A Confluence Of Challenges

SEATO allies Governor-General Ghulam Mohammad and his handpicked Prime Minister Mohammad Ali Bogra huddle together with US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles at the Governor-General’s residence in Karachi during Dulles’ four-day visit to Karachi on May 22, 1953. (Courtesy: Ghulam Mohammad Archives/Naeem Malik Collection)
SEATO allies Governor-General Ghulam Mohammad and his handpicked Prime Minister Mohammad Ali Bogra huddle together with US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles at the Governor-General’s residence in Karachi during Dulles’ four-day visit to Karachi on May 22, 1953. (Courtesy: Ghulam Mohammad Archives/Naeem Malik Collection)

PAKISTAN always seems to find itself at a crossroads facing new and more enduring challenges. One path we could have taken was to address these challenges. The other option was to leave the unresolved problems to fester and multiply. Sadly, the first was not the road taken.

Today, the country confronts a number of overlapping governance challenges. They include daunting problems of solvency, security, mounting energy and water shortages, environmental degradation and an increasing youth bulge in an environment of economic stagnation.

This focuses attention on the reasons that got Pakistan here. What has been its political experience that has led to this situation? Lurching from crisis to crisis, the country has lacked a stable and predictable environment to solve its problems. It has not been able to establish a viable political order or evolve a political consensus on strategic priorities that could be translated into policy. It is not experimentation with political systems — parliamentary and presidential — that is responsible for its elusive quest for political stability. Presidential systems were in any case a façade for military rule and little more than vain efforts to ‘civilianise’ political interventions by the armed forces.

A complex interplay among various sets of internal and external factors helps to explain the confluence of challenges — governance, politics and the economy — that continue to confront Pakistan. Complicating the quest to resolve its problems is the impact of external developments on the country’s fate and fortunes. The external and the internal have been so intertwined in Pakistan’s history as to make its challenges even more complex.

Maleeha Lodhi calls for governance that goes well beyond power politics. Perhaps the emergence of new power structures and an assertive urban middle class will finally align governance to public purpose.

The country’s ability to weather the storms of global geopolitics has been repeatedly tested. Dealing with these from a state of domestic fragility has ended up exhausting Pakistan and compounding its difficulties. Its much-acclaimed geostrategic location has been as much a liability as an asset. Successive governments believed, and so did the military, that geography translated into leverage and strength. The fact is that our location at the centre of geopolitical crises only complicated the country’s quest for stability.

A repetitive cycle

Turning to factors that contributed to its challenges, the most obvious one is the lack of political stability with the country alternating precariously between civilian governments and military rule in a repetitive cycle punctuated by outbreaks of public protests demanding change. Just about half its history has been spent under military rule. Political discontinuity has contributed greatly to its problems. It also bequeathed a legacy of power asymmetry between elected and unelected institutions. This yielded the so-called hybrid arrangement in recent times based on informal power-sharing between the elected government and the military.

The second element comprises governance challenges that are also the result of blowback from the country’s protracted foreign engagements during the Cold War and beyond, the impact of great power rivalries and the fault lines of regional geopolitics.

Pakistan’s close involvement in the war of unintended consequences following the 1979 Russian invasion of Afghanistan came at an extraordinary cost — the country’s own stability. This spawned a pattern of behaviour that was repeated throughout its subsequent history. While the country’s leaders played geopolitical games that sought to leverage and enhance Pakistan’s regional influence, the neglect of pressing problems at home exacted a heavy price.

External overstretch and internal under-reach has been a persistent pattern in Pakistan’s history.

The multifaceted fallout of the two long Afghan wars, first during the Soviet invasion bid, and then following the US-led military intervention in 2001, was immensely destabilising for Pakistan. Poor anticipation and management of its consequences as well as some flawed strategies made matters worse.

Tyranny of geography

Another inter-related factor is the product of Pakistan’s volatile and tough neighbourhood, with contested and insecure borders. The tyranny of geography imposed a heavy burden. The shadow of a much bigger and hostile neighbour, India, the ‘unfinished business’ of Partition epitomised by the Kashmir dispute, and an unstable Afghanistan on the western border consistently made security the top national priority. This also made the goal of security and deterring India (through conventional military means as well as by the acquisition of nuclear capability) an overwhelming preoccupation.

