National purpose

Published October 2, 2022
The writer, a former foreign secretary, is director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad, and author of Diplomatic Footprints.
The writer, a former foreign secretary, is director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad, and author of Diplomatic Footprints.

A COUNTRY aspiring to rise within the comity of nations needs a clear national purpose, pursued by visionary leadership, predicated on a long-term plan, and overseen by rigorous accountability mechanisms. Henry Kissinger in his latest book Leadership defines good leaders as those acting on the intersection of “the abiding values and aspirations” of those they lead.

While Pakistan may appear to fall short of many of these criteria, no crisis here has been more fundamental than the failure to define a broadly agreed national purpose. The Quaid provided apt guidance in his speech of Aug 11, 1947, but died before he could set the state’s political direction. The leaders that followed either lacked the capacity to implement his guidance, or wilfully ignored it during three distinct eras: the Cold War years, the globalisation phase, and post 9/11. Even a cursory look at our political history indicates how our progress has been constrained by the absence of consensus on what constitutes our ultimate national purpose.

Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military ruler, prioritised ‘development’ — his vision for the country’s future. To this end, he used the alliance with the US to build Pakistan’s infrastructural and industrial base. Then came Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who defined his vision for Pakistan as ‘Islamic socialism’. He nationalised Pakistan’s basic industry, distanced the country from America and favoured closer ties with China. In 1973, he forged a political consensus on the Constitution, which stipulated that Pakistan would be “a democratic State based on Islamic principles of social justice”. Gen Ziaul Haq embarked on a variant of this vision, choosing to ‘Islamise’ the country. Externally, he teamed up with the US to launch the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union, propping up madressahs across Pakistan.

A consistent goal has eluded our leaders.

Ayub, Bhutto and Zia pursued varying versions of national purpose. The next generation of leaders was no different. Benazir Bhutto emphasised resurrecting the democratic order and worked to promote rights-based social development. Nawaz Sharif envisioned an open economy and a peaceful neighbourhood, the centrepiece of which was cooperative ties with India, which he thought would complement his vision of economic growth and prosperity for Pakistan. Benazir and Sharif were elected twice each (in 1988 and the 1990s), but were obliged to leave without completing their terms. The 1990s, which for the rest of the world was a euphoric time of globalisation and interdependence, was a politically turbulent one for Pakistan, with considerable disillusionment about the country’s future direction.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks obliged Gen Pervez Musharraf to again ally Pakistan with the US, this time to fight transnational terrorism. For the next decade, Pakistan became embroiled in the US-led ‘war on terror’, with far-reaching consequences for Pakistani society. Musharraf projected ‘enlightened moderation’ as the way forward, and in that context, tried to carry out madressah reforms and allowed greater media freedom. Asif Zardari prioritised the continuity of the democratic process. Nawaz Sharif, in his third term, made another attempt in 2015 to reach out to India in line with his vision of a peaceful South Asia, but was ousted from power. Imran Khan wanted to create a ‘naya’ and corruption-free Pakistan, but his rule was long on rhetoric and short on action. A coalition government led by Shehbaz Sharif is now ruling, with no larger national purpose in sight except to pull the country out of a deep economic morass exacerbated by the recent devastating floods.

This résumé of our political history illustrates a few notable trends. First, every political or military ruler gave his or her own twist to Pakistan’s national purpose, mostly to stay in power. Second, successive rulers claimed their vision was in Pakistan’s ‘best national interests’, without clearly defining how those interests served the masses they led. Third, parliamentary democracy was repeatedly interrupted by military coups, giving rise to a misplaced belief that restoration of democracy itself was a national purpose, while electioneering masqueraded as democracy.

As Pakistan marks 75 years of its independent life, the first ever National Security Policy has been fielded this year. The document is far from perfect, but it identifies a clear national purpose for the country: “ensure the safety, security, dignity and prosperity” of the people of Pakistan. With the country facing unprecedented political divisions, economic crisis and societal disorder, there is a need for a grand national dialogue to forge a consensus on a citizen-centric national purpose and constitutionally bind all stakeholders to pursue it. The parameters set out in the NSP could be a good starting point.

The writer, a former foreign secretary, is director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad, and author of Diplomatic Footprints.

Published in Dawn, October 2nd, 2022

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