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Beyond redemption?

The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.

Why is it that most people in Pakistan don't sound

By Babar Sattar
February 13, 2010
The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.

Why is it that most people in Pakistan don't sound hopeful about the future, wondered the visiting head of an international research and development organisation, in a recent conversation. Are we really depressed as a nation? A bystander dispassionately observing our public discourse as well as cocktail conversations would probably argue that we seem to be reinforcing our collective sense of despondency. If you belong to the upcoming generation smitten with optimism (which the seniors lovingly call naiveté) and refuse to be cowed into defeatism, there are at least four theories that explain this phenomenon.

The first, and a personal favourite, is the incorrigible state of cynicism afflicting our older generation presently in control of the levers of socio-political change. This is the generation that was born around the time of Pakistan's independence, grew up in an independent country, got accustomed to the back and forth between military dictatorships and malfunctioning civilian autocracies, endorsed expediency as the omnipotent political and professional ethic and hypocrisy as the means to deal with questionable social, cultural and religion-inspired norms. There are exceptions, of course, to be credited for keeping the ship afloat and offering hope and solace to the youth.

But as a general matter this generation seems to have lost faith in its ability to change for the better. As prisoners of their experiences and having made their peace with rampant opportunism, cronyism, corruption and a life of underachievement as a nation, individuals from this generation will tell you that "the more things change, the more they stay the same." The psychological imprint of a chequered history seems to have contributed to a poverty of imagination that disables this generation from visualising a future different from the past. Its approach to change is summarised by the oft-heard phrase "can't be done."

The second theory explaining a sense of defeatism is linked to our history of disruptive political and institutional processes. Change can either be ushered in through the disruptive means of a revolution or by virtue of a constructive evolutionary process. The proponents of the evolutionary route advocate uninterrupted continuation of the democratic process as the preferred path out of the woods. The idea being that uninterrupted political process is both educational and curative, and if allowed to run long enough it will not only find and groom political leaders but also nurture institutional maturity and stability.

The opponents of such progressive change don't dispute the theory behind it but deem its practice unworkable in Pakistan. This rejection of evolutionary change through continuity is informed by three interlinked factors. One, a sense of urgency that the country is going to the dogs, and unless extraordinary measures are taken immediately the sky is going to cave in. Such panic-stricken mode cultivates the flawed and deceptive sense that a change of façade, even in absence of change in policy and direction, will arrest the impending doom.

Two, the absence of historical evidence from within Pakistan that continuity of the political process delivers. After every autumn comes winter. But if each winter people were to turn the hands of the clock back to the milder autumn, which is more amenable than winter, how would they ever experience the bountiful spring. We have no empirical evidence supporting the likely benefits to be reaped from continuity because we have simply not allowed ourselves to gather such evidence. It is not through any extra-constitutional fire-brigade operation, but only through an uninterrupted political process that we can rid ourselves of discredited and compromised political leaders.

And three, a sense of psychological and political disempowerment that manifests itself in three ways: (a) the conception of a warped institutional structure within Pakistan, on the basis of which it is argued that if rulers are allowed to continue unhindered the incumbent would manipulate the system to stay in power till eternity; (b) ubiquitous conspiracy theories that US-Euro-Ziono-Hindu-imperialistic forces will never allow a Muslim state to achieve its potential, and thus only such political parties will remain in power that are minions of dark forces of evil; and (c) the obsession with individuals as opposed to institutions and processes, based on the belief that our deliverance will be secured be a messiah (or a knight in shining armour), and not policy reform.

The third theory is one of misfortune. Pakistan has been responsible for cultivating three fault-lines exacerbating conflict within the country: the civil-military divide; the centre-province divide and the religious divide between moderates and extremists. The timing of Pakistan's transition to democracy overlaps with the US-led Western war against extremism and a global financial meltdown, which has heightened our security imbroglio, furthered our financial resource deficit and deepened all the three fault-lines that challenge us as a polity.

Dealing with overarching questions about the relationship between minority provinces and the state, the formal role of Islam in a Muslim-majority state in an age of global religious polarisation, while also striking a new balance between the khaki and civilian authorities, would be a daunting task for any country. And we are especially vulnerable as many of these challenges have been left to the mercy of pygmies who neither have a sense of urgency nor the seriousness of purpose to grasp their magnitude – the same lot that we hope to replace through the continuity of the political process. But, then, these are the cards we have been dealt. Quibbling with providence over fate is only another sign of depression.

The last theory is that of masochism – our tendency to derive pleasure from self-imposed pain and humiliation. And in this sense we are all guilty. Our journalists, columnists and intelligentsia have the propensity to exaggerate the most grotesque realities of life, without always contextualising and distinguishing between exceptions and rules. The politicians play along using the shared collective disquiet to demonise the ruling politicians as unworthy and unwanted. Negative rhetoric, whether repeated by the press or rehearsed by politicos, has the dangerous ability to look a lot like reality.

This is certainly neither an argument seeking indulgence in jingoistic delusions of grandeur or complacency vis-à-vis the ugly realities that need to be changed, nor one advocating the emergence of a pliant media. But that criticism, which is welcome and extremely useful, should be put into perspective. Our experience with dictatorship is often contrasted with the continuity of democracy in India, because of similar socio-political problems that both countries face. India has done exceedingly well for itself over the last decade and a half. But let us not forget that in proportionate terms its poverty indicators are worse than Pakistan's, economic disparities are greater and the level of crime in politics much higher.

These statistics are neither meant to criticise India nor prop it as an ideal to be imitated. We must only understand that problems as acute as poverty, corruption, crime and compromised politics need not strangle the spirit of a nation that has the confidence and the resolve to make amends. Pakistan's future and fortunes must not be measured on the touchstone of history, for the rise and fall of nations is linked to their present and how they shape their future based on their self-perception and sense of purpose, not their past.

There can be no quarrel with the proposition that we need change – a change of policies and attitudes, and not façade. As a country where the average age is 23.5 years and 73 percent of the population is below 35, our attitudes, self-perception and fortunes can change pretty swiftly. Let us not be afraid to dream.