Zia’s Pakistan

22 Oct 2019


The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.
The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.

MANY kids lose their real father early, to be then raised by a cruel stepfather who influences (and distorts) their growth more than the real one. Pakistan suffered the same fate. Jinnah, the father of the nation, died early. Zia later became the cruel step­father of the nation who crippled its long-term capacities to function as a normal state by corroding its basic societal ­structures more than any other ruler.

The Ayub, Yahya and Musharraf eras gave more violence but produced few durable changes in societal structures. Bhutto ranks as a distant second in harming long-term national abilities through nationalisation and a politicised bureaucracy. But then he also bequeathed some long-term pluses, eg, a constitution.

It is Zia who mainly shaped the deeply flawed social, political, economic, security and foreign policy structures of today’s Pakis­tan and crippled its long-term capacities.

In each sphere, he injected new toxic strains, elevated existing ones hugely or reversed gains from previous eras. Socially, he cemented bigotry, deep conservatism and the politics of faith. These traits exist latently in many developing states, and even developed ones. They kept erupting in Pakistan off and on before him too. But he provided official patronage to them and declared them to be virtues.

In each sphere, Zia injected new toxic strains.

Thus, individual latent urges crystallised into officially funded, muscular and violent societal forces. The elevation of these urges sapped the nation of creativity, tolerance and focus, with severe effects for economic potency.

Politically, he ensured a move from issues-based to corrupt patronage politics. Patro­nage politics emerges from the clan-based social structures of South Asian societies. The 1970 polls were won via issues-based politics. But Zia nixed that gain via partyless polls and block grants for MPs. Political corruption became endemic in his era.

The foreign policy mix included raising militants to achieve regional aims, which unleashed huge terrorism at home later. The security policy mix included extensive surveillance of society by intelligence agencies and their control over political actors.

Economically, he left a state that abdicated its role in upgrading industry, ran high fiscal and external deficits and debt levels, and chased IMF loans. The state played a key role in East Asian progress. The pre-Zia Pakistani state did play this role to some extent — via the Planning Commission and PICIC during the 1950s and 1960s and state-owned industrialisation under Bhutto. Both eras had their problems. But under Zia this role ended. The state started running perennial fiscal and external deficits and became addicted to IMF loans. The involvement of the military in business increased hugely to reduce private sector space.

These structures largely remain intact today. This raises the obvious question of why we were unable to reverse his deep imprint even 30 years after his death. It is easier to destroy something than to rebuild it. It takes a second to destroy a machine but days to repair it. It takes an idiot to destroy it but an expert to repair it.

Zia ruled for 11 years with absolute powers, guided by security-phobic lenses and with little regard for public welfare. Obviously, it would take highly capable rulers with a concern for public welfare, long tenures and full powers to undo this harm. No civilian has had the longevity or full powers to do so. His army successor Musharraf had these luxuries. But despite his enlightened moderation mantra, his policies turned Zia-era extremism into huge terrorism as he too was guided by security-phobic rather than ­public welfare lenses.

Today, Pakistan has a sullied global reputation. The economy is industrially stagnant and suffers large deficits and debt. Politics suffers from instability, corruption, incompetence and agencies’ control. Society is bigoted and intolerant with little space for freedom of thought and speech. All these reflect the corrosion of basic societal structures and the undermining of social, political, economic and national capacities primarily under Zia.

This corrosion has made Pakistan vulnerable to frequent social and economic turmoil, external threats and sanctions. So, even as it just emerged from its worst social turmoil since 1971 in the form of terrorism, it has plunged headlong into serious economic turmoil and FATF warnings. Political instability and tension is high due to the establishment’s manipulation of politics after 2016.

There is little chance that Pakistan can resolve these serious social, economic, ­political and external challenges and repair its corroded societal structures and national capacities under a manipulated political system. This can only be achieved by ­ensuring civilian supremacy and allowing political stability.

The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.



Twitter: @NiazMurtaza2

Published in Dawn, October 22nd, 2019