A rudderless state

Updated 03 Dec 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.

PAKISTAN has lurched like a rudderless ship from one political mess to another recently, with the JUI-F dharna and the Bajwa extension fiasco being the latest ones. This has sidelined PTI’s already anaemic progress agenda and forced it constantly into firefighting.

But then, one has seen a similar pattern from the last few years of the Musharraf era onwards. The PTI era has merely seen a spike in it given its monumental ineptness as it competes fiercely with Benazir Bhutto’s first stint to be our most incompetent civilian setup ever. Its record has debunked the fond theory held by many for long that the simple solution to Pakistan’s ills is having an honest leader. It has bolstered others’ logic that sleaze is a less salient cause of Pakistan’s ills than illegitimacy, autocracy and ineptness.

Yet this lurching merely reflects a deeper form of being rudderless. Even after 70 years, Pakistan has yet to find political or economic moorings or a clear direction. Politically, it keeps lurching from overt autocracy to limited democracy to overt autocracy (as now). Civilian supremacy remains absent.

Economically too, Pakistan lurches from external deficit crises to fiscal deficit crises to stagnation. These frequent crises show that Pakistan hasn’t found a niche in the global economy, unlike Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka. Our few short eras of economic growth have been artificially induced by an overvalued exchange rate, easy flow of aid money due to political reasons and footloose global money flows looking to make a quick buck and exit.

We have an economic or political crisis every two to three years.

The end result is that we have an economic or political crisis every two to three years, and in between an unending series of smaller political fiascos. Security challenges take advantage of frequent political and economic crises to wreak violence often. What explains this high instability? Good social science analysis views things regionally. Why we didn’t become an Asian Tiger is a question arising from sheer fantasy; why we lag behind in South Asia is a question worthy of serious scholarship.

Political instability is easy to explain. It’s the obvious result of political activism in high military ranks historically, for our politicians are no more corrupt, dynastic and inept than those in regional states with more political and economic stability. This activism arose from the weaknesses of political institutions compared with military ones in 1947. The core of military institutions was based locally in Pindi while the top political leadership largely migrated from India and lacked a base locally. Military discipline instilled unity within army leadership while deep natural ethnic fissures instilled deep disunity within political leadership.

Political instability partly explains economic instability and stagnation, but not wholly. National economic dynamism is influenced heavily by economic dynamism within individual firms. So why have our economic agents not matched the economic mojo of our neighbors? Is it because our societal competence is lower? Or is it just a passing phase and we will soon reignite our true potential to zip past them and reach our destiny within the ranks of the Asian Tigers, as many fondly believe?

My own analysis suggests it isn’t a passing phase but a structural issue. Spurious growth under Ayub was the passing phase. India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have more national potential than us and may thus continue to outpace us.

Why do I make this gloomy prognosis which may hurt our overly sensitive national ego? To grasp this, we must unpack the concept of national potential. A group’s potential is lower the more it is internally divided and led by those who exploit others. The same is true for nations.

Pakistan was at birth more divided horizontally (ethnicity, faith or race) and vertically (class and caste) than Bangla­desh and Sri Lanka. India was even more divided but spent decades doing political and social experiments to sort out most of its divisions. This later gave it rapid economic progress. Pakistan couldn’t politically experiment due to institutional imbalances. This imbalance stunted its nat­i­onal potential, like overly strict fathers using physical force stunt a child’s creativity.

This doesn’t mean things can’t be better even if we lag behind others. The key is to rejig the institutional imbalance. Institutions whose forte is muscle power and strict discipline (which stifles creativity and experimentation) must take a back seat and let political and civil institutions lead society to take the risks of some failures in experimenting and sorting out first its political fissures and then its economic weaknesses. But then how does one bell the cat to do this?

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



Twitter: @NiazMurtaza2

Published in Dawn, December 3rd, 2019