A nation adrift

11 Aug 2020


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

WHAT progress have we made in 73 years and where do we stand now? Progress occurs along economic, political, social, security and external axes. On all axes sadly, our progress is poor even against modest norms of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc).

Economically, we are doing better on per capita income, industrial base, poverty etc than we were in 1947. But we compare poorly in regional terms, with prolonged slow growth, regular twin deficit crises and high inequity. More sadly, our few short eras of growth came from iffy political ties with unreliable patron states. In contrast, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka achieved better growth by luring private capital via economic merit. We failed to do so.

Our foreign ties cause more pain than gain as our patrons impose odious duties. Ties with the US gave brief, flashy growth thrice but also conflicts that nixed gains. US advice on top-down, elitist growth in the 1960s contributed to conflict and the 1971 crisis. Odious duties for the US during two Afghan wars fuelled extremism. So did Saudi ties. Even the fruits of Chinese ties — free-trade pact and CPEC — gave us big external deficits. Our China ties irk the US. Ties with Iran, Turkey and Malaysia irk the Saudis. South Korea and Taiwan progressed thanks to their ties with the US. Our neighbours enjoyed decent growth even without such ties. We got poor results despite close ties with rich states.

The way forward is fair polls, devolution and civilian sway.

Socially, we started as a backward state run by rural elites, with poor status for women and vulnerable groups. We chose a regressive version of faith in the 1980s, focusing more on rituals. State and non-state actors crush critical views and creativity. We mistrust foreigners, even our own qualified dual citizens. Our actions regularly shock the world, ie blasphemy accused killed by mobs or in courts and abuses against minorities and women. But India now partly deflects world glare from us with its regular fits of mega insanity.

Political stability and civilian sway elude us and few know how the next change of government will come. Today, we can’t even boast of having a fairly elected regime. There is little consensus on democracy among key institutions and the middle class. This economic, foreign and political mix has led to insecurity. We have tensions with many neighbours, and have also suffered internal conflicts and only recently curbed terrorism under fairly elected regimes during 2008-2018.

Despite this huge gain, our overall status is poor today, with economic dependence and stagnation; political instability; social regression; structural insecurity and uncertain foreign ties. Each axis affects others negatively. Economically, we are ahead of our 1947 status but score poorly regionally. On other axes, we have stagnated or regressed. Along the five axes compositely, we are ahead regionally only of Afghanistan. But Afghan wounds are less self-inflicted than ours, as it couldn’t shape its own fate during 30 years of domination under two superpowers. We are lost and going nowhere.

Some may say I ignore our pluses. So let me oblige them. We have one of the biggest armies and a nuclear arsenal. But impish tongues will wag promptly that this sole collective plus is the cause of our many huge minuses. So why did we reach this sorry state? Naïve minds pin it on the sleaze of Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif. Saner minds assign more causal weight to political ineptitude. But they recognise we were born with more political deficits than most Saarc states: brand new state with no common governance history, ethnic clefts, sway of rural elites and lack of local roots and short history of Muslim League, our mother institution. With this mix, misrule was inevitable, as in many new states.

But unlike in many such states, unelected forces used the political gaps to wrest control of our politics. They made things worse via policies that served their interests, and that gave us economic dependence, insecurity and extremism via unstable foreign ties. Thus, sane minds assign most blame to those elements of state that dictate our fate by controlling not only our borders but also ideology, polity and foreign ties. Our poor outcomes reflect most their worldviews and diktat. So the way forward, as globally and in better-off Saarc states, is fair polls, devolution and civilian sway despite our political system’s faults.

But enough critique and let’s now wish on the coming anniversary: Happy birthday Pakistan and many happier returns of the day.

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


Twitter: @NiazMurtaza2

Published in Dawn, August 11th, 2020