COMMENTARY
 
Pakistan: Crisis State, Resilient Nation
Pakistan is an important player in South Asia and way ahead of several developing countries in terms of national power and its projection. Its geo-political value for great powers amid the war on terror is hardly questionable. Like all post-colonial states, the country is faced with a host of daunting challenges, which are not insurmountable and in no way disqualify it as a functioning state.

Yet much of the contemporary literature on Pakistan continues to treat it as an exceptional case for potential state collapse. Recent publications on Pakistan seem to offer only a simplistic understanding of its intricate reality by limiting their analyses to issues of extremism and terrorism, dogmatic expressions of state ideology, or the army’s predatory ambitions.

Pakistan: Beyond the Crisis State, the recently published book edited by Pakistan’s celebrated diplomat and journalist Dr Maleeha Lodhi, is, therefore, both timely and refreshing. It articulates a counter-narrative to explain the myriad complexities of Pakistan’s inner reality and outer posture. With its central theme of Pakistan’s portrayal as a state in crisis but lived by a resilient nation, it provides the most convincing reason ever for the country’s perpetual survivability against all odds, past and present.

With several contributions from eminent Pakistanis, the book covers important facets of Pakistani state, politics, economy and society, with scores of substantive arguments that dispel the doomsday discourse on Pakistan. And, like all critical works, the study offers novel ideas and breaks new grounds, thereby creating enough space for an intellectually rejuvenating debate on the subject.

“Pakistan’s promising potential,” states the edited volume at the start, “lies in a number of attributes: an able pool of professionals and technically trained people, a hardworking labour force, a growing middle class, an enterprising business community, an energetic free media, and a lively arts, literature and music scene. Pakistan’s cultural purity and open society are sinews of its strength. It has a significant industrial base, an elaborate infrastructure of roads and communication links, a modern banking system, a large domestic market and a thriving informal economy—factors that have averted a national breakdown even when in the throes of severe financial crisis.”

In a powerful opening chapter, Ayesha Jalal explains the historical roots of the current paranoia haunting Pakistanis and argues for a rational and open debate to revisit national history and relearn its lessons. She concludes on a promising, however conditional, note: “Critical awareness of Pakistan’s present problems in the light of history can overcome the reality deficit and help create the political will that can allow Pakistan to navigate its way out of a daunting present and chart a future consistent with the aspirations of its rudderless and long-suffering people.”

Akbar S Ahmed moves the debate about Pakistan’s past further by underscoring the importance of its founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s progressive, peaceful, just and tolerant creed, as contained in his August 11, 1947 speech before the Constituent Assembly. However, the author’s plea to Pakistanis for taking pride in “Muslim identity” appears a bit contradictory to Jinnah’s secular ideal for a Pakistani state, whose citizens “may belong to any religion or caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”

Mohsin Hamid’s lucidly written chapter addresses the identity issue by offering a definition of national identity that “takes as its starting point people and geography rather than abstract ideology.” To him, “If you‘re from Pakistan, then you‘re a Pakistani.” He also introduces three essential attributes of Pakistani nation that are altogether ignored by other authors: the geographic and demographic vastness; the ethnic, religious and cultural diversity; and the amazing ability of these diverse groups to co-exist peacefully.

Of course, recurrent instances of ethnic strife and religious intolerance in Pakistan may contradict his claim, but only to an extent. The mystique of Pakistan has, indeed, manifested itself in rare expressions of nationalism during recent natural disasters and decades-old display of unique hospitality for millions of Afghan refugees in major cities and beyond by Pakistani people. This national trait, according to the author, may be “the result of geography and history, of millennia of invading, being invaded, and dealing with the aftermath.” But, then, to argue differently, the same factor seems to have made Pakistan a soft state, ripe for intrusion by nefarious forces and charges of cross-border terrorism.

Dr Lodhi’s chapter constitutes the essence of the study. To her, Pakistan’s political predicament is shaped by several fault-lines, including the asymmetrical nature of civil-military ties, a feudal dominated political order and culture fostering clientelist politics, and the oligarchic elites’ reliance on ‘borrowed growth.’ She sees a nexus between a host of internal and external factors contributing to the country’s troubles, identifies several recent transformative trends in its society and economy and evaluates their potential in tackling the governance crisis and the dysfunctional state of politics. The most significant of these trends is “the emergence of a more politically confident middle class,” fostered by economic growth, consumer boom and information revolution.”

Still, Dr Lodhi is concerned particularly about the continuity of politics of patronage, or political clientalism, which she considers paradoxical to recent social and economic shifts. While being cautious of the middle class’s eventual potential to coalesce into a viable political force, she concludes the chapter by envisioning five possible scenarios about the direction Pakistan’s politics may take in the foreseeable future.

Critics, however, can argue that Pakistan’s political reality may not have evolved as fast as its social and economic realities, but its credible transformation in some ways cannot be ignored. For instance, mainstream and regional parties do have increasing middle class representation, including professionals and businessmen. Equally noticeable are transformative trends in mainstream politics since the elections of 2008, including the propensity to build consensus and avoid confrontation for the sake of democratic continuity as well as a relatively smooth working civil-military relationship under the current political dispensation.

Also debatable is the probability of a “middle class moment” in Pakistan, which cannot be ruled out—as the country has this powerful combination of youth and technology that produced the Arab Spring. However, given the regressive and delusionary streak in civil society and media, we cannot be certain whether the political outcome of such a momentous event will rejuvenate Jinnah’s founding ideals or the destructive ambitions of the forces who have hijacked his creation.

Writing on civil-military relations, Shuja Nawaz and Saeed Shafqat agree that the army has also undergone social transformation on egalitarian lines. “It now reflects a broader range of the country’s rapidly urbanising population. The emergence of new media and public discourse has also challenged the military’s ability to control life in the country with an iron hand,” argues the former. The latter looks at both the civil and military bureaucracy to opine that the social class origins of these dominant institutions “are undergoing change—the recruitment pattern is shifting from the upper middle class to the lower middle class.”

Both authors are also in favour of restoring civilian supremacy in politics and restricting the role of the army to crucial defence and strategic subjects—a goal, they argue, can be realised only when politicians and the generals are willing to change course. However, like Dr Lodhi, the two authors come hard on civilians for consistently hobnobbing with the army, thereby contributing to military domination of politics.

The army, concludes Shuja Nawaz, must “allow the politicians and civil society to make their mistakes and allow the other critically important elements of society: media, businessmen, professionals, lawyers, etc., to function unaffected.” Dr Shafqat is hopeful “that as the electoral process becomes a regular one and political parties pursue internal reform to democratise their internal structures they may overtime be able to provide a viable alternative to military hegemony.”

This most crucial section of the book—one that clearly charts a course for overcoming Pakistan’s