It involved the inevitable trade-off in which human development needs were accorded secondary importance as public demands for education and health were not adequately met. This meant that while the state’s hard power kept increasing, human security fell behind.

Yet another factor contributing to governance challenges emerged from the legacy of sweeping nationalisation undertaken in the 1970s by the country’s first elected prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Extensive state intervention in the economy produced the phenomenon of ‘too much government, too little governance’ for decades to come. Mismanagement of a large number of state enterprises also became a drain on the national exchequer. It crowded out private investment, and diverted the already scarce resources away from the social sector, including education.

Losses in these state-owned enterprises run into billions every year and are still met by subsidies and bailouts. This has placed a growing burden on fragile public finances and limited the state’s capacity to deal with rising demographic pressures and public needs.

Religion & regionalism

Of the continuities in Pakistan’s political experience, the issues of religion and regionalism have repeatedly tested the country’s unity. The salience of these issues has fluctuated due to shifting politics and state priorities as well as the public response. Religion and regionalism would perhaps not have been continuing sources of tension had efforts to provide effective governance been successful; one that met the economic and social needs of the people. Poor governance created the space for religious schisms and provincial or ethnic sentiment to intensify and find political expression.

Certainly, long periods of military rule magnified resentment among the smaller provinces by centralising and concentrating power, and also because the army was predominantly drawn from one province. Provincial tensions have not just been a reflection of a linguistically and culturally diverse society, they are also reflective of the either the absence or failure of nation-building efforts. They also signify disputes over the share of financial and natural resources, water and gas, against a backdrop of shortages and rising population. These issues have not disappeared, except that regionalism seems to have receded except for unresolved issues and the sense of deprivation among people in Balochistan.

The influence of religion in national politics has also ebbed and flowed. Since its inception, Pakistan has seen bitter ideological controversies over the role of religion in state and society. But, as historian Ayesha Jalal has pointed out, for the first three decades or more Pakistan functioned as a moderate, liberal state with religion “kept in check” in state affairs.

This changed dramatically with the advent of General Ziaul Haq’s military rule. He fused religion and politics to legitimise his regime and carried out a self-assigned campaign to Islamise the country, including its legal and educational system. These policies had serious consequences that polarised society along religious and sectarian lines.

Together with the role the country played in the Afghan war, this spawned extremist tendencies in society. It also left enduring effects on the social fabric. But the paradox in subsequent years was that though religious parties did not do well at the ballot box, the influence they wielded was much greater in the country’s politics. This disproportionate influence resulted in their patronage by national power centres.

Violent extremism and militancy on the other hand had both external and internal dimensions and drivers. This again underlined how the two intersected to compound Pakistan’s problems. Their rise is closely linked to Pakistan’s role in the war in Afghanistan against the Soviets. This brought a witch’s brew of problems, including over three million refugees, proliferation of weapons, spread of narcotics, exponential growth of seminaries and militancy.

Another driver was Saudi-Iran tensions and rivalry in the 1980s and beyond, their sponsorship of organisations and seminaries and funnelling of money to sectarian groups of choice. This spawned sectarian tensions and violence, which has punctuated Pakistan’s history.

The way the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan was conducted by the US-led coalition exacerbated Pakistan’s security problems, pushing the conflict into its border regions and leading to the emergence of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The spreading militant influence in the frontier region prompted the launch of a series of military actions by the army, the largest antiterrorism campaigns anywhere in the world.

This went through several phases and finally succeeded in clearing these areas and dismantling terrorist bases. But the security threat from the TTP continues to this day in the form of cross-border attacks against Pakistani military personnel as the militant organisation remains based in Taliban-run Afghanistan.

Dysfunctional economic policies

A major contributory factor for present-day challenges and a consistent feature of Pakistan’s history has been the reliance by successive governments — both civilian and military — on dysfunctional economic policies. This involves excessive borrowing rather than mobilising domestic resources to address the country’s widening budget and balance of payments deficits.

Here, too, external and internal factors intersected. In earlier decades, Pakistan’s Cold War alliance with the West provided the policymakers the means to finance deficits with soft loans. Successive governments — dominated by rural and urban elites — therefore found the means to avoid reforms, raise sufficient revenue and tax themselves and their supporters. The dependence on external resources to finance both development and consumption was thus both encouraged and facilitated by the availability of concessional assistance as a consequence of the country’s foreign alignments.

