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Useful instability

Published Jan 30, 2011 08:03pm

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THE weakness of the Pakistani state continues to worry many, both within and outside Pakistan. There tends to be very little appetite, both among external benefactors and segments of the Pakistani civilian and military elite, for any form of instability believed to be affecting the state’s capacity to tackle militancy.

This includes prolonged or recurrent political crises, seeming indifference among the leadership towards weakening economic prospects, lack of political will to tackle militancy holistically, and absence of resolve to challenge the ultra-right sentiment that seems to be gaining at the expense of the moderates.

As we look to the future we cannot but help notice an inherent disconnect between this obsession with avoiding episodes that lead to uncertainty and chaos in the short term, and the desire to see a stable Pakistan in the long run. While the attributes that all well-wishers want the Pakistani state to exhibit are exactly the ones needed for sustained stability — consolidated democracy, robust economy, elimination of terrorist presence, a moderate polity that respects the rule of law, etc — the journey to this end cannot be completed without significantly high instability in the interim. In fact, attempts to avoid uncertainty and instability in the short term will undermine the end objective.

Let me project Pakistan’s most likely path to stability in two of the mentioned areas, politics and the economy, to substantiate my observation.

Politically, Pakistan is moving towards a phase where coalitions are likely to replace hegemonic parties. We are witnessing the beginnings of this trend today. Reinforcing it is the move towards a more decentralised Pakistan that will lend itself to more influence for regional and ethnic parties in years to come.

As coalition politics becomes the norm, it will bring with it all the messiness, uncertainty and superficiality inherent in it. Pakistan will see repeated political tensions: coalition partners will switch sides regularly to up the ante, oppositions will support the ruling alliance in times of distress and create hurdles on other occasions, smaller parties will piggyback on larger ones at times and oppose the same when they see fit, the military will try and meddle from behind the scenes to maintain its stakes in the new system, etc. The overall political landscape will see coalitions and governments form and break with relatively high frequency. The recent political crisis involving the ruling PPP-led coalition may have presented a glimpse of what is in store for us in the years ahead.

On the face of it, recurrence of political crises will be seen as counterproductive to the country’s long-term stability. In reality, however, it is only by going through repeated iterations of such politicking that the political elite may develop a spirit of cosociationalism: indigenous mechanisms that will allow them to co-exist, to bargain keeping the country’s long-term interests in mind even as they protect their own short-term gains, and ultimately to arrive at a consensus on certain national issues that they deem too important to hold hostage to political expediency. At this point, Pakistani politics will resemble that in India today. Individual politicians would not have changed (although some new, dynamic ones would have arrived on the scene), nor would their desire for short-term gains have disappeared. But they would have forged a grand, elite consensus around certain national interests they agree must not be undermined at any cost.

Economic decision-making is intrinsically linked to the state of politics in the country. One can expect populist decisions until the grand consensus emerges on points relevant to the economy. The RGST debate is a pertinent example. While being responsive to public sentiment against additional taxes, political parties never made an attempt to explain to their constituents that Pakistan has committed to an IMF package that compels it to impose such taxes. Nor did they offer any viable alternatives. The PPP, for its part, used the RGST as a bargaining tool to get the MQM back into the coalition.The international community is dismayed at the PPP’s backtracking on the issue and sees it as proof of the self-serving nature of Pakistani politicians. They are right. But why would anyone expect otherwise from a political class that has remained self-centred for the longest period of time, has found no incentive to break from patronage politics and has hardly ever found room or time to evolve into a more thoughtful and mature cohort? For them to do otherwise, they need to go through the iterative political process described above, with all its attendant messiness and uncertainty.

One could easily apply the same argument to questions about extremism and terrorism and virtually all others of consequence. But the point ought to be clear.

Let me then ask the ultimate question: will Pakistan find the space to go through an unstable and uncertain period of democratic consolidation and elite consensus-building? Or will its ‘special’ place in global politics deny it this luxury?Will the Pakistani military live with the messiness despite no guarantees of political and economic stability in a reasonable period of time? Will external actors with leverage over Islamabad continue to assist Pakistan even though elementary political and economic mistakes will be repeated for some time to come? Will Pakistan’s civil society or its business elite accept messiness that may at times seem to be thrusting the country towards chaos?

The current mindset suggests otherwise. More likely is a reality where well-meaning benefactors settle for short cuts: they may meddle in politics, choose favourites among politicians, opt for the neatness associated with a strong centre or a military-led or military-backed dispensation and prefer prudent macroeconomic decisions at all times even if these lack consensus.

The problem is that this will only bring temporary respite of a kind that will make the quest for long-term stability that much more difficult. The onus to avoid this lies on the very well-wishers who want Pakistan to be a stable, prosperous country, but presently lack the patience to let the process unfold.

The writer is South Asia advisor at the US Institute of Peace, Washington DC.

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