Critical questions

by Raza Rumi

We must dispel the impression that we are our own worst enemies

There is no question that Pakistan is once again in the midst of an unstable and uncertain phase. The continued failure of democracy is being articulated by the usual forces that have little faith in representative politics. It is surprising, or perhaps not, that a twenty-month old government has been judged a failure in terms of governance, economic management and political consensus-building. This verdict is most loudly being proclaimed by print and electronic media, supported by a chorus of politicians outside the Parliament and of course tacitly approved or some say perpetuated by the unelected institutions of the state.

The December, 2009 order of the Supreme Court declaring the national reconciliation ordinance void ab initio has been a catalyst of this cynical view of democracy. The one stream within the wider public perception states that a corrupt gang of politicians had captured power in March 2008 and they now stand discredited and de-legitimised. The contrary point of view declares that opening up of the cases against the leadership of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party is akin to re-starting the process of political victimisation which has been invoked since the 1950s. This time, the detractors of the Supreme Court hold, the process is being led by the Superior judiciary.

The reaction of the ruling party has been aggressive and the campaign is currently being led by none other than the powerful President who happens to be the co-Chairperson of the PPP. Interestingly, the current political mayhem has accentuated the old, unresolved national questions. Among others, three such questions stand out for their immense significance to the future viability of Pakistan: the unworkable federal structure, the institutionalised extremism within state and society and the tottering economic conditions that are inextricably linked to the chronic political instability of Pakistan.

Firstly, the unresolved issue of federalism. The centre-provinces tension has been a recurring theme of Pakistan’s chekered political history. The demand for Pakistan was rooted in the failure of the Indian National Congress to accommodate the interests of Muslim majority provinces and to give a fair representation to the crucial minorities in Hindu-majority provinces. From 1947 to the present, we have still not corrected the lopsidedness of the federation. The complicated truth is that the leaders of smaller provinces, for the right or wrong reasons, have been treated shoddily by the executive arm of the state. The Khans of the northwest frontier were always branded as traitors, the Bhuttos were physically eliminated and the Baloch Sardars and their progeny were brutally killed.

In the current heated temperature, the smaller provinces’ card has come to national limelight once again. The start of such a debate came with the confession of Sindh Home Minister that after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, a section of the Sindhi political forces wanted to reject Pakistan. This startling statement was, as expected, condemned as irresponsible and seditious. The firebrand minister has now apologised but the issue is far from settled. In addition, the fiery speeches of the incumbent President have further aggravated the matter, to the extent of identifying his enemies as the “anti-Baloch” forces. It is true that the President is deliberately vague. But leaving his enemies unnamed is neither wise nor a step towards reaching a solution to the endemic political instability. Nevertheless, the manner in which the three provincial assemblies of Sindh, NWFP, and Balochistan have passed resolutions in favour of the President has caused a storm on the national scene.

The superior courts are going to hear the petitions pertaining to the illegibility of the President to hold the highest office of the state. The issue of the Presidential immunity will come under discussion as there are many who would want to see the President lynched in the public domain. Whether the President remains in power or is thrown out, the federal question and the popular perception within the smaller provinces will only get reinforced. In ordinary circumstances, we may have braved this. However, the way Pakistan is mired in regional conflicts and deep-seated internal discord this is an ominous development. The long-standing fissures that have festered over the decades might just turn cancerous.

The second challenge relates to the rampant extremism that has engulfed our society and penetrated deep into the institutions of the state. There is hardly an institution in Pakistan that is free of the influence or fear of extremism. From the Constitution of Pakistan to a primary school textbook, religion is an instrument of the state to perpetuate its ideological hegemony and coercive apparatus. Similarly, whether it is the media or the non-state actors in the third sector, apologists for extremism abound. The issue is compounded by the fact that no single definition of Islam is agreed upon by the theologians and their followers.

Whether it is the centuries-old religio-cultural events such as the Moharram rituals, or a basic religious offering such as a Friday prayer, nothing remains uncontested, non-violent and free of controversy. There are as many mosques as there are sects and there are as many interpretations of simple tenets of our religion as the number of mosque imams, who are now appointed by the state. Even the redistributive aspect of Islamic belief, such as zakat has been politicised and made into an instrument of power. In such a milieu, the citizens are no longer receiving their basic entitlement of security, which is fundamental to the legitimisation of state power.

