Pakistan: A Downward Spiral

By Anjum Altaf 

This essay was written after the last Asian Games in December 2006. When it was first submitted for publication the editors returned it as too pessimistic. Pakistan was at the time in its ‘enlightened’ phase and clocking high rates of economic growth – the writing on the wall was there even then but people wished not to see it. Many complained that the essay had simplified complex issues by using a trivial indicator of development. It was finally published in Chowk on July 30, 2007 with a sign of interrogation at the end of the title. Now that the lights have gone out and the country is bankrupt, we can take out the interrogation sign and finally face up to the reality. Hiding our heads in the sand is not going to get us anywhere. 

With a major election coming up, we are likely to hear a lot about the problems facing Pakistan, their origins and solutions, and the importance of democracy or good governance for the future. Many of these descriptions and arguments would be what we have heard many times before and many of the prescriptions would be like old wine in new bottles. We seem to be going round and round in circles.

Given the realities, going round and round in circles could be an enviable state of affairs. More and more people are becoming convinced that in tandem with going round and round in circles the country is also moving backwards in many ways. In other words, Pakistan is in a downward spiral.

There are people who argue that Pakistan has been in a downward spiral from day one. The realization that this may indeed be true struck me with some force when, in 1997, I thought about writing an essay on the golden years of Pakistan to mark fifty years of Independence. I had to concede, much against my will, that there really had been none and I dropped the idea. Did Pakistan peak with its creation? Was that its greatest moment of glory, although an event marked by about a million lost lives can hardly be considered in such a one-dimensional perspective? Even so, has there really been a golden age since then?

What can we use as evidence? A full third of the population still living below the poverty line sixty years after the event that was supposed to change our fortunes? Half the population still illiterate? People dying of contaminated water in the twenty-first century? People killing each other in their places of worship? These are devastating indicators but they are all subject to disputation, to alternative interpretations of bad data, to manipulation of the data itself. What else can we produce as evidence?

A short while after I gave up writing the essay on the golden years of Pakistan, I came across Intizar Hussain’s book Chiraghon ka Dhuan. The book is ostensibly about the fifty year history of Pakistani literature but it can profitably be read as the fifty year history of Pakistan itself. And what a story of decline it is. From a point where waiters in the Pak Tea House could hold their own in literary discussions to the point where writers were conversing in the language commonly associated with waiters. This is only a slight exaggeration. The book must be read to get a true sense of the cultural decline that has marked the journey of Pakistan. And cultural decay is a very powerful indicator of a more general decline.

And yet, some might argue that culture is luxury of the elites and what really matters is that everyone has a cell phone now. That’s all to the good, but cell phones did not exist  sixty years ago and are therefore not a good indicator of progress. The luxuries of one era become the necessities of another and such transitions often hide more complexities than they reveal. A lot more people also consume bottled water today but that can hardly be used as a measure of progress.

Let me refer to a measure about which there can be no disputation, which is spelled out in black and white for all to see for their own selves. Let me use Pakistan’s performance in the Asian Games as an indicator of how much and how well the country has invested in the health, education, training and welfare of its citizens. After all, a country’s investments in these areas should show up in its output and performance, shouldn’t it?

Well, let us start at the beginning. The first time Pakistan participated in the Asian Games was in 1954 and it was fourth in the ranking with a tally of four gold and five silver medals. One would expect that a new country, getting its act together, would build on the promise of its early years. If you thought so, be ready to be surprised. This was the highest ranking ever achieved by Pakistan in the Asian Games competitions; it was fifth in 1958, sixth in 1962, eleventh in 1966 and thirteenth in 1970. Talk about a continued decline.

Between 1974 and 1990, the performance picked up in terms of ranking going from eleventh in 1974 to sixth in 1990 although the number of gold medals did not exceed the four won in 1954. 1994 marked a falling off the cliff; the ranking plummeted to twenty- two and the number of gold medals to zero. In the recently concluded games in 2006, both the ranking (thirty-one) and the tally of medals (four) reached their lowest levels ever. Of the four medals, there were no golds, the lone silver was in kabaddi in which four teams participated, one bronze was shared and another was in a sport called Wushu.

From fourth in 1954 to thirty first in 2006: does that convince anyone there has been a decline? Let us look at the comparators. India was fifth in 1954 with four golds and four silvers. It lost ground but not much; its ranking in 2006 was eight while the number of golds and silvers were up to ten and seventeen, respectively.

