Friday June 21, 2024

Pakistan and the idea of change

By Hussain H Zaidi
December 29, 2021

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

Both mainstream and social media are abuzz with speculations that a change in the government is on the horizon. While such speculations may be not more than wit and gossip, there’s little doubt that the popularity of the ruling party is on the wane. The defeat of the PTI in the recent local bodies polls in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the party’s powerbase, offers the latest testimony to this proposition.

Even otherwise, many an erstwhile staunch supporter of Prime Minister Imran Khan in the media and among intelligentsia has turned outright sceptical about his avowed ability to rid the country of its chronic problems and usher in an era of prosperity. Not only that, among the people, the perception has gained ground that with the PTI at the helm, the much hyped change has turned out to be one for the worse rather than one for the better.

Why has the popularity of our ‘man of destiny’ eroded so fast? To answer this question, we first need to see what made him so popular in the first place. One possible answer to both these questions consists in our idea of change.

In his posthumously published seminal work, ‘The Idea of History,’ British philosopher R G Collingwood examines how history – and by implication social change – is viewed in different societies and epochs. History reconstructs the past with a view to understanding and predicting – and at times shaping – the future. While the past is reconstructed in light of the available evidence, the selection, use and interpretation of the evidence is based on certain key assumptions, reflecting the dominant mode of thinking in a society or a civilisation. Once so reconstructed, the past tends to beget the future in its own image. The idea of the past gives rise to the idea of the future.

For instance, in Europe during the medieval period, the providential view of history came into prominence. History was regarded as an unfolding of the Divine Will. The view created the belief in the divine rights of kings, their unaccountability to the people and the primacy of the traditions and customs over the intellect. The outcome of that view of history was absolute despotism in the political realm and authoritarianism in the intellectual sphere.

The advent of the Enlightenment in Europe in the 18th century accorded supreme importance to reason; therefore history and contemporary social events began to be seen from a rational-cum-secular perspective. In one sweep, the Enlightenment not only rejected the medieval religious ethos, against which it was essentially a reaction, but respect for all traditions and institutions as well. Not surprisingly, the Enlightenment earned its distinction as the age of revolutions, whose most celebrated child was Napoleon Bonaparte.

Fast forward to the view of history in our part of the world. The South Asian, particularly, Pakistan’s, view of history is undergirded by the cult of the personality: How the people holding the reins of a family, organixation, tribe or nation think and decide shapes its destiny. The counterview that these choices and decisions themselves are determined by the interplay of impersonal economic, political, and cultural social forces at work and that the spirit of the age – to borrow a famous phrase from the philosopher Hegel – working through individuals but independent of their volition, is the ultimate arbiter doesn’t command a lot of appeal.

‘The man at the top makes all the difference.’ The belief that effective governance is essentially a matter of having an exceptional person or a clique at the helm has remained virile in South Asian societies. A corollary of this belief is the notion that leaders are born, not made; that by destiny and necessity, rather than by chance or contingency, they go places; and that such men or women are not a creature of a specific situation, rather they create situations which suit them. This belief underlies the spectacular success of dynastic politics in South Asia, notably in India (Nehru-Gandhi), Pakistan (Bhutto and Sharif), and Bangladesh (Mujib and Zia).

In recent years, dynastic politics in both India and Pakistan has been successfully challenged. Does this signify a departure from the cult of personality and by implication the birth of a new idea of history and of change? The answer, by all accounts, is in the negative. The chief challengers – Imran Khan in Pakistan and Narendra Modi in India – notwithstanding all their venom against dynastic politics have subscribed to its underlying notion good and proper and ended up creating their own cults and have transformed that notion into a potent narrative. In the eyes of the supporters of both Khan and Modi, national salvation is inconceivable without their respective leader being at the helm.

Before Khan’s rise to the top, his supporters made the nation see the ‘leadership crisis’ as the Achilles heel of Pakistan. Economically and politically, the nation had been on the rack, because at every turn corrupt and incompetent people were made the masters of its destiny. If tax and investment levels in Pakistan had been abysmally low and the economy was saddled with a massive public debt, the prime reason was that the people didn’t trust successive ‘corrupt’ governments with their hard-earned money.

By the same token, if prices were skyrocketing and the basic commodities disappeared from the market overnight, it was because the people in power were colluding to make themselves better off at the expense of the nation’s people. Let the right man come at the top and all the problems would go out of the window. So went the narrative! It was on that narrative that the PTI rested its politics and made a strong pitch to the electorate in successive elections, with the promise to make a new Pakistan. Finally, luck smiled on the party.

Early 20th century English philosopher F H Bradley once stated that every difference must make for a difference. If the right man was the difference between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Pakistan and only the appearance of a maverick leader was what the doctor ordered, the emergence of Imran Khan must have caused a turnaround in Pakistan’s fortune.

Since August 2018, the ‘right’ man, assisted by a league of ‘extraordinary’ ladies and gentlemen, is at the top but the country seems to be beset with the same old problems. Direct tax revenue hasn’t racked up. The expatriates are yet to invest their hard-earned fortune in the economy (the recent jump in foreign remittances is not due to the senders’ love for Pakistan). The government continues to lean on borrowing – including that from the IMF – to keep the wheels of the economy moving. Prices continue rising and basic commodities remain in short supply off and on.

As this state of affairs brings out, any idea of history which sets down the swings in the fortune of a nation to the character or competence of one man in disregard of the social forces or institutional framework at work is necessarily only skin-deep. ‘Extraordinary’ persons don’t stand outside the causal order of things. They are not as much the cause as the effect of the social forces and have to work within the constraints imposed by such forces. In a democracy, in particular, it is strong institutions rather than a maverick leadership that matter.

The PTI, no doubt, inherited a weak economy anchored by inefficient institutions of economic governance and undergirded by a corporate culture of cartelisation, rent-seeking and tax evasion. Then there were compulsions inherent in the political culture, which every government must bow to if it doesn’t wish to fall apart. It is such a political and macroeconomic environment that forces the country’s hand to go back to the IMF every five years.

As long as the cultural and structural constraints persist, every government – whether it’s headed by a Nawaz Sharif or an Imran Khan or whether its finances are managed by an Ishaq Dar or an Asad Umar or a Shaukat Tarin – will desperately look to friends and donors to bail the economy out. Merely a change at the top can’t make a difference. Be that as it may, our peculiar view of history – and of change – doesn’t seem to be fading out.

Twitter: @hussainhzaidi