In a context where the state and its executive organs are pitted against the jihad-factories, how wise is it to play partisan politics and fan provincial discord? Even an undergraduate student of history is familiar with the fact that wherever a war is waged, governments of national unity are formed, or at least there is a political consensus vis-à-vis the conduct of the war. It is shocking to note that political instability has erupted in these times, when Pakistan needs to be waging a concerted war-effort against the institutions and manifestations of extremism. While a public campaign was needed to rally the citizenry against the internal enemies, it has now been swept away by another campaign with a single objective, i.e. to discredit the democratic institutions and find alternatives to democracy where none exist.

Ten years ago, we underwent the hysterical accountability charade led by General Musharraf. A decade later, similar noises are gaining currency, this time thanks to civilian mouthpieces of the establishment. The gross failures of the military junta, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) and experiments in exclusion of representative leadership failed miserably. This is not the first time that they have failed. Our history is replete with such instances where the dominant unelected institutions of the state marginalise peoples’ representatives. This does not augur well for the future stability and progress of Pakistan.

The third issue directly relates to how we are living in a state of pure economic meltdown. During 2009, the GDP growth rate fell around 2 percent, probably the lowest digit in our economic history. The shortfall in energy supplies has wrecked the manufacturing sector, not to mention the small and medium enterprises, which do not have alternative energy generation systems in place. Adding to this mess was an all-time high inflation of nearly 20 percent. It is true that the IMF has bailed us out and US economic assistance is likely to bolster our situation, but all in all, there is a drastic economic decline taking place in front of us. It would be naïve to find the causes for such economic performance on the domestic front, as the Pakistani economy is well-integrated into the world market, and the global recession has hit scores of developing countries. However, the way the current political instability is taking shape, our economic indicators will deteriorate in the coming years.

If there are predictions about a change in government every second week and if there are Jihadis blowing up our economic nerve-centres in Karachi, Lahore and elsewhere, how would we ensure that the rate of economic growth keeps up with the population explosion. Oil, food and energy shocks are far from over. With Pakistan’s poor numbering in the millions, how would this government or for that matter any other government ensure internal peace and deepening of democratisation?

It is absolutely clear that the pundits who are fuelling instability in Pakistan are either illiterate in basic economic theory or are simply out to undo what is left of Jinnah’s Pakistan.

These intractable challenges and complex issues require a bi-partisan consensus and continuation of civilian governance. Any disruption of the democratic process will be suicidal, for unlike the 1960s (or even the 1990s), there are now few in the world who would reach out to salvage Pakistan. Even before any external force attempts to support an alternative authoritarian structure of governance, the federal system in place will crumble under its own pressure.

There are five areas which require the urgent attention of the political elites of Pakistan. First, the resolution of the Constitutional issues and the implementation of the Charter of Democracy, without which the bickering fiefdoms will continue to expose their vulnerability to the invisible forces incorporated in our body politic. The 1973 Constitution must be restored as it stood on the 5th of July, 1977. Second, an all-parties conference should deal with the issue of the limits of the war against terror and make the national agenda homegrown and acceptable to all shades of political opinion.

Thirdly, based on the national consensus achieved, a thorough cleaning-up of the educational curricula should be undertaken without further delay. It is high time that jihad by means other than violence is adopted as a state policy.

Fourth, economic revitalisation ought to be kept as a first priority, not just that of the government, but of all political parties for the successive governments will face this spectre in its most brutal and unkind manifestation once they reach the halls of power. In this context, the neo-liberal framework of economic stabilisation will have to be rejected in favour of a national strategy that incorporates the views of Pakistani economists and social planners rather than those from abroad.

Finally, taking advantage of the fact that the courts mean business and are visibly independent, the pending petitions concerning the role of the intelligence agencies and their political wings should be pursued afresh with vigour. Once the doyens of civil society and the thundering politicians back this petition, we shall know that their shenanigans thus far were not rooted in political vendetta.

Saving Pakistan is an urgent priority and we must leverage the fact that most global powers and our own regional neighbors want a stable Pakistan. We must dispel the impression that we are our own worst enemies.

Published in The News on Sunday

The writer is a development professional based in Lahore. He blogs at and edits Pak Tea House and Lahorenama e-zines


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