A new beginning?

Published November 29, 2022
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

‘Tabdeeli aa nahi rahi, tabdeeli aa gayee hai (change isn’t coming, it’s already arrived). And no, the PTI has little to do with it this time around. There is a change of guard in Pindi; the old chief is about to retire and a new one has already been announced after much chaos and confusion in the political sphere.

But now that it’s done, we can’t stop talking about the nayee (new) establishment. Such is our grasp of events and politics that when an individual retires, we speak as if the entire ‘establishment’ has been born anew. While it may just be a precaution on the part of those of us compelled to talk nonstop about politics, it perhaps also provides an insight into our ‘establishment’.

However, even as we get ready for Gen Qamar Bajwa to hand over the baton to Gen Asim Munir and find some golf clubs to swing around, we will continue to discuss and debate his legacy for quite some time.

And in the discussions already taking place, many are laying great emphasis on the outgoing general’s claim of staying away from politics. This notion has fired the imagination of many democrats among our midst, who rightly hope the ‘new establishment’ will continue this policy and let the hapless politicians figure out some basic issues such as how to talk to each other.

Will the establishment consider two issues, neither immediate nor apolitical but which need introspection?

But not for me such high idealistic hopes. Perhaps age has finally dimmed, if not erased, the idealism which is the mark of not just the youth but also the young at heart. Instead, my wish list for the nayee establishment begins with a different assumption. Neither do they include obvious issues such as the role it may play with regard to the date of the coming election or the latter’s fairness. Or whether the ‘new’ ones will be able to or even want to heal the rift created in Punjab. These issues can be left for the television discussions, where they will be thrashed out, and then some, over the coming days and months.

The question is, in all this confusion: will the new establishment on the block also consider two issues, neither immediate nor apolitical but which can do with some introspection — for neither can be attributed to individuals but larger policies?

The first has to do with Balochistan. The province has been in the grip of unrest since 2006. It is a part of Pakistan but since the death of Akbar Bugti in August 2006 it has been associated with words that sit uncomfortably with all of us. These are words which we have not eased into or that have been associated with less negative connotations since they first became part of our conversations — ‘missing’, ‘disappeared’, ‘mutilated’, ‘alienated’. But in the past 15 years or so, while the hurt or discomfort appears to be easing or worsening, at different moments, there is little evidence of it dissipating entirely.

In this decade and a half, the province has witnessed different sets of politicians in charge. It has experienced a chief minister such as Aslam Khan Raisani, and then a mostly nationalist government headed by an aam aadmi, Dr Abdul Malik, and now a youthful chief minister, Abdul Quddus Bizenjo, whose affiliation is as open as his aversion to appearing in public. For what else would explain his conspicuous absence during the recent rains? But the province seems unchanged — the violence continues, the youth remain alienated and the dreams of game changers, such as the Gwadar port or CPEC, remain simply that: dreams.

Is there something wrong with how the province is seen and dealt with? Why was it so easy for Ziaul Haq to bring calm to the province after the unrest fomented during the Bhutto era, and why is it proving so intractable now? Do those in charge need to do some soul-searching, and can the new establishment take some tentative steps in this regard?

On to the next issue. While Balochistan is an area which carries the stamp of no one individual, the story of our economy is different. Its ‘successes’ have, despite its fragile state, been claimed by many, including the outgoing men. From FATF to IMF to the loans from friends and brothers, the establishment doesn’t just have a role to play, it is also not averse to talking about it. Time and again, we have heard of how hard Gen Bajwa worked in this regard.

The trips abroad, the phone calls, the visits of ambassadors, all of this is part of the role played as we needed all hands on deck for the economy.

But the nayee establishment needs to think why our entire diplomacy, especially by them, can only manage to ensure us loans and rollovers enough to survive months at best and avert a default.

Is it possible to approach the issue differently so that the establishment doesn’t have to make these trips and ask for these favours? And who can ensure the loans and rollovers transform into dollars earned, a healthy current account deficit and a more equitable economy, at least by South Asian standards? A charter of economy may not be the answer here, just like the Charter of Democracy didn’t really deliver a stronger, more democratic political system.

The economic benefits of such calls and diplomacy are now offering diminishing returns, as the world changes — be it for a United States, where Afghanistan is no longer a central concern, or for a Middle East, which is losing interest in fragile Muslim countries that do not have the capacity for investment and are only looking for loans.

Can the establishment make this transformation to a more modern economy, or at least identify how the ball can be set rolling? The answer does not lie in finding a person who promises miracles but in understanding what is hindering the process.

Is it even possible to begin these conversations, which might prove a tad uncomfortable?

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, November 29th, 2022

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