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The gravity of the challenge in Pakistan

by Abbas Rashid, 7 February 2009

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Getting to here

In an opinion piece in Dawn recently, Shahid Javed Burki has sought an explanation for Pakistan’s current travails in the past. He has emphasised that Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s early death and the assassination of Liaquat Ali Khan soon after independence deprived Pakistan of much-needed leadership.

Those that followed were too busy quarrelling among themselves to pay heed to the country’s many problems. The result was a failure to develop strong institutions, excessive external dependence and a foreign policy that failed to take advantage of economic opportunities. Once again, he emphasises there is a need for Pakistan’s leaders and citizens to appreciate the gravity of the challenge they are faced with.

One may differ on detail, but certainly our past should serve as a warning. In the years after Pakistan’s creation, the leadership failed to realise what we were up against and subsequently the country split in two. Nearly four decades after that terrible parting, signifying among other things a monumental failure in governance and leadership, we are at a similar fork in the road again.

It is often said, as Burki suggests in his piece, that India was luckier than Pakistan with respect to leadership. Nehru survived for many years while Jinnah was to die barely a year after independence. One may add, as Sunil Khilnani points out in his book The Idea of India, that Vallabhbhai Patel’s exit soon after also made it possible for that country to follow a path delineated largely by Nehru’s vision rather than Patel’s. The latter course may have been much more divisive and problematic for India.

In structural terms, leaving aside the issue of the two wings of the country being a thousand miles apart, Pakistan lacked the industrial base for the development of a middle class. This was not so in India. According to one estimate Pakistan secured less than 10 percent of the industrial base at the time of independence and about the same percentage of industrial workers. That is one reason for the vulnerability of trade unions and the movement for workers’ rights.

On the other hand, the preponderance of landowners, many of whom had switched virtually overnight from the Unionist party to lead the Muslim League, meant formidable resistance to the idea of land reforms.

Again, Pakistan started with a huge dearth of social capital. Lahore was seen to occupy a special position in this regard by way of its intellectual ethos and strong educational institutions. But even so, a significant proportion of the faculty of leading institutions such as Punjab University and Government College who happened not to be Muslims soon came to the conclusion that in the changed circumstances they were better off migrating. Others found the environment becoming unhelpful as a result of policies that privileged ideology and politics over merit and excellence.

The relatively over-developed state structures of the civil and military bureaucracy, a legacy of the colonial era, became dominant in the context of the above-mentioned institutional deficit and structural imbalance. From being a homeland for the Muslims as envisaged by Jinnah, those who had earlier opposed Pakistan now sought to turn it into their version of an Islamic state. The passing of the Objectives Resolution in 1949 and the anti-Ahmadiyya riots in 1953 were indicative of their growing strength despite the lack of popular standing. Political Islam then merged with the imperatives of a security state around the Kashmir dispute that virtually coincided with independence.

The focus on growth at the cost of distribution and a moving away from the original vision of a federation to a highly centralised polity had devastating consequences, including the separation of the eastern wing. Security and ideology became the watchwords as political participation and equitable development were dispensed with. Participation in western defence pacts led to further strengthening of the military in the domestic context, the use of ideology to deny democratic and cultural rights within and as a weapon against communism without, and the adoption of a model of development that combined high rates of growth with the pauperisation of large sections of the populace.

After two rounds of military rule in the last three decades, these strands have converged to pose an existential threat to Pakistan for the second time. 1970 reminds us that the first time round, our rulers did not understand the nature of the crisis. Our persistent disregard of the signals from the eastern wing resulted in the country splitting in two.

For many, however, the situation is qualitatively different this time as we are now a nuclear power. But this has possible relevance only with respect to deterrence against external threats. What about the threat from within?

The Soviet Union, we need to keep mind, did not unravel as a result of an attack by its major adversary, the United States. It split up as a consequence of internal tensions, alienation among large sections of its citizens and an eventual collapse of consensus. And it did so, we should note, at a time when according to one estimate it had over 25,000 nuclear warheads in its possession, capable of being launched from the ground, sea and air. The Soviet leadership was focused on the danger without and it neglected the forces that were eroding state and society from within.

The Pakistani leadership, including the military brass, needs to draw the right lesson from its own experience and that of the Soviet Union.

We cannot afford to underestimate, yet again, the odds against us. While no one can condone indiscriminate bombing of civilians, the reign of terror in Swat and FATA cannot be checked in the absence of unqualified commitment and concerted action. And we should make no mistake about the fact that the target is Pakistan itself. Even as serious differences with India remain, at this juncture the main enemy is elsewhere.