But now let us get a sense of what real progress, a real golden age, looks like. China, which had a new beginning in 1949, two years after Pakistan, participated in the Asian Games for the first time in 1974 ranking third with 32 golds and 44 silvers. It climbed to second in 1978 (51 golds, 55 silvers) and first in 1982 (61 golds, 51 silvers). Since then China has never lost the top ranking: in 2006 it had 165 golds and 88 silvers against its name.

That’s as good a comparative picture as you can get: stunning progress, stagnation with a sign of a nascent pick up, and steep decline.

And yet, no heads rolled in Pakistan in 2006 and no one resigned. There were the customary and habitual calls for an enquiry and a few lame excuses. The same old story as the country continued to slide.

This is a sensitive subject, I know. Anyone arguing that Pakistan has been in a state of constant decline is considered un-Pakistani and advised to go where things are better. But that is not going to resolve Pakistan’s problems which are legion quite apart from whether there has been a decline or not. And the first step to resolving the problems is to understand them. One cannot go from a description of the symptoms to a prescription for the cure without securing a diagnosis. What ails Pakistan? Why is Pakistan beset by the problems it faces? We cannot afford to go round and round in circles without imploding at some point.

This is the motivation for this introduction to a proposed series of essays. One can look at them as an attempt to try and debate the reasons underlying our various predicaments and to assess what those reasons imply for the remedies that are being proposed. There is no need for the reader to agree with the arguments. There is a need, however, to join the argument. Otherwise we are likely to continue to spiral downwards together.

Since the time this essay was written, the Beijing Olympics have taken place. For the record, China won the highest number of golds (51) and India had three medals including its first ever gold in an individual sport. Pakistan had no medals whatsoever, behind war-torn Afghanistan which had one.

  • Aakar Patel
    Posted at 07:19h, 29 October Reply

    Returns in sport are a factor of investment in sport, not health and education.
    That India and Pakistan are at the bottom of the table is a reflection of the fact that little money is spent at the expert level, where potential champions are turned into champions.
    This is at the high school and college stage.
    Most nations have a body of second-rate athletes, but few have the resources to convert them into first-rate competitors.
    The Olympics is a very technical battlefield and its victors are those who are equipped with certain skills, mental and motor.
    China’s Olymics success unfolds from its desire to be recognised as a world power, and the investments it has made toward that end. I do not think it’s a byproduct of its citizens’ improving health.
    India’s one gold medal (in shooting) was won by a man who has a shooting range in his own house and whose father invested millions on him.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 14:01h, 29 October Reply

    The way this article is argued one would think that medals tally of Olympics or Asian games would accurately list state of development of various nations. This is not true. Soviet Union topped medals tally for many years and the East Germany followed it up; were/are they better governed then Pakistan? Pakistan may be in very bad shape but so are so many other nations. I believe Pakistan had a relatively better period in sixties during Ayub Khan’s time when it clocked 5-6 % rate of growth in GDP while India was bogged down to 2.5-3.5% growth rate.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 01:44h, 30 October Reply


    You have a valid point – returns in sports depend on investment in sports. But if we go one step back we can see where investment in health and education becomes important. The number of potential first rate performers is also a function of the size of the pool. If two-thirds of India’s population lives below $2 per day and it has the most malnutritioned people in the world (see:, the pool becomes very small. India has effectively turned itself into a very small country and this is where China has a huge advantage over India even when one concedes your point that China is using sports as another proof of its claim to being a super power.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 02:11h, 30 October Reply


    You are right – the medal tally is not the best indicator possible. But it has its uses. First, it is an objective indicator so that no can dispute it as is the case with most other commonly used indicators. Second, it does tell us something. Clearly, the number of medals won in the games are not randomly distributed across countries – there is some relationship with the level of development. I agree with you that one would have to exclude the few outliers like East Germany that became obsessed with medals and allegedly used steroids to bolster the performance of their athletes.

    Of course, if we want to be more precise, we will have to control for the great variation in the population size of the countries. A more accurate indicator would be medals per 100,000 population, for example.

    But the limited point I wanted to demonstrate with an objective indicator was that Pakistan’s performance has clearly deteriorated over the years. This is the result of and mirrors the decline in its overall governance. If you take a game like cricket, the raw talent available and the passion for the game remain phenomenal. But the management of that talent, the fairness in selection, and the leadership have declined steeply which is manifested in the results.

