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April 22, 2019

A state in crisis


April 22, 2019

Asad Umar’s abrupt departure from the federal cabinet has surprised many and led to speculation that the contradictions within the ruling party are becoming unmanageable. His ouster is particularly remarkable since, unlike the other ministers ousted or reshuffled, Asad Umar was one of the most widely respected figures in the PTI’s core base – the professional classes. The decision is also being attributed to the uncertainty prevailing in the country and the inability of the former finance minister to take difficult and timely decisions regarding the economy.

Such a narrative, however, presents the prevalent instability as a crisis of governance, obfuscating the deeper malaise that has hollowed out the system. I suggest that we view our contemporary predicament as a deeper crisis of the state, which is increasingly ridden with structural contradictions. It is no longer a question of a party or an institution, but of the very logic of our historical trajectory that is reaching a point of exhaustion.

Lenin once said that a state’s crisis begins when the ruling classes are unable to govern like they used to, when their internal fissures become public and when the masses are ready to publicly express their discontent. Contemporary Pakistan fulfils at least the first two criteria, as the entire ruling bloc stumbles to find solutions for the financial, institutional and ideological crises that underpin our polity.

We can first discuss how the crisis has expressed itself in the financial sphere. Budget deficits and revenue shortfall have haunted the country’s economy ever since the state’s inception. The relative moments of stability have often come as a result of external factors, such as becoming a frontline state in the cold war or the ‘war on terror’, rather than any meaningful policy changes. Economists started predicting the current crisis during the end of Ishaq Dar’s term, citing that the “strong” rupee only hid the structural ailments in the country’s economy, including a poorly performing industrial base, an increasing debt trap and a bloated military and administrative budget.

Asad Umar’s short-lived tenure was haunted by the shadow of a looming financial bankruptcy. His spectacular inability to provide any orientation to the economy made for tragic theatre, as reality asserted itself against the preposterous claims made by the PTI leadership prior to the elections. Yet, his ability to manoeuvre (just like everyone else’s) was constrained by the historical realities and taboos that have shaped our economic terrain. For example, even in the midst of extreme financial distress, there can be no debate on the security budget, which increased by 20.6 percent in the last quarter, while the development budget was slashed by 42.5 percent in the same period.

Similarly, it seems almost impossible to bring any semblance of tax justice in the country, a demand that even International Financial Institutions have persistently made over the decades. Nearly all governments are unable to fight the powerful lobbies in real estate, industries and the banking sector, which resist attempts for a financial overhaul of the system, leading to price hike as the easiest method for addressing the revenue shortfall. The result is that after its initial bravado, the PTI government is crawling back to our historical source of oxygen supply, the IMF.

Going back to the Fund, which will now play a key role in formulating the next budget, is a testament to the fact that setting aside the rhetoric of change, price hike, cuts in social spending and subsidies to the financial and political elites will remain the norm in Naya Pakistan. The appointment of Hafeez Sheikh, a former minister under both the Musharraf and PPP governments, to carry out the Fund’s agenda is a reminder of our permanent subservience to International Financial Institutions, making a mockery of any claims of sovereignty or even democracy on the part of state officials.

Such capitulation in front of external actors is a result of the institutional imbalances and infighting that have hollowed out our state structure. Even after the ‘return of democracy’ in 2008, we have failed to garner any consensus on where sovereign power should lie. The latest phase of the transition to civilian rule was propelled by a conflict between the superior judiciary and the military regime under Musharraf. Civil-military tensions have haunted the transition process at least since the Memogate scandal broke out, a conflict consistent with our chequered history.

What is more ironic is that successive civilian governments have also fallen out of favour with the superior judiciary, resulting in the sacking of two prime ministers, exposing the dangerous rifts in the country’s institutional landscape. With the advent of a PTI government that was apparently not beset by such complexities, the decimation of the opposition parties and taming of the print and electronic media, it seemed that the chaos had finally subsided. Yet, the current crisis in the cabinet is proof that it is near impossible to run authoritarian regimes in the midst of financial and institutional decay. The recent strains caused by the SC proceedings and calls for accountability on the Faizabad sit-in are further evidence of the simmering tensions between institutions. Then we hear desperate calls for ending the 18th Amendment, and a farcical debate ensues on the merits of the presidential system, demonstrating that those at the helm are fast running out of ideas.

To add to the financial and the institutional crises, the state is also undergoing a profound ideological crisis. An ideological narrative is necessary for any state to provide a sense of anchorage to the public. Our failure to give the constitution the respect it is accorded in other democracies meant that the state used Islam to fill this void and cement our national community. Since Pakistan’s decision to join the US-led ‘war on terror’ in 2001, it has been difficult to argue that divine interests supersede geo-political realities. Moreover, the latent romance for jihad among sections of the youth met a definite end with the APS attack, drowning the myth of a glorious war in the blood of innocent schoolchildren.

The ideological crisis stems from the fact that the end of a generation’s fascination with militant Islam has not been replaced by any coherent, alternative narrative. In fact, the Faizabad dharna showed that the state is still capable of instrumentalizing religion if it meets its short-term interests. The result is a profound identity crisis where all our narratives about ourselves remain broken and incomplete. We neither identify with Islam nor with secularism, neither with democracy nor dictatorship, neither tradition nor modernity – a situation that is most intensely felt by the youth that remains disoriented and anchorless.

What we are then witnessing is not the failure of a specific policy or decision. We are instead confronted with the effects of structural contradictions accumulated over decades. These contradictions turn into existential crises when they carry with themselves taboos and red lines that can neither be touched nor ever crossed. In such situations, the overarching logic is not one of transforming the old structures. Instead, the system and its beneficiaries unleash a defence mechanism to protect and sustain their privilege in the midst of chaos, ensuring that structures remain intact while transferring the costs of the crisis to the public.

We have so far not witnessed the third element of a crisis discussed by Lenin – the “bursting out” of the masses against subsidizing the elites for their indifference and incompetence. Yet, any discussion, especially with young people facing the gloom of unemployment, makes it abundantly clear that a storm is latently brewing under the acquiescent calm.

The old system and its attendant structures have outlived their utility, burdening the present with their dead weight. Only something radically new, bold in its ideas and audacious in its actions, can fight the taboos that have hindered our progress for far too long. But that new must assert itself soon, since the overwhelming emptiness of our system is rapidly devouring our present.

The writer is an historian and a member of the Haqooq-e-Khalq Movement.

Email: [email protected]