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Friday March 31, 2023

The tragedy of irrelevance

January 30, 2023

Anachronism (n): someone or something placed in the wrong period in history, or something that belongs to the past rather than the present.

Pakistan has suffered great tragedies: The partition exodus, the break-up of the country, and the casualties of being a pawn on the grand chessboard. The freshest tragedy, however, has taken us completely unprepared – the tragedy of becoming irrelevant. There is nothing in our national DNA that has us equipped for this moment. We are responding to it like we did to our previous tragedies. Blaming an enemy is proving utterly unconvincing. Ascribe a meaning to our irrelevance – well, to be irrelevant is to be without meaning, perhaps the saddest part of our tragedy.

The most obvious is our strategic irrelevance – no longer being central on the grand chessboard. The great powers, it appears, moved. They play new games. Ravaged Afghanistan, and its battered and betrayed people, came out worst from the imperial experiment. However, in Pakistan, we waited enthusiastically for the windfall. The departure of America would, we hoped, mean a friendly neighbour and a partner that would do our bidding. The increasing violence and the foreboding of worse things say otherwise.

But for me, to our anachronism, our being stuck in the past, the strategic irrelevance is not even in the least bit part of it. If anything, the lack of strategic irrelevance may unshackle us from the past by depriving us of the economy of the war.

To begin with, the roots of our anachronism are in our inability to reflect on what direction things have taken. For the first time in at least my lifetime, I see young people wanting to leave the country in droves. It is estimated that last year 765,000 left – three times the number the year before. And one can always question the validity of statistics and the lucidity of what one might infer from it, but I have never had so many requests for recommendation letters for study and work abroad in the past decade as I have received in the past few months.

Young people leaving for greener pastures is in itself not the problem. Economists and social anthropologists can make a case for remittances and for social mobility; the point is that these kids are leaving because they have lost their belief in the country’s present, let alone its future.

Our dominant thought is from another age. We are late to the holy wars by a few centuries, but it does not dissuade us from finding enemies to keep fighting. We are battling imperialism with ideas that belong in museums. We have become a society where the statement that tolerance is a desirable thing amounts to enlightened reawakening. And saying that killing for difference of opinion is bad constitutes a revolutionary act. We are still a place where schooling for girls and vaccination against polio need to be advocated through paid promotion.

This archaic way of thinking did not come about by accident of history. We are not some uncontacted Polynesian tribe that suddenly found that the world around them has moved. Our state and society have put in place mechanisms, both visible and imperceptible, to impart to people truths about the world but disallow them from discovering it for themselves. In an age where inquisitiveness rules supreme, questioning remains an anathema to us.

The economic crisis arises from another set of antiquated policy choices. Reasonably, we can blame Covid, Ukraine and the floods. But we are not the only country to have faced these problems. In fact, the first two are universal in their impact. Why are we the ones teetering on the verge of economic default? We adopted a makeshift, politically motivated approach to the economy. We failed to bring the rich into the tax net and cut corners on investment reform. Unsurprisingly, when in a world economy shaped by the WTO, the regional states were attracting investment, we had come to be associated with ideological fundamentalism, bureaucratic red-tape, and political corruption – hardly the descriptors of an ideal investment destination. We never outgrew our need for being bankrolled. Regional crises helped finance our addiction to foreign cash. It all dries up on account of our irrelevance.

Politically, our elite of all shades are like the parasitic offspring of an emaciated marsupial. Nestled away from our struggles, the elite make decisions for us that have seemingly no undesirable effect on them. I know this sounds like populist hyperbole. But how else do you explain our leaders pulling the rug under each other’s feet when people on the street are jostling for a sack of flour? Is it too much to ask to calm it down a little and think about the people for once? If you thought kleptocracies were a thing of the past, visit us. You will be surprised.

There are things we can control and then there is the past. We cannot fully control our future either, and when we have tried to control it, we have hardly made stellar work. But this year is critical – the economy, the specter of growing violent extremist threat, the elections, the institutional lack of trust, and the unforeseen. How we go forward from here will indicate whether we belong in the future or remain entrenched in the past.

We need our leaders to wise up. We need an election that signifies unity and stability. We must correct our view of who is a threat to our state and who makes just demands. We need new approaches to the economy and education. For this country to become relevant, it needs to keep up with the times.

The writer is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Peshawar. He also co-hosts the podcast ‘Pakistan at 75.’ He can be reached at: aameraza@gmail.com