Fading optimism

Published August 21, 2022
The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

SECTIONS of the clergy and society have issued an outright condemnation of the dance performance that took place at the Independence Day ceremony as shameful and going against the ideology of Pakistan. They criticised the government for allowing such ‘objectionable acts’ in its annual Aug 14 celebrations.

Needless to say, freedom of expression is the democratic right of all Pakistanis, including clerics. Still, these reactions reflect a bitter dichotomy that state and society have failed to address even after 75 years of being independent. This dichotomy is related to a vague sense of national identity, which overshadows not only politics and social coherence, but also statecraft and the behaviour of state institutions.

The average Pakistani wants to be modern within a religious frame. Neither the clergy nor the state can build such a unique citizenry. As a result, religion has become a tool in powerful hands. Religious elites and civil society have taken different positions, inspired by various forms of religiosity and liberalism respectively. A major challenge confronting both state and society today is how to reconcile the diverging notions of identity in Pakistan’s nationhood discourse.

The use of religion may not be a unique phenomenon in societies where power elites control the system through electoral processes or any form of authoritarianism. However, the excessive use of religion by the power elites in Pakistan has triggered societal decay, which is a major contributor to the chronic crisis the state is suffering. On the one hand, all economic, social and political indicators are in decline; on the other, religious institutions are thriving in the country. The ultimate victim of the crisis is the youth, who are confused and have minimal potential to thrive when compared to their counterparts in neighbouring democracies. Democracy is merely a slogan for political parties, which actually lack democratic processes and exploit whatever flaws they see in the latter.

The responsibility for this state of decay lies with all institutions.

Pakistan ranks 123rd on the global Democracy Matrix, just two points better than Afghanistan, and falls in the category of hybrid regimes. According to Freedom House’s latest ranking, Pakistan is 37th from the bottom on its freedom status index; political and civil rights are in a shambles. Pakistan is sliding on the Fragile States Index, according to the Fund for Peace’s latest indicators. All this shows a decline in the economy, politics and social cohesion. Two trends are going up: demographic pressures, and the elite’s unity to protect its collective interests. An ordinary man is paying for the cost of unity of power elites as economic inequality rises and the state loses its legitimacy. One outcome of this situation is capital flight and brain drain.

Read: Democracy and prosperity at 75

Neither the founders nor the supporters of the idea of Pakistan would have thought that in the year of its diamond jubilee, their beloved motherland would have been in the throes of such a crisis. Optimism about the future has become a rare commodity even among sections of the elite, and religion has become a refuge for the ordinary citizen. It is an easy way out for the elites to keep ‘harmonising’ society through religious education and indoctrination. Educational curricula are dogmatic, and the schooling system discourages critical thinking and learning. As a result, even educated youth fail to develop the ability to think clearly and rationally.

According to a study conducted by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies to assess the thinking patterns of the educated youth, a major section of this cohort thinks that democracy is the most suitable system for Pakistan. At the same time, they believe that previous dictatorships in the country were justified.

This is a collective failure, and the responsibility for this state of decay lies with all institutions. Apparently, every institution has ideas on how to bring the country out of its crisis, but the will and capacity to do so are lacking. This month alone, many papers and articles are being published about the factors leading to the state of continuing rot, with intellectuals and experts suggesting solutions for improving the economy and political stability, and advocating a balanced geostrategic approach, and implementing reforms in education and governance. The recommendations are worthy, but the mother of all challenges is: who will take the initiative?

This is not only the era of narratives which influence minds and the policies of states; it is also a time when the clash of narratives creates the ambiance for dialogue. It is not surprising when political parties and civil society suggest a dialogue or a charter to resolve challenges ranging from the economy to politics to extremism. However, the question is: who will be part of that dialogue and who will initiate it? Senator Raza Rabbani has suggested a dialogue within institutions to resolve civil-military imbalances. But why would a strong institution talk to a weaker stakeholder on equal terms? Especially when the political leadership across the board is happy to remain subservient?

Perhaps, the political parties themselves will have to initiate a dialogue among themselves. The Charter of Democracy is a model, and on similar lines, all major political parties can initiate a dialogue to decide on a basic framework of political engagement and strengthen parliament. The political actors should decide to reform their political structures, make them democratic and inclusive, and resolve all their differences. Rather than calling upon the ‘neutrals’ to change their approach, Imran Khan should take this initiative. Mian Nawaz Sharif is himself an architect of the Charter of Democracy. And who knows the cost of democracy better than Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari?

Dialogue among parties is essential but state and society also need a charter to change the national outlook, which should be moderate and acceptable, not for the world but for us. That will make this country a place where the weak feel safe, and the strong do not abuse their power, religion or numerical strength.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, August 21st, 2022

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