    So even it the indicator is not perfect, Pakistan’s decline in sports is a plausible pointer to its general decline in governance. Amongst the three countries mentioned, it’s governance is surely the worst. So are the results.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 05:45h, 31 October Reply

    I don’t agree. It may appear as well as a fact that Pakistan is badly governed but there are other countries much worse. You would think Saudi Arabia is better governed, it is not; Russia is better governed it is not and whole lot of nations. The apparent prosperity of a nation is not a sign of better governance. The problem of Pakistan is not governance but the state of its democratic institutions. India is lucky that its institutions are only slightly better. For instance armed forces are unlikely to ever siege power, the media and the judiciary is fiercely independent. Beyond this not much difference.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 21:47h, 31 October Reply


    That is fair enough. This disagreement can be resolved if we agree on some indicators of governance and then compare them across countries. Do you have any suggestions?

    Once we have a set of indicators we should be able to address the following questions:

    1. Is economic prosperity affected by the quality of governance?
    2. How is governance related to the state of democratic institutions?
    3. What difference does good governance make?

    Regarding the fact that in India the armed forces will never sieze power is a huge, not a minor difference. The continuity of governance itself is a problem in Pakistan. No government knows how long it will last so the power holders are only interested in enriching themselves before they are thrown out or deposed. They appoint incompetent cronies to all positions of critical importance so that the quality of governance is very poor. And poor governance translates into poor performance. It becomes so poor that it provides an excuse for the armed forces to step in. In turn, they appoint generals to run everything. So, it is a vicious circle the type of which India or Saudi Arabia or Russia have never seen.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 05:39h, 01 November Reply


    I am not saying Pakistan is not in bad shape; it is, but there are many nations in similar situation. And I will also concede that political stability is the major difference between India and Pakistan. It is true that there is a big difference in the role of armed forces of the two countries but Indian politicians too take short term view, not just short term view but they have a parochial focus as well. Indian politicians did not let go license/permit raj willingly, it just happened due to peculiar circumstances, therefore the economic up turn in India is in spite of the politicians. Now Pakistan will also gather same momentum if there is political stability, good governance will hasten it but bad governance will not be able to stop it.

    As regard to the questions, I am not in to economics therefore these are purely common sense answers:

    1. Good governance does accelerate economic activity and prosperity of nations but bad governance may not necessarily cause economic catastrophe.

    2. Governance is a constantly evolving thing in democracy and it is also cyclical in nature. Even in much evolved democracies you will see cycles of good governance followed by bad governance.

    3. Governance can be considered as merely an act of facilitation. Some times good governance can in fact hamper economic activity by redistributing wealth, targeting massive subsidies to focused groups etc.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 07:30h, 10 November Reply


    We agree that good governance helps but disagree on how much bad governance can hurt. Perhaps my meaning would be clearer if we take an example from the private sector. Good management can turn a firm into a global leader (many Indian firms are in that category now) whereas poor management can lead to bankruptcy and disappearance.

    Countries don’t disappear but they can go bankrupt (like Pakistan) or descend into violence like Rwanda or Idi Amin’s Uganda. So, the downside of poor governance for citizens can be quite devastating.

    The quality of governance is not related to democracy but in a democracy there is greater chance of corrections. For example, in the US the electorate finally rejected Republican policies after the problems generated by the Bush administration.

    In countries well above a survival threshold (like the US) variations in governance can lead to cycles without threatening the foundations of the system itself. But poor countries are hurt a lot more because the margin of safety is so slim.

    On the third question, I don’t think acts that make the overall situation worse can be classified under good governance. Good governance should take all consequences into account.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 18:50h, 21 March Reply

    In the same vein of thought, it is interesting to look at the difference in the medal tables of the National Games of India and China.

    In the 33rd National Games in India, the top ranking states were Assam and Manipur (who have a combined population of 30 million people) whereas the most populous state (UP with 160 million people) got about half the medals those states got. Bihar did not get a single medal.

    In contrast in China’s 10th national games, the most populous provinces (Jiangsu and Guangzhou) finished at the very top, as one would expect. As an interesting aside, Tibet did not get a single medal.'s_Republic_of_China

    There is definitely a lot that can be learned from national (and sub-national) performance in games.

    Here is an interesting article by Swaminathan Aiyar on this subject,

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