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What went wrong?

August 24, 2010


PAKISTAN'S prospects at birth were unpromising. The country lacked industry and education. Its father rued a truncated, moth-eaten baby. Indian politicians confidently predicted infant mortality. However, while Indian politicians expected the irate sibling to come back, the infant nation performed a miracle. Pakistan soon had a significant manufacturing base, its growth rates exceeded that of India and the country was being heralded as a developing star.

Today, Pakistan features regularly on the list of the world's most unstable and violent countries. The instability thwarts progress. New crises and uncertainties emerge every few days. The poster child has become the problem child.

What went wrong? Most countries comprise many classes and ethnic groups. Stable are those where one or two groups provide durable leadership by crafting an overall vision which incorporates the interests of most groups, which are not so divergent as to be irreconcilable. Where this is not true, instability emerges.

The Mughals brought numerous ethnic groups and regions together in a united India and superimposed across ethnicity two main classes: the jagirdars and peasants. While strengthening feudalism, the British introduced new competitor classes: a professional army, an urban bureaucracy and business classes. Given the British policy of divide, reward, rule and exploit, each group was trained to pursue British and their own parochial interests competitively rather than national development collaboratively with other groups.

Pakistan inherited these competing groups with their parochial mindsets and divergent agendas. Gen Zia added two violent classes: the militants and mafias. Recently, the media and judiciary have assumed strength. And finally, there is interference by foreign powers.

Pakistan's instability then stems from the high number of interest groups, and their divergent agendas, which defy easy incorporation into a single cohesive vision. Only the army, industrialists and landlords are currently strong enough to attain power but even they have to co-opt other groups and address their competing agendas. Thus, the country lurches in different directions as everyone jostles for control. No group is in power for long as it invariably alienates the others, both due to divergent agendas and its own parochial inclinations. As the number of groups has increased, so has instability.

Many readers may find this historical analysis boring and prefer to blame bad luck for having so many bad leaders. Where some leaders fail, a focus on their individual weaknesses and freak chance makes sense. But where a country produces mostly poor leaders, through democracy or dictatorship, it is wiser to look at structural causes, for this cannot be by chance.

People assert that things could have been much better if we had better leadership. However, this is not a very illuminating statement for obviously matters would be better if we had better leadership. The real question is whether better leadership was possible given our 1947 assets and liabilities. Unfortunately, no, for democracy could only throw up corrupt landlords or industrialists, and dictatorships could only produce generals with a grandiose security agenda incompatible with sustainable development and a force-based approach with little emphasis on compromise and dialogue which our enormous diversity dictates.

Thus, Pakistan's 1947 endowments necessarily meant decades of political instability and poor governance that would overwhelm the country's natural and human assets. The absence of industry, the 1949 India trade ban, irrigated land and a British-trained bureaucracy and business classes produced an initial burst of much lauded progress and illusions of immediate higher destiny. Unfortunately, reality kicked in soon as larger liabilities inevitably overwhelmed assets. Thus, both our progress and problems are not surprising and in line with our 1947 balance-sheet.

We were more constrained at birth than the Asian Tigers or India. This is important to understand as our failure to emulate them leads to the wrong conclusion that Pakistan is beyond redemption. We were dealt a much worse hand at birth, most notably in terms of the limited potential for immediate good governance and political stability.

How will the Gordian knot of Pakistan's instability be untied? The initial theorem suggests that, first, the number of contenders must reduce, with those interest groups eliminated that reject a rule-based state. Second, a stable relationship must emerge among the remaining groups, based on dynamic leadership and consensual national vision. Unfortunately, this is as un-illuminating a statement as, and merely an expansion in more grandiose Marxist terms of, the statement mentioned above about better leadership. The real challenge is analysing how such an eventuality could emerge, and soon.

A reduction in contenders can happen by just one contender's actions within three years. If the army were to realise the structural inability of Pakistan's economy to support its outsized regional ambitions, it could eliminate mafias and militants (some that it supports) whose goals are incompatible with a rule-based state, cease to contend for state power itself and hence also reduce the reasons for separatist tendencies and external interference.

China faces more enemies than us and has claims on Taiwan like we do on Kashmir. However, it does not pursue strategic depth by orchestrating friendly bordering regimes nor does it foment insurgency in Taiwan. China focuses instead on economic progress, knowing the rest will come eventually. While incompetent politicians invoke desperation, the army's consequent interventions cause more damage, like the impatient farmer's act of pulling out a slow-growing plant every few days to put fertiliser in its roots. Thus, the most violent aspects of our instability are caused and can be eliminated by changes in the army's goals.

Left then will be more manageable tussles of interests (the elimination of the arms mafia will keep them verbal) among landlords (PPP), industrialists (PML-N), and the middle-classes (the MQM, ANP, bureaucracy, judiciary, media etc.), which happens in all democracies and can be reconciled broadly in a cohesive national vision. This will require the second imperative mentioned above. Fortunately, Pakistan's changing socio-economic configuration make that likely too, though it will take a couple of decades.

The writer is a research associate at the University of California, Berkeley.