

Eisenhower’s plane was scheduled to land at Mauripur air force base. In those days, the road to the city centre had a three- to four-kilometre stretch passing by the poverty-stricken Machar Colony. Carried by the sea breeze, the stench from its leather tanneries and of sewers filled with rotting fish forced you to hold your nose. Lest the American president’s olfactory sensibilities be offended, drums of perfume were flown in from Paris and sprayed along the roadsides.

Here’s how a weak state can survive in today’s cruel world without a protector and patron.

The payoff was generous for Pakistan’s government, and its powerful and its rich. US military and economic aid nearly doubled two to three years later and an entire air force was gifted to Pakistan. In the words of secretary of state John Foster Dulles, Pakistan was now “America’s most allied ally”. But high expectations were to sour soon. In 1965, Pakistan launched Operation Gibraltar in Kashmir and India counter attacked. There was high national indignation when the US abruptly stopped military supplies in the middle of the war.

The feeling of betrayal was still greater in 1971 after the American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and Naval Task Force 94 steamed out of the Bay of Bengal to signal their retreat. Nixon and Kissinger had promised to help Pakistan’s embattled army but the Soviets calmly persuaded them otherwise. Then came the nuclear sanctions, followed by a spurt in aid in exchange for support for America’s Afghan war. But when it was over there were more sanctions.

There’s a long, tortured history. After 9/11 came more aid for supporting yet another war in Afghanistan. Remember when the entire Council of Foreign Relations stood upon its feet to applaud Gen Musharraf? As he proudly acknowledges in In The Line of Fire, his government had filled Guantanamo prison with captured Al Qaeda members in a flat exchange for US dollars. But finally the US dumped Pakistan and chose India instead. The divorce is now total.

Rather than kick its dependency habits, Pakistan has sought and found new patrons. But, warned by earlier experiences, it’s surely time for us to reflect on the very nature of the patron-client relationship and its enduring costs. Three lessons will suffice for now.

First, in a fundamentally asymmetric strong-weak relationship the weak are anxious to appear weak because they hope deference will pay. Now the prime minister chauffeurs around visiting Arab princes, or dishes out the highest national civil awards to Gulf emirs with the deepest pockets, or relaxes hunting laws for houbara bustards, or doles out land and contracts to Chinese companies without accountability. Self-respect, it seems, is a small price to pay for a patron’s protection and largesse.

Second, a client frequently compromises on important principles for fear of annoying a patron. Pakistan cannot speak about the gulag-like situation of Chinese Muslims. Nor dare it protest the American-Saudi-Israeli war build up against Iran. Also politically impossible was any statement regretting the Saudi-led airstrike on a school bus in Yemen earlier this year that killed dozens of young children. Palestine stands forlorn and forgotten.

Third, patrons have their own interests. To call a friendship higher than the Himalayas, deeper than the oceans, and stronger than steel may be good poetry. But patrons act after a cold calculation of losses and gains. China’s silence on Kashmir and its climb-down in May at the United Nations on Masood Azhar’s blacklisting shows just how carefully it weighs things. Saudi Arabia, on which Pakistan pins its hopes, went along with India.

What’s the alternative? How does a weak state survive in a cruel world without a protector? For a start, that state can build confidence by putting its own house in order. When its citizens see it committed above all else to meeting their needs, they are more likely to protect it. They will then pay their due share of taxes because the state is seen as fulfilling its obligations. But if obviously legitimate demands, such as the presumption of equal rights stemming from citizenship, a freedom from arbitrary arrest and persecution, the removal of land mines and unnecessary check posts etc., are refused then expect rebellion not patriotism.

Legitimacy matters. It grows from the rule of law being applied equally and fairly for rich and poor alike, and for those in uniform and out of uniform. This means the judicial system must not be tampered with. You do not make a country strong by engineering the removal of judges who have courageously followed the law and their convictions.

People make their state strong. For this they need wide-awake minds, some understanding of how the world works, and a voice in national decisions. Such people are not easily swayed by conspiracy theories or a foreign hand. Instead of battling with demons in some imaginary 5-G hybrid war, they can put their energy where it’s needed.

Statecraft is not rocket science. It’s actually much harder because it needs wisdom, compassion, foresight and courage. So why not try making peace at home and with our immediate neighbours to the east and west? Now that we’ve again said Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar have been put away, let’s stick to our promise this time. We may then not need to import perfumes from Paris.

The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, July 6th, 2019