Wednesday December 08, 2021

A house not in order

March 21, 2021

How does a nation set its own house in order? And, in the context of its relations with a neighbour that border on hysteria, how does a nation bury the past? A tall order, of course. But the imperative to set our house in order and bury the past to move forward has forever been present to those who think rationally and have the ability to learn from history.

Yet, a lot of attention is paid when Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa makes these observations. Which he did on Friday, on the second day of the Islamabad Security Dialogue. Prime Minister Imran Khan had made somewhat similar remarks at the inaugural session of the Dialogue a day earlier, underlining the benefits of peace in South Asia.

However, Gen Bajwa’s speech was broader in its scope and, judging from the media’s response, carried more weight. In any case, the army chief had more quotable quotes. There was a hint of authority in his pitch for peace with India and in his appeal for the world’s help in this pursuit.

The big question is whether this is a new beginning that may lead to a paradigm shift in the military establishment’s national security perceptions. Certainly, the focus remains on Kashmir and, as Imran Khan emphasized, India must make the first move to normalise bilateral ties.

One problem is that paradigm shifts are not made as a matter of routine – or in a process of business as usual. Remember that such remarks were not acceptable not too many years ago.

With this thought on my mind, I would want to confine my attention to Gen Bajwa’s assessment that Pakistan had realised that without “setting our own house in order, nothing good can be expected from [the] outside”. This means that we must first explore the reality of Pakistan’s domestic situation and its overall sense of direction, measured in terms of the progress that it has made.

This analysis would be in complete accord with the developing political situation – and this has been an eventful week on this front. Rather unexpectedly, the opposition alliance, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), suffered a setback on Tuesday when differences over en-masse resignations from assemblies led the leadership to postpone the March 26 long march against the government.

True to his reputation, PPP supremo Asif Ali Zardari was able to spring a surprise on the PML-N by expressing reservations on the PDM plan to submit resignations with the launching of the long march.

Against the backdrop of a reported tiff between Zardari and Maryam Nawaz during a long and tense meeting of the PDM’s leadership in which Zardari was virtually present, the PPP will now decide its stance on resignations on April 4, the death anniversary of the party’s founder, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in consultation with its Central Executive Committee.

Thus, March 26 will not be the red-letter day that it was supposed to be in this momentous month of March. But this date has an abiding significance because it is the Independence Day of Bangladesh, our former East Pakistan. Not only that, this year Bangladesh is celebrating its golden jubilee. It has been fifty years since that traumatic event in our history – a tragedy that we have struggled to forget as a nation.

This occasion allows me to compare the distance that Bangladesh and Pakistan have separately covered during the past 50 years. Where we are at present is easy to see if you look at the vital statistics of the two countries. Bangladesh is ahead of Pakistan in most respects. There are figures that I would not want to cite, with specific reference to social indicators.

How this has happened and what it means could have also been discussed in the Islamabad Security Dialogue where the spotlight was on relations between India and Pakistan, the two nuclear armed nations of South Asia. But Bangladesh is also relevant in the region and bears lessons for us to learn.

So much so that Nicholas Kristof, in his column in The New York Times on March 10, has argued that Bangladesh can be an example of poverty reduction for the United States. In his opinion, the richest and the most powerful country in history has accepted astonishing levels of child poverty – a moral blemish on the US.

There is no point in recalling that Bangladesh was considered a ‘basket case’ at its birth and for some years it epitomised hopelessness. But the country’s phenomenal success is attributed to education and the empowerment of its women. Sadly, these issues were not specifically discussed in our Security Dialogue.

Our performance in the field of education is dismal and our attitude towards the emancipation of women is exemplified by the animosity generated by the Aurat March even at the official level.

Kristof has noted that, today, 98 percent of children in Bangladesh complete elementary school. “Still more astonishing for a country with a history of gender gaps, there are more girls in high schools in Bangladesh than boys”.

Interestingly, he has rightly underlined the fact that Bangladesh has not had great leaders. We may be pleased to find a sector that we do not need to envy. But Bangladesh’s “investments in human capital created a dynamism that we can all learn from”. To sum it up, Bangladesh’s secret is “education and girls”.

This, then, is the moment of truth for Pakistan. The road we have taken is not leading us anywhere. Leave aside our comparison with Bangladesh; thirty years ago, we were ahead of China in terms of per capita income. We have stagnated while other countries have moved forward. A reference to South Korea learning from our five-year-development plans in the sixties is a fairy tale we need to forget.

Yes, Gen Bajwa is right. We have to set our house in order. But who will do it and how?

The writer is a senior journalist.