May 24, 2020
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Surviving Straw Heroes

For all its faults, Pakistan is not a Somalia or a Uganda

Surviving Straw Heroes
IN the great game of nostalgia being played out on the 50th anniversary of India’s independence and the birth of Pakistan, India for understandable reasons has figured more powerfully in the imagination of the outside world than has Pakistan. But in many ways Pakistan’s journey to established statehood has been the more thrilling, if only because it has been more full of incident and variety.

In one form or the other, India has always existed in history. Pakistan was a new creation in 1947. India had to prove nothing except its ability to live up to its potential. Pakistan had to prove right from the beginning that it could survive on its own and, in the process, fashion an identity for itself. Whatever the other failures that can rightly be put at its door on these two counts at least Pakistan has succeeded. The scepticism of doubting Thomases notwithstanding, Pakistan is not a failed state nor a fragile one. If it were either one or the other, it would not have been able to carry the burden of the Afghan conflict whose fallout admittedly has been disastrous. Nor would it have been able to resist India’s drive for regional hegemony.

Which is not to say that Pakistan does not face serious problems but they are of a different nature altogether from the problems of national integration. Pakistan has lived beyond its means, with the result that its debt burden has become crushing. And it has wasted many economic opportunities, which is why its economy is in a state of stagnation. But beyond these twin failures lies another one: the near-collapse of the country’s administrative services. The state’s ability to enforce the rule of law has deteriorated to the extent that everything moves slowly, if at all, in Pakistan. One of the great gifts of the Raj was a clean, efficient administration. That is no longer the case today in Pakistan or in India.

Pakistan today faces a crisis of law and order in Karachi and the fires of sectarian strife in Punjab. But it is important to realise that these problems do not arise from anything inherently wrong with the country. They reflect the administrative malaise mentioned above and the policies of neglect followed during General Zia-ul-Haq’s martial law. Given resolve and the right approach, they are capable of solution.

Who is responsible for the rot in the country’s institutions? For this, much of the blame must rest on successive leaders who have indeed served Pakistan ill. Nehru gave continuity to India after Independence. Jinnah’s death a year after the country’s birth deprived it of the steady hand which could have guided it into surer channels. It is not only that democracy in Pakistan was time and again derailed by bureaucrats and generals. In the democratic sweepstakes of Asia, it is the democracies which have lagged behind in the development race and the semi-authoritarian societies of East Asia which have done the best of all. But Pakistan was not even blessed with good despots who could have given the country a sense of direction and set down the right priorities for development. Indeed, it is the great despots of Pakistani history—Ayub, Yahya, Bhutto and Zia—who wasted the opportunities that came their way. Barring Yahya, who was caught in a storm of events beyond his capacity to understand let alone control, each of the other three had the chance to take Pakistan down a fresh path. But each proved to be a straw hero, leaving the country in worse shape than when he arrived on the scene.

Even so, it says something for the country’s underlying resilience that despite ineptitude at the top—often on a grand scale—it has gone ahead in many fields. The population of what is now Pakistan is five times what it was in 1947. Although this is a tribute to our gift for procreation, the fact remains that most Pakistanis today eat and live better than their fathers did 50 years ago. If Pakistan has problems, its cities still have to graduate to the level of the slums of Mumbai or Calcutta. Indeed, Pakistan could have taken off economically but then so could have India. Pakistan can still make something of its economic opportunities because the spirit of enterprise is not lacking in the Pakistani people, as can be seen in the industriousness of the vast Pakistani diaspora which has done well in all climes.

In any case, what is a failed state? For all its faults, Pakistan is not a Somalia or a Uganda. The efficiency of its administrative services may have deteriorated but not much more than what is to be seen in India. In both countries, respect for the law has declined and corruption is a cancer as Prime Minister Gujral so eloquently testified in India’s case while speaking on its Independence Day. Corruption does not make India a failed state. Nor does it help to apply this label loosely to Pakistan.

Let us not forget another point. Pakistan today has the most open democracy in the Islamic world. The very angst which is heard at all times in Pakistan, and the sounds of which on its 50th anniversary have reached a crescendo, is itself a function of Pakistani democracy. Besides being open, Pakistani democracy after years of travail has become more stable. Assemblies have been dismissed by presidential fiat but elections over the last decade have never been postponed. For a country which never had a general election for the first 23 years of its existence, this is quite an achievement.

Consider also the map of this region and the turmoil it is in. The states of Central Asia are still trying to find their bearings. Afghanistan has been brought to rack and ruin by decades of war. India is fighting, with what concentrated force we all know, an insurgency in Kashmir. Pakistan is facing sectarian violence in a single province which, despite being a grave problem, is certainly not tearing the fabric of the country apart.

What should not be underestimated is the anger and slowly-acquired maturity of the Pakistani people. They have suffered bad leadership over the years but they have given notice that their cup of patience is full. Benazir Bhutto was booted out from power for precisely this reason. Other governments will suffer the same fate if they do not come up to popular expectations. If this is not democracy, and a mature one at that, what else is?

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