Cold War assistance accompanied Pakistan’s close alliance with the US under military pacts such as Seato and Cento. In the 1980s Western aid flowed as a strategic payback for Pakistan’s pivotal role in resisting and rolling back the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The 9/11 incident again increased Pakistan’s strategic importance for Washington, which mobilised international efforts to provide financial resources and IMF financing for budgetary support as well as debt restructuring to ease Islamabad’s economic problems.

Borrowed growth

The result was aid-fuelled economic growth during much of the Zia period and then again during the military dispensation of Gen Pervez Musharraf, which created an illusion of economic progress. This borrowed growth may not necessarily have had such deleterious consequences if the fiscal space it provided was used to launch reforms to solve the underlying structural problems of the economy: broadening the tax net, documenting the economy, diversifying the export base, and encouraging savings to finance a level of investment that could sustain an economic growth rate higher than the rise in population. But none of this happened.

The availability of external resources along with high levels of remittances from overseas Pakistanis simply enabled the country to paper over the structural problems of the economy. Economic management relying on someone else’s money permitted the country’s rulers to postpone the much-needed structural reforms that could have placed the economy on a viable, self-reliant path. Once concessional financing began to taper off, it was replaced by expensive foreign and domestic borrowing. This phase of borrowed growth was unsustainable, and led to the accumulation of enormous debt.

It was during the 1980s that the budgetary resource crisis emerged as a chronic threat to Pakistan’s financial stability. The year 1985 marked a sharp break in Pakistan’s budgetary history, with revenue no longer matching even the government’s current expenditure. For the next decade and beyond, successive governments borrowed heavily to finance not only development but also consumption. In the process, the country accumulated unsustainable debt both by borrowing abroad and at home. This burden continues to cripple the economy today.

Successive civilian and military governments were unwilling to mobilise resources and preferred instead to pursue pain-free ways to manage public finances. This of course can be explained in terms of a governing elite or privilegentsia averse to measures that they felt would erode their position or threaten their class or corporate interests.

Pakistan’s political history has been replete with governance failures and lost opportunities. But there have also been positive changes in the political and social landscape that open up possibilities for the country to escape its unedifying past. For instance, political actors — parties, leaders and other stakeholders in the political process — have developed a common stake in the preservation of democracy. This was not always the case in the past. There is now wide acceptance and firm public consensus that military intervention is not the answer or even an option. The military is part of this consensus. This has translated into de-legitimisation of military rule although this does not yet mean de-legitimisation of the military’s role in national affairs.

Besides, a rebalancing of power among state institutions has been underway in the democratisation process, which has now proceeded uninterrupted for 14 years, with different actors trying to find their place in a changing political landscape.

A renegotiation and realignment of power is underway between various national stakeholders — executive, parliament, judiciary, and the army. At times this vying for space has unleashed tension and friction, but this should be seen as part of an inevitable process to establish a new equilibrium, which involves determination and acceptance of each institution’s legitimate role.

Old & new power structures

Also, the old power structure is being transformed by the emergence of several new countervailing forces — an activist judiciary, an energetic media, and a vibrant civil society. The power of public opinion is an increasingly important factor shaping the political discourse in the country. This is changing power dynamics as well as how people judge government performance, making Pakistan part of a global trend of greater transparency brought about by the revolution in modern communications. This has generated a new sense of public awareness and empowerment.

And, finally, the rise of a larger, more assertive urban middle class is a critical factor. Its size may be disputed (it is put anywhere between 50 and 70 million people), but the reality is not. The political dynamics unleashed by a middle class that wants a bigger political voice first expressed itself in the lawyers’ movement of 2007-08. Although the campaign had a single-point agenda, it reflected wider democratic aspirations and was spearheaded by middle-class professionals, with politicians following, not leading, the urban upsurge.

An urban middle class wanting to play a role in the country’s politics holds opportunities to align Pakistan’s governance system both with the forces of demographic change, and also with the relatively modernist impulses of a social class whose worldview is quite different from the change-averse, traditional society. The transformed environment, characterised by the rise of new actors, more-empowered institutions, and an expanding middle class, is recasting the relationship between the state and the citizen.

Only the future will determine if these changes can crystallise into a new kind of politics that goes beyond a power game to connect governance with public purpose, and taps into the resilience of the Pakistani nation to establish a foundation for effective governance that people have long deserved, but have been deprived of.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

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