Looking forward and beyond 2010

Another excellent post for the New Year’s Day by Adnan Syed at one of my favourite blogs, PakTeaHouse:

As the year 2010 approaches, Pakistan finds itself yet once again in the grip of an indecisive slumber. The nation is paralyzed by security concerns, its immediate neighbours from East to West accuse the country of harbouring terrorists, the economy barely nudges above the levels that signify growth, and lags far below the levels where poverty starts meaningfully decreasing.

It is far easier to pinpoint the shortcomings of an individual person, place the appropriate blame where it is due, and once the mistakes are identified, corrective measures can be taken. Yet, for a nation of 160MM individuals, where everyone blames everyone else for the nation’s woes, the nation gets paralyzed in the midst of finger pointing matches, the collective mistakes are seldom acknowledged, and even when the mistakes are recognized, the responsibility to take collective action falls through the cracks again and again.

It is far easier for Pakistan to continue on this road indefinitely. Status quo is always the easiest option in the short run, and usually the priciest in the long run.  But long run is too long of a time horizon for many of us.

Therefore when President Zardari comes out with a heartfelt op-ed in the Wall Street Journal to talk about threats to democracy, contributions of his late wife, achievements of his present government, lamenting the hidden enemies in the establishment and the press, and rhetoric about his party being the future and aspirations of Pakistan, we feel a gaping void in his words. From all the words and passionate rhetoric, we do not sense that government has a single unifying theme of what is paramount for Pakistan. It talks of symptoms but never the disease that rots the society, that keeps us in abject poverty, and that has propelled our nation to be declared the most dangerous nation in the world.

We give credit to the PPP government where it is due; this party openly acknowledges the threat of extremism, and has taken actions at political cost to close down the dens of terrors that had developed in the North Western lawless tribal areas of Pakistan. NFC award and the Gilgit Baltistan Resolution are some of the major achievements that stand out in an otherwise barren political atmosphere. Even the handling of the Supreme Court NRO verdict seems quite mature and measured, given the tantrums of previous political and military regimes against the otherwise compliant Superior Judiciary.

Yet the nagging thought remains with us: That we are a nation of reactionaries. We react to events only when the going gets extremely tough, and when we run out of other options. Our political system remains paralyzed, the intervention of military in public and foreign policy remains a norm, law and order and basic services still seem a distant dream to millions living in large and small cities. There is no grand strategy to further Pakistan as a dynamic nation into the future. We, the current citizens of Pakistan, would not be around tomorrow. Yet there is no thought out vision for the country of Pakistan to hang around as a strong and independent nation decades from now.

The previous rulers did their part by looking after their short term gains, and showing their remarkable lack of vision that has left Pakistan in the present paralysis. We seem to be no different today.

History has taught us quite a few important lessons. We, the human beings have differentiated themselves over the past few millennia and especially over the past five centuries by learning not to reinvent the wheel. Humans have begun learning in earnest from history, are learning to avoid the previous mistakes, and building on previous successes to make the existing systems more robust. Humans have been gaining the ability to anticipate the future by analysing their pasts, and take corrective measures now to avoid in future the pitfalls that befell them in the past. This approach is not an exact science, it does not deliver guaranteed results, yet it is a work in progress that is propelling the advanced nations forward, bringing millions out of the fold of poverty and making social and economic progress possible for their societies.

Pakistan is no different from any of the other nations of the world. It is inhabited by millions of humans who look for a stable society allowing us to grow personally and chase our dreams; while the state provides us the protection of our life, property and honour. We want prosperity, happiness and security, just like a person sitting in North America, Far East, Europe or South America; there is nothing different about us in terms of our fundamental wants and desires.

Therefore, Mr. President, may I suggest that instead of blaming everyone under the sun, take this opportunity to articulate a vision for Pakistan going forward, that ignores the status quo, and simplify the primary requirements for a stable Pakistani society into two underlying pillars of a progressive society:

 

1) Rule of Law:

Rule of law comes even before democracy. A complete rule of law, with fair laws and unflinching implementation is the first step towards a stable society. In fact, this is probably the only variable that distinguishes the first world from the third world countries.

Rule of law requires extensive investments in the institutions that implement the laws. Starting with police, Pakistan needs to start strengthening this institution by investing in proper training and adequate compensation structure for this institution.

Complement police by investing in the various moving parts of the judiciary. Invest in attorneys, thousands of them; to prosecute and defend the accused. Invest in the courts and their officials. Work to make the judicial system a less daunting and seamless flowing structure where the accused are promptly incorporated into the judicial system, yet do not languish for years with their fate hanging in balance. Make this system as reliable and trustworthy that it instils a sense of security in the common man that the state is there to defend his rights, when they are violated. Or that the system is fair to distinguish an innocent from the guilty one in reasonable time, while providing all the facilities to the ones passing through the judicial system.

Give complete independence to the judicial system, so that political institutions and executive cannot influence the police or judicial proceedings. It is easier said than done, but we need to make everyone accountable (including the government higher ups) in front of an independent judiciary and the press.

You may view NRO ruling as targeting your government, yet by graciously allowing the judicial system to work and throw out the maligned ordinances, you can start clearing the cloud of impropriety that hangs above your own head. Remember that doubt and accusations are the ones that have threatened you and every political leader before you. If you have the vision to invest in the judicial institutions, this cloud will not have further room to develop for you and the future leaders of Pakistan. The cloud of impropriety needs to be cleared in courts, not to fester in the minds of the population.

Show the terrorists that Pakistan offers something fundamentally attractive to our population that they don’t; a secure society that cares about every one, irrespective of his caste, creed or belief. Give a common Pakistani the fundamental security of his life and property and see the society surge forward as individuals explore and pursue their dreams and talents, unfettered and unhindered.

 

2) Democracy:

We must realize that democracy cannot exist without the rule of law. For democracy to flourish, individuals need to participate in the affairs of their nation by casting their votes and electing the officials that mirror the ideals of the electorate. Recognize that democracy is not the most perfect system, yet is the one most amenable towards evolving into a better system. In words of Winston Churchill, it is still the best among the worst options out there. Democracy works with participation, dialogue and checks and balances that ensure that individuals do not overwhelm the institutions.

Let democracy decide which way Pakistan has to take going forward. At Pak Tea House, we are firm believers in secular democracy; that religion has no place in the affairs of the state. But we believe that secularism is an empty shell of a word if rule of law and democracy lies in shambles. We want the democratic institutions to develop, mature and actively sort out the direction Pakistan itself wants to take. A working democracy naturally splits itself on the right, left and center of the political spectrum based on the perspectives and perceived norms of the society. The societal norms are never stagnant, yet they need to be expressed healthily by the participation of the electorate. Give them the chance to do so, and Pakistan will define its raison d’être itself. The religious madness that haunts Pakistan since its inception can only be defeated by the active vote of the population, where the merits and demerits of any ideology are decided by the pen and a vote, not by shadowy organizations, or lawless groups and non-state actors.

But you must work with the opposition to strengthen the institutions. This means respecting your opposition where they are in power in a different province. This means instituting the checks and balances that an individual cannot override the institution. I do not think that the ban on a Prime Minister serving more than 10 years in power is an unreasonable one. It checks hereditary fiefdoms of political leaderships. Realize also that a national leadership is a leader for the nation, and thus should relinquish its political party positions.

Our past forays into democracies came to abrupt stop not just because of opportunistic military leadership lying in wait. It happened primarily when democratic rulers abused their democratic norms, used state instruments to subjugate opposition, and went wild with corruption and nepotism. If the democratic rule in 1970s and 1990s was not abused, we would likely not have subsequent military rulers.

Do not expect democracy to work miracles overnight. Yet keep faith that as it has helped moved the developed world forward over the past seven decades, it will help Pakistan embark on the same path going forward too. We do not need flamboyant leaders or messiahs. We need good systems and humble leaders willing to lead the nation, but not be treated above the laws or the institutions.  Democracy needs not to be exciting; leaders do not need to be flamboyant history makers. Most of the advanced world has strong institutions and changing faces of leadership, who are talented and ambitious individuals, yet they work with the system, remain answerable to their electorate and keep the societies moving forward under the aegis of institutional democracy.

There is no third point. I really wish I can find even a single extra point as powerful as the two mentioned above, the rule of law and the development of strong democratic institution. For a simple reason that everything else in a society is a derivative product of the above two fundamental pillars. A strong economy is not possible when investors’ property is not adequately protected. Citizens of developed economies do not pay taxes out of charity; rather the laws compel them to be accountable. A citizen who can take a public office to court for neglect of fundamental services like primary education, clean water, electricity and roads is the most effective assurance for the availability of basic services that a society is entitled towards.

In our haste to further political considerations, our leaders talk, lament and curse. Yet we seldom acknowledge the basic pillars than underpin successful societies.

I realize that the talk seems fancifully idealistic. There are real life considerations where we daily fight blood thirsty militants’, who are hell bent upon imposing their religious tinted moral upon us. Where our military actively intervenes in our foreign policy, and where the President himself runs the office under the cloud of massive corruption, it all seems so distant. Yet if we do not have our core ideals, we will never have a core strategy. We will continue to fight the fires, continue to live our lives in a case of massive paralysis, continue to greet 2020, 2030 or beyond in a state of hopelessness and abject dismay.

You may choose to ignore the above. The grand pillars of democracy and the rule of law may sound unnecessary for you; a simplistic, idealistic analysis you may say for a complex country like Pakistan. You will join the annals of history in the row of portraits of ex-Pakistani leaders, who were just that, empty leaders and nothing else. They yearned for more power, and in the process ended up not only losing their short term rules, but also damaged the country beyond recognition.

Or you may choose to carve out a path as a leader who chose to put the country before his rule, who realized that institutions come before individuals; what none of your predecessors ever had the vision or willingness to attempt.

Pakistan deserves better than that, as it looks beyond to the next decade. And I wish you and Pakistan a happy, better and prosperous 2010 and beyond.

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