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January 28, 2020

Intolerant India or Jinnah’s Pakistan?

Opinion

January 28, 2020

Last week at Davos, Prime Minister Imran Khan demonstrated once again, why he is a darling for Pakistanis that invest a greater premium on how Pakistan positions and presents itself on the international stage, than they do on how Pakistan performs in terms of electoral, procedural and technical democracy.

It isn’t a crime to want Pakistan to be well represented. It is totally legitimate for Pakistanis to want a leader in the highest office that can speak fluently and fluidly about serious issues in an engaging and charming tone and tenor, without notes. Imran Khan has been wowing audiences around the planet for a half a century now. It comes so easily to him, that it is hard to imagine another leader being able to replicate the spell that he casts regularly when he takes the stage in places like New York, London, or in the most recent case, the World Economic Forum at Davos.

What committed lovers and supporters of PM Khan will often miss, because of the very human failing we now know as cognitive bias, is that the attention being adorned on PM Khan in faraway places is not entirely the product of the PM’s charms. Pakistan is as compelling a conundrum for Western audiences as any on the planet – and this is rooted not in the domestic likes or dislikes we invest in, but in the innate appeal of the country itself.

We all know Pakistan is a unique geo-strategic prize for great powers – and we know this because for forty years, along with our Afghan sisters and brothers – we have suffered the great games of these powers. What is more compelling in 2020 is Pakistan’s stature as one of the few potentially strong democracies in the developing world, and more importantly, the only major, relatively free Muslim majority country on the planet.

The Second Amendment to Pakistan’s constitution, the rise of aggressive Barelvi rage, and the continued appeasement of religious extremists of all shades notwithstanding, Pakistan represents a fascinating study of the promise of democratic governance. The incredibly warm reception that PM Khan receives around the world is not solely a function of his “body language”, “finest charismatic” masculinity, his “killer smile”, or his “charisma”. It is also a function of which way Pakistan may swing in the future.

As odd and incongruent as it may seem to many in Pakistan that are seized more with wrath for the PTI and PM Khan than they are for the wider, grander global discourse, Western audiences, and leaders like Klaus Schwab of the WEF are setting grand stages for PM Khan because they are betting on Pakistan.

In the simplest terms possible, there are two directions Pakistan can take. One direction leads Pakistan to mirror the image of today’s India: intolerant, hateful, and headed nowhere. In this scenario, Pakistan will continue to grow at a shamefully low rate of growth and feed the narratives of discontent and rage that religious extremists need for their survival.

The other direction leads Pakistan to mirror the image of its founders: confident and proud of their Muslim identity, the best in the world at what they do, and capable of evolving substantially, as per the demands of the times.

Pragmatic democrats in the West see in Pakistan a country that has still not plunged into the populism that is threatening to ruin their countries, has ruined the formerly captivating story of Brazil, and is actively ruining the electrifying rise of India as a serious economic machine.

With nearly 220 million people and a majority of the population that is younger than 25 years of age, Pakistan, along with already-very-successful-Bangladesh, and very-similar-to-Pakistan-Nigeria, represents three of the potential stars of the next decade, in terms of stability and growth, worldwide.

But all three countries live in difficult neighbourhoods, and all three, especially Pakistan are already close to China – the super-villain in Western imaginations that must be countered and competed with.

It is no accident that the most consistent difficult question PM Khan faces from the West is not about the incompetence and unprofessionalism of how his office is managed, nor the pathetic manner in which parliament has been treated by the executive under PM Khan, nor the omnipresence of fat cat billionaires around PM Khan still scavenging for the sloppy seconds that have been the fate of all of PM Khan’s closest friends since he was 17 years old, nor the disastrous performance of his provincial government in Punjab. The most consistently asked question whilst the West tries to woo Pakistan is about China and its dealings with Xinjiang province.

Evading difficult questions about China is a Pakistani imperative that all Pakistani leaders are committed to. What the West wants (a Pakistani break from China) it will never get. But what the West needs (a Pakistan in the image of its own founders, rather than the image of India’s extremist society and polity), it can indeed get.

In whose hands does the delivery of this Pakistan lie? My ‘civmil is everything’ friends will feel the onset of nausea at the answer. But if Maryam Nawaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari can keep their food down as they prostrate before reality, my friends will have to as well. The maintenance of stability and order in Pakistan today is a Pakistani military function.

The problem is that political stability is very difficult to achieve if a hammer is the only instrument in your toolbox. Civil liberties are not only important because Pakistan must continue to demonstrate that it the un-India, or the non-India. They are also important because the diversity and tensions that define Pakistani politics are the source of the country’s strength, not its weakness.

Those that cringe at the effectiveness of ‘Pakistan Khappay’ or images of Nawab Akbar Bugti, or the anger in Akhtar Mengal’s voice, do so because they have a simplistic and false understanding of what makes Pakistan strong.

PM Khan understands the intricacies of this diversity much better than he pretends to. But he is keen to outsource some of these difficult conversations at home to people who have pure intent but faulty analysis. If Pakistan is to take advantage of its wide window of opportunity, it must invest in a much more robust and open version of its democracy than the current regime seems to allow for.

The appeal of Pakistan is not in looking more and more like the bitter, dispirited, and forlorn losers that have voted Brexit, or Modi, or Orban. It is in looking like itself, in the image of its founder, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

The ultimate guarantor of stability and order in Pakistan must not mistake every problem for a nail. It must begin to dissect opportunity more carefully, and ensure that Pakistani voices are afforded a much longer leash than dissenting voices are in other places. Only then can Pakistan take advantage of the generational strategic opportunities that stare this country in the face – with or without “body language”, “killer smiles”, or “charisma”.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.