Pakistan is in the midst of a polycrisis, and there are no signs that the elite – bureaucratic, military, civilian, business, or religious – have any real clue about how to change course.
What began as a disagreement between the prime minister and army chief about who should be leading the country’s premier intelligence services in June 2021, and escalated to the national newspapers and television talk shows by October 2021, has now consumed the entirety of Pakistani normalcy. Is the military’s cultivation of Imran Khan as a national leader and then prime minister to blame?
Some might say, indeed! You get what you pay for.
Ordinary Pakistanis are now paying for what they have got: a clueless national leadership led by the blind, deaf and mute leaders of the PDM, and the narcissistic Imran Khan. All of this is underwritten by our power stakeholders – whether they want to hear it or not. Collectively, Pakistan’s leadership insists on driving the road car named Pakistan off a cliff. All this whilst the country is airborne, in freefall. Look Ma! no hands? Pakistani leaders have done one better: “look, Pa! No brains”
Whether our story begins with Notification Gate, or with decisions made in the runup to Imran Khan’s October 2011 jalsa in Lahore, it is a tale of misery for the country at large. The situation has now metastasized into a security crisis, a political crisis, a constitutional crisis, and an economic crisis – a polycrisis for the ages. All this exacerbates an already very challenging environment in terms of food and nutrition, public health and the vulnerability of girls and women to violence, to poverty and to a denial of their fundamental rights. Climate change and extreme weather events further complicate the landscape; last year’s superfloods came after record breaking heatwaves in April, May and June. More is coming in 2023. InshaAllah, it will not be as bad. But is hope really a strategy?
One of the challenges in such dire circumstances is to try to cling to hope – not as a strategy but as a life preserver. The mental health crisis that Pakistanis endure en masse has had elements of national post-traumatic stress disorder through the years of terrorist attacks that defined the 2000s and 2010s. But even through those times, many of us were able to forge narratives – slender, often very thin and emaciated as they were – that with a few changes, things could get better.
After the June 2014 Zarb-e-Azb, for most Pakistanis they did get better. Unfortunately, the healing touch needed to aid the civilian victims of conflicts – especially in the newly merged districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – never came around. Instead, we labelled the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement in a manner we have labelled so many Pakistanis before. Today, a large swathe of the PTM-rejecting majority in Pakistan’s privileged urban centres have adopted the same attitude toward the national security architecture as their sisters and brothers in the PTM. More is coming here too – and that may be a statement more of hope rather than of pessimism.
Maybe you can only really relate to other people’s rights, once yours are denied too? But it seems here the logic is, like so many other things, twisted. The very people that suffered the blunt force of state repression and the unconstitutional exercise of impunity and brute force are deploying the same against some of their former tormentors. The Pakistani elite seems completely inured to the very concepts and ideals that it claims for itself. In such an ecosystem of both paralysis and despair, what should we cling to?
Hope can be fleeting. It will return, InshaAllah. But in the interim, the thing we must cling to most vociferously is the idea of the Pakistani republic. This means the 1973 constitution. It means federalism. It means pluralism. It means safe havens and exceptional treatment of refugees and migrants forced to leave their homes, especially Muslims. These are all real things. There is an overwhelming expanse of evidence that Pakistani leaders have lived and died for democracy, for federal principles, for pluralism and for the country’s exceptional refugees’ praxis. All of these things have been under threat for the duration of the republic’s life.
A time of crisis and, in this case, exceptional, mind blowing, deep and complex polycrisis is a time for ‘reimagining’ what the country could be, and more importantly what the country should be. Should the country revisit and account for 1971? Has the citizenship exceptionalism as shaped by the second amendment served the mission of glorifying and protecting the honour and dignity of Islam and the finality of Prophethood? Can there be a guarantee that Pakistan will never again have to endure the domestic duplicity and deceit that manufactured the Kargil war, especially if no one was ever held to account for it?
These are the three deadly sins of the Pakistani republic: Partition, compromised citizenship, and the Kargil war. How many people have lost their jobs for these things? How many were jailed? How many had their assets taken away? How many had trouble finding people to attend their kids’ walimas? Pakistan’s polycrisis is exacerbated by fiscal and current account deficits. It is very much informed by ill-meaning and malign international actors, especially in its immediate neighborhood. But Pakistan’s troubles are anchored in impunity. These three deadly sins are the apex of the culture of macro-impunity the Pakistani elite have hand crafted over seven decades.
The micro-impunities are everywhere – jumping queues, running red lights, issuing FIRs that are purely malafide and meant to intimidate and harass, disappearing citizens, taking gifts from foreign leaders whilst sermonising about sovereignty and autonomy, and perhaps most of all, arguing for more democracy for yourself and less for the other.
The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is a set of documents with a lot of high-minded words and the facsimile of some great ideas and ideals. For it to have real life, above and beyond the shape of a document – a constitution, some laws, some rules and regulations and a set of institutions – the republic has to be able to breathe. The foundation for the ventilation and oxidation of the republic is accountability: the knowledge that bad behaviour will be punished. Not that the bad behaviour will be discussed on television. Not that there will be tweets about bad behaviour. Not that the badly behaved will admit to having behaved badly. No. Accountability is the certitude of punitive measures against those that manufacture adverse outcomes. Bad behaviour punished.
The accountants and isomorphic mimics think that the republic is teetering because it has no money. But this is a simplistic diagnosis that leads to the repetitive and cyclical weakening of the republic, more, and more, and more. The republic is teetering because it has curated a parade of caretakers and stewards of the republic that continue to produce adverse outcomes, without having to deal with any kind of penalty, whatsoever. This has embedded a permanent and extremely resilient culture of impunity in Pakistan. It starts right at the top – the military leadership and senior military officials – and permeates all the way down to BPS-1 level staffers in the employ of the republic, employed to serve, protect and nourish the people of Pakistan (not to impoverish them).
In the next few weeks, more bad decisions will be taken by the Pakistani leadership. Those we can be certain of? A salary increase for government employees in the new budget, more regressive taxes that punish the poor and protect the rich, more efforts to prop up the rupee, and almost certainly more bombast and bluster – including, most likely an anti-IMF and anti-international institutions diatribe from various members of the power circles in this country.
Some bad decisions that will be taken, we are less certain of. We don’t know if the provincial elections will be postponed, but it sure feels like that is the effort. We don’t know if the October 2023 election will be delayed, but it feels almost inevitable. We don’t know if the Seventh NFC Award is going to be violated in the near future, but all the noise points in a bad way there too.
Why do the bad things that have happened before seem to be happening again in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan? The absence of punitive measures against those that manufacture adverse outcomes. Bad behaviour, unpunished? More of the same.
The writer is an analyst and commentator.
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