Pakistan: A New Phase?

By A Pakistani

It was not too long ago that those critical of governance in Pakistan were limited to a handful of academics, journalists, and other professionals. They were the subject of aspersions – being agents of this or that power or being self-hating Pakistanis or Muslims, as the case may be – and advised to “love it or leave it.”

I am not talking of those opposing particular governments in Pakistan – they were many – but those who used arguments from reason to question the structure itself that characterized the governance of the country. To simplify, the opponents of particular governments behaved as if Pakistan was always one good leader away from salvation; the critics argued that given the foundations of the state that hope would inevitably lead to disappointment.Not only that but the bouts of hopes and disappointments would be accompanied by a downward spiral that would lead to the structure being replaced not by choice but by force of circumstance. Needless to say, this last eventuality would not make for a pretty scene.

At long last, there are signs that some from among the ruling groups who have been active participants are beginning to awake. Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, an ambassador to India and the US, characterized governance in Pakistan as “alternating military despotism and democratic fascism” and asked “How do we escape a pernicious political and socio-economic system in which the people count for nothing except as targets of exploitation, manipulation and deception?”

In Qazi’s description “a succession of elected but essentially phoney democracies” undermined the political development of the country leading “to the growth of malignant tumours in our body politic that have now metastasized…. The irresponsibility with which we have been governed is reflected in the litany of gratuitous confrontations, range of crises, policy disasters, stratagems to thwart the rule of law, strategic pretensions to disguise the surrender of sovereignty, etc. The determination of our leadership never to take its national responsibilities seriously has been as amazing as it remains appalling.”

And here is the verdict of Shamshad Ahmad, a former foreign secretary of the government: “Pakistan is now over sixty but has yet to figure out whether it came into being for the sake of its people or for the self-aggrandisement of its rulers. It is unsure of what its own original rationale was and what it stands for today… In our country today, the culture of “power and privilege” is thriving on patronage, graft, bribery, extortion, nepotism, cronyism, influence-peddling, fraud and embezzlement. No other country is familiar with the practice of forgiving as a matter of rule the elite loan-defaulters and the known highly placed plunderers of the national exchequer. Plunderers, profiteers, looters, murderer and killers could not have a safer haven anywhere else in the world.”

These are strong words from those who have seen the situation from inside. I wonder if Pakistani civil society would now accept these verdicts or contest their veracity. If the latter, I would be curious to see the argumentation in favor of the status quo. If the former, the obvious question would be: Where do we go from here?

Ashraf Qazi rejects “all emotional appeals to religion, ideology, patriotism, honour, security, etc., that are at the expense of prioritising the obvious needs of the people [because they] are always in the service of elite sub-national agendas, which in turn are often in the service of external agendas in exchange for protection against the people.” Instead, he argues, “what we need is discussion, organisation and communication repeated ad infinitum as part of a process of evolving programmes of action including mobilisation and information campaigns for achievable, comprehensive and inclusive goals… We must speak to each other. We must organise. We must agitate, inform, learn and work ceaselessly – not as leaders or a vanguard, but as part of a people`s movement – towards a Pakistan for all Pakistanis.

This is clearly the right recommendation and an acknowledgement that critical analysis is not an act of hate or treason. But have the reformers left it too late? Speaking to each other with an open mind and with respect is a learned discipline that was among the first freedoms stifled by the rulers. Learning to speak to each other without strangling those who disagree would not come easy in the age of intolerance that now rules Pakistan courtesy of its system of education.

There is a telling anecdote about Shamshad Ahmad’s team in a book by Strobe Talbott (Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy, and the Bomb; 2004) in which he recounts his experience as President Clinton’s point person in the dialogue with Indian and Pakistan following the nuclear explosions of 1998.  Here is how the author describes his comparative experiences (pages 105-106):

In general, our sessions with the Pakistanis, while occasionally more exciting than those with the Indians, lacked a comparable degree of intellectual engagement… While Jaswant [Singh’s] team was highly disciplined in every respect, some of Shamshad Ahmad’s colleagues tended to be querulous, surly, and sometimes abusive. On one occasion, early in our dealings, a member of the Pakistani delegation exploded at our observation that his country seemed always to react in knee-jerk fashion to Indian moves. He rose out of his chair and lunged across the table as though he were going to strangle either Bruce Reidel or me, depending on whose neck he could get his fingers around first. He had to be physically restrained.

The Pakistanis had no game plan. They always seemed to be either hunkering down, lashing out, or flailing about. Thus, it was apparent from the outset that the Indians were going to be hard to move, while the Pakistanis were going to be hard to help.

Team Pakistan may be beginning to realize its problems – that is a necessary first step. But have they come up with a game plan? When Shamshad Ahmad says: “How do we start another Pakistan movement? Where is the Quaid?” I am left unconvinced.


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