The writer has taught international relations and public policy at Boston University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and was the vice chancellor of LUMS.
Not all is wrong in Pakistan. Of course, this does not mean that all is right. Or even that most is right. Clearly, it is not. All it means is that not all is wrong. Small consolation as it may be, it is still a consolation worthy of remark in a society that so adamantly shies away from any signs of collective self-satisfaction.
Self-congratulatory tendencies are to be avoided because they breed complacency. But complacency is not our great challenge today. Our biggest challenge, instead, is despondency.
Not that we should be comparing ourselves to the worst cases in the world, but for the benefit of those who insist that we ourselves are the worst case, consider just the last few weeks.
In Thailand a sea of protesters took over the government enclaves of Bangkok demanding the replacement of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was elected in a landslide in 2011, with a ‘people’s prime minister.’ In Ukraine, protesters filled the center of Kiev and built fortified barricades in preparation for an entrenched stakeout against elected President Viktor Yanukovich’s move to reject a deal with the European Union (EU). In Bangladesh, the capital Dhaka is at all but a standstill as the leaders of the two main parties – Begum Hasina Wajid and Begum Khalida Zia – duke it out in yet another power transition crisis where things are likely to get much worse before they get any better.
Meanwhile, in Pakistan – a country better- or as well-known for its rocky political transitions as any – something remarkable (at least in Pakistan’s historical context) has been happening.
On May 11, 2013, amidst much real and manufactured angst, national elections were concluded. Much hand-wringing on whether they would even be held, or how, came to naught. Maybe the elections were less ‘historic’ than some would have preferred. But that might have been for the better. History after all, should never be manufactured in haste.
On June 5, 2013, Mr Nawaz Sharif took oath as prime minister for the third time. For very good reason, he seemed to be smiling less this time. Hopefully, he is wiser with experience. Certainly, the challenges are more weighty. One can justifiably begrudge his lack of policy and administrative decisiveness since having assumed office. But one should admire the dignity with which everyone – outgoing and incoming governments as well as larger opposition – went about executing the transition.
On September 9, 2013, Mr Mamnoon Hussain became president of Pakistan. More importantly, Mr Asif Ali Zardari stepped down. He did so with the biggest of smiles on his face: all teeth sparkling in classic ‘Zardari style’. This was, indeed, unprecedented. In all of Pakistan’s history prior to September 9, 2013, there had been three, and only three, ways to leave the highest office in the land – the three dreaded Ds: death, detention and disgrace. Mr Zardari’s departure marked a fourth, much more welcome, path: democratic transition.
On November 29, 2013, Gen Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani retired and was replaced by Gen Raheel Sharif as the chief of army staff (COAS). As is the tradition for such transitions, there was much saluting, parading, and military ritual. But, importantly and thankfully, there was relatively little political fanfare. That is how it should be. The outgoing ‘chief’ said all the right things in the buildup to the change. The incumbent has said nearly nothing since having assumed charge. Both are good signs.
On December 12, 2013, the mercurial Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry retired. Mechanically, and as required by court tradition and norm, Justice Tassadduq Hussain Jillani became the new chief justice. He will retain this office for only seven months. In the run-up to the transition, there was little conspiratorial speculation of note. Everyone expected the appropriate transition process to be followed. And it was. Everyone expects it to be followed again in seven months. That, in some ways, is Chief Justice Jillani’s biggest and only test.
Today, December 21, 2013, marks the 200th day since Mr Nawaz Sharif became prime minister. Our purpose today is not to evaluate the performance of his government. But let us at least state the obvious: the government started off with low expectations and has mostly met them. One is trying to be honest, not uncharitable. Let us also recognise, therefore, that the tasks before this government are Herculian; the capacities at their command are dismal; the demons they seek to battle are terrible; and we as a society remain entranced in our own dance of ungovernability. Mr Nawaz Sharif is not to be envied. He holds one of the most difficult jobs in the world today. He deserves everyone’s sympathy, even if he cannot claim everyone’s support.
But let us focus, for a change, not on the performance of a government or the individuals who constitute it, but on the evolution of a polity; a political system. And in doing so let us acknowledge that not all is wrong in Pakistan.
In less than 200 political days, all major power players in Pakistan have changed. They have changed within and through the processes prescribed. They have changed without the rancor of conspiracy. They have changed without the process of change really ever being in doubt. The system seems to have been respected in all these transitions.
Most importantly, this has happened not because of any one or particular set of actors. It has happened because all political actors – government, opposition, judiciary, military, media, citizens – have willed it to happen. There is a refreshing sense in society at large that things can no longer be done any other way. This sense is now pervasive enough that, for the most part, it is not even worth remarking that things could be done any other way. The unremarkableness of how these transitions have happened is really what makes the transition remarkable.
No, this does not mean that each, or even any, one of these transitions will turn out to be momentous. Any, or even every, one of them could backfire in any of the many ways that we are all too familiar with. But the individuals who have transitioned in and out are not the point. The system they inhabit – and, even more importantly, the process by which they have come to inhabit that system – is the point. And that is so much more important. I, for one, would take a robust political system over a charismatic political leader any day.
Our failures of yesterday and our challenges of tomorrow have as often been failures of the system as they have been failures of individuals. The less dependable a system is on the follies or genius of individuals, the more robust it is likely to be. Systems derive their strength from the predictability, transparency, and unremarkableness of processes embedded in them. To be able to see glimmers of that predictability, transparency and unremarkableness in our processes does, indeed, give one hope. All is not wrong in Pakistan.
No, change has not arrived. But it may have left the station.
Useful political sloganeering it may be, but the political fact is that change never really ‘arrives.’ It is not like pizza that can be ‘delivered.’ And it is certainly not something that can be conjured up overnight, like a rabbit out of a hat.
Change, at least meaningful change, is not a destination. It’s a journey.
What we have here, then, is a few first steps – a few very good first steps – in an important journey. The test will be whether this change can stick through future transitions. But, now we at least have good precedents to build upon. An argument to insist that this is how it should be. How it must be. If it does stick, the significance will be truly momentous.