Tuesday February 27, 2024

Pindi’s Hobbesian nightmare

May 23, 2023

It isn’t just Rawalpindi now. It is much larger and very simple (which makes it so dangerous – always remember, simple = dangerous). This desire that Pakistan should be well governed, and without absolute authority vested in a single place, a single office, or a single person – there can be no governance, no progress, no high economic growth, no universal healthcare, no high-tech economic corridors, no exports juggernaut, and no, not even any human rights. This is what Thomas Hobbes argued for. This is, for lack of a better term, Pakistan’s great Hobbesian fantasy.

Since this viewpoint is hundreds if not thousands of years old, it is unfair to lay all the blame for cultivating and nurturing a Hobbesian fantasy about making Pakistan great again (sic) on Rawalpindi. But the evidence of how deep it runs and how dangerous it is? It is everywhere. From the ashes of the Corps Commander House in Lahore, to the unstoppable and now organic growth on YouTube channels dedicated to the righteous indignation of Imranists (on the right) and Khanistas (on the left), to the boulevard of broken dreams in every DHA in the country.

During the Bajwa era, the most powerful man in Pakistan openly spoke of his admiration for countries where it was possible to take the six or seven thousand “troublemakers” that hold a country back, and just be done with them. He spoke about this admiration at weddings, he spoke about it during meetings, he spoke about it in one-on-one debriefs with journalists and newspaper columnists and he spoke about it in larger groups. It is easy today to talk about how bad General Bajwa was, but could he be the only officer in the military and civilian bureaucracy that thinks rounding up and hanging a few thousand people will solve Pakistan’s problems? Highly doubtful.

The solution for General Bajwa, and dozens if not hundreds of generals before him was to find that one trustworthy and capable politician who would be the good version of the Hobbesian King: a democratically attained autocrat that would fix the reality of Pakistan and convert it into the fantasy of gated communities of the elite. That is where the Pakistani general comes from and is comfortable, and that’s what the benevolent Pakistani general wants: that the whole country and all its citizens are as manicured, perfumed, shaven and curated, as the DHAs.

To be clear, Pakistani soldiers are among the most capable, bravest and most dedicated on the planet. But like every serious country, Pakistani soldiers are mothballed from reality, as they should be, so that they can focus on honing a craft that is singularly unique: keeping peace and winning war. Pakistan’s unique mothballing formula includes the aforementioned gated housing communities.

And because the institution is a lot more egalitarian than an agrarian society with deeply caste-ist foundations, these gated communities are not exclusive – more civilians live in them than serving or retired soldiers ever will. For millions of civilians that are privileged enough to live a good life, they live it within the same mothballed, English-medium, curated, mineral water, private school environment that Pakistani officers do.

For more than four decades, the urban mobility dream in Pakistan has been defined by getting up off your FB Area, Nazimabad or Mughalpura ass, and working hard enough to be able to move your wife and kids to DHA. In the original version of Pakistan (pre-1971) the contempt that CSS and military officers had for common folk was contained to committee rooms. The 1971 partition, the rise of Pakistan’s first elected leader to high office in the shape of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the new constitution and the Pakistan Civil Service Act of 1973 all helped alter this elitism within the republic. Gone was the ascendancy of the old school blue-blooded brown sahib that ruled Pakistan.

Through the evolution of class, rapid urbanization and the Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif effect on economic dynamics in Central and North Punjab what we have now as the ruling class is an amalgam of light blue-blooded Aitchisonians, rent-seeking business tycoons and an increasingly powerful professional class. For the vast majority of this national minority, the Hobbesian fantasy of a great leader is what afforded General Musharraf the ability to stab the elected government in the face via Kargil, and then go right ahead and conduct a vanilla takeover shortly thereafter.

In short, the consent that authoritarianism manufactured in Pakistan in 1999 was a product of bigger cities, a more ambitious middle class, and of course, the millions of families that had a relative sending home money from the Gulf Cooperation Council region throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

By the end of the Musharraf era, and for me personally, late night on March 16, 2009 it seemed that the long winding experiment with Hobbesian fantasies would finally be over, and the country could move onto the long road to progress. But just a few kilometres from where many of us were celebrating with tears of joy inside the Judges Enclave, there were senior officers like Lt-Gen (r) Shuja Pasha that had already put in motion the next iteration of our Hobbesian fantasy: Project Imran Khan.

It isn’t clear how brilliant Project Imran Khan really was (though it has perhaps been the Pakistani elites’ greatest masterpiece) because of all the things that were happening concurrent to it. The mass media transformation enabled by social media and the internet was like cocaine for the new middle class – feels really good but does real damage: advantage Project IK. The 2014 dharna permanently disabled Nawaz Sharif, a man whose enthusiasm was not blunted by 1999 felt devastated and wounded by the dharna in a way that he and his immediate family have still not recovered from: advantage Project IK. The military’s hard-earned victory over the TTP that started to manifest itself early in 2015 also gave it the kind of swagger it had not enjoyed since the early days of the Musharraf coup: advantage Project IK.

It is unfair to lend all credit for Project Imran Khan to the military, intelligence, and DHA elites of Pakistan, or even to happenstance or good fortune. The last year has demonstrated how skilled and adaptive Khan is, as a leader and tactician. Regardless, when Khan was ensconced as prime minister in August 2018, he may have had the single greatest pathway for a civilian leader to transform the country since Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

So what happened? Pakistan did. The reason even so-called ‘selected’ prime ministers end up falling out of favour is innate to the genius of Islamic jurisprudence, of John Locke’s critique of Hobbesian “absolutism”, and of the 1973 constitution. The short version of how this all works is that the only way that this particular, disparate, inorganic, but gloriously diverse country can work is through collaboration.

One does not need consensus to run Pakistan. Indeed, anyone seeking consensus is inadvertently looking to undermine and destroy democracy (and which is why a ‘charter of economy’ is a potentially hazardous venture). But one does need an agreed ‘rules of the game’ and one does need some genuine, converging interests-level allies. Imran Khan doesn’t believe in either – or at best in only one. Rawalpindi doesn’t believe in either – or at best in only one. And the traditional political parties currently under the banner of the PDM don’t believe in either – or at best, only one. The Vote of No Confidence was a rerun of the same movie that this particular studio keeps manufacturing, over and over and over again.

As a result, the wider polity keeps seeking that magical Mandela or Khomeini or Erdogan moment – ignoring how vastly different Pakistan is from the places those leaders emerged, how vastly different today is from the times at which those leaders emerged, and how badly misplaced (and failed) the Hobbesian fantasy of ‘that great leader’ really is for Pakistan.

To date, these foibles in the Pakistani elite’s approach to governance were manageable because the ‘elite’ was contained and definable. But as the country races past a population of a quarter billion, as forex reserves evaporate faster than our glaciers melt, and as those than can, do seek to park their assets, their children and their hopes outside the reach of the Pakistani military and civilian bureaucracy – time is running out.

Rawalpindi’s decades-long pursuit of a Hobbesian fantasy has been a trainwreck. Is there anything about the response to the wreckage site that indicates any lessons having been learnt? I am afraid a clear and cogent response to that question is the real nightmare for those invested in trying to ensure that tomorrow is better than yesterday.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.