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December 6, 2016

Change elsewhere, Pakistan frozen in time


December 6, 2016

Islamabad diary

Winds of change are blowing across Europe and the US. The Brexit vote in Britain was no small thing. Trump’s election as US president signals a profound dissatisfaction with mainstream American politics. Now comes the referendum in Italy which the Italian premier, Matteo Renzi, loses in decisive fashion, prompting him to announce that he will be stepping down.

Far-right parties across Europe, most notably the Front National in France which is opposed to the EU and immigration, are buoyed by a sense that things finally are looking their way. The fascination with globalisation is giving way to older forms of nationalism. The old consensus that Western Europe must be a counterweight to Russia is breaking down, with many of the new far-right leaders veering towards a less hostile view of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Indeed, his style of strong leadership is seen as a model for the travails of Europe.

Pakistan seems to be out of touch with these new developments. All the signs suggest that its foreign office mandarins, for whom the local word babus seems more appropriate, were banking on a Clinton victory in the US presidential election. Our stable of ex foreign ministers, from Kasuri to Qureshi to the fetching Ms Khar, was similarly tuned and said not a word about a possible upset.

Whatever one’s opinion of the rise of political extremism in Europe and the US – love it or denounce it – a discussion is on about what is good or bad for those societies. Look at us in comparison: we seem to be stuck in a time warp. Is anything new being discussed in Pakistan? Are there any fresh ideas about what we should be doing with ourselves?

Europe and the US are trying out new forms of leadership. Tony Blair, does anyone remember him? David Cameron in Britain has gone. Francois Hollande in France has just announced he won’t be running for president. I’ve mentioned Italy…Renzi is down. Angela Merkel in Germany has said she would be seeking a fourth term as chancellor but she is no longer the unassailable figure she was before her unpopular open-door policy on immigration.

We are stuck with a scandal-tainted leadership which emerged from the bosom of a military dictatorship thirty years ago. It was 1985 when Nawaz Sharif was selected as chief minister of Punjab by Gen Zia and his Punjab governor, Gen Jillani. And he’s prime minister for the third time towards the close of 2016 – thirty    one years later. This doesn’t speak much about the creative evolution of Pakistani politics.

If Narendra Modi was prime minister of India twenty years from now – say, 2035 – what would it say about the creative evolution of Indian politics?

So if this leadership cannot break out of its Ziaist mould, if the only tricks it knows are those it learned back in the 1980s, who is to blame? Mid-level industrialists then they are super-oligarchs now, which is a measure of the distance they have travelled. You could say they are unable to change their ways as the whole family, and now its second generation, remains heavily involved in all kinds of business and financial undertakings, as the Panamagate scandal all too vividly displays.                  

This scandal reveals a trail of half-truths and plain misstatements. Would a leadership caught in such a scandal survive for long in any other democracy? This is the challenge Pakistan currently faces, and one that the country’s highest court is currently grappling with. What is the meaning of rule of law when the lines between power and self-enrichment are thus blurred?

Embroiled in this scandal, the first family and by extension the governments it heads at the centre and in Punjab, the country’s largest province and its political powerhouse, are distracted. It is only natural that they can think of nothing but this scandal and its probable and possible outcomes. In such circumstances what becomes of governance? Pakistan exists in a tough neighbourhood. Relations with India and Afghanistan are full of tension. Can Pakistan afford a distracted leadership?

But apart from this, Pakistan could do with some fresh ideas. This is a country urgently in need of economic, bureaucratic and social reform. Everything that makes up the Pakistani state, its laws and administrative structure, are legacies of the Raj and what should have been done to improve these structures and bring them in conformity with the demands of the present times has not been done…because the Pakistani ruling class has been busy with other things, self-enrichment topping this list.

Making Pakistan a more egalitarian society, reducing the obscene gap between rich and poor, diverting more resources to health and education, indeed making these sectors the centrepieces of nation-building…these tasks have not been attempted.

In 1947 Pakistan had advantages which most other countries on the Asian landmass lacked. Today it is behind most of those countries. With proper direction and leadership it could have been like South Korea. But it missed the bus, squandering vast opportunities. Catching that bus is the task awaiting Pakistan, but an elusive goal unless the crisis of Pakistani leadership, the crisis of its ruling class, is not first resolved. Pakistan deserves better direction and stewardship.

With Gen Raheel Sharif’s departure from the scene the shadow of Bonapartism looming over the national landscape has dissipated. Not that he was a Bonapartist figure. It was just that with his performance and leadership he outshone the civilian leadership. This gave rise to all sorts of rumours and speculation, not to mention fantasies of a Kemalist intervention. With his departure normal political processes can proceed unfettered and unconstrained. And because elections are just a year away, Pakistan has an opportunity to make fresh choices and reset the direction of its policies – just as is happening in Europe and the US.

The only thing missing is anger. Anger and frustration fuelled Trump’s victory. Anger lay behind the Brexit vote. Anger and frustration have been ingredients of the Italian revolt as manifested in the referendum. Where is the Pakistani anger?

Some of it came out in the dharnas and the long marches. Some of it can be seen in Imran Khan’s rallies, Imran being the nearest thing in Pakistan to the kind of anti-establishment figures channelising public discontent in the West. But there needs to be more of this anger, constructive and creative, before the barricades of the established order can be successfully assaulted and a new order erected on the resulting ruins.

Panamagate, whatever its outcome in the Supreme Court, is sounding the death knell, if only in a moral sense, of the Ziaist-blessed leadership that emerged on the national skyline thirty years ago. But who fills the void? Who takes up the challenge of national renewal? The question is urgent: do we make the most of the coming opportunity or is there something wrong with our stars, preventing us from reimagining and reshaping our destiny?

Email: [email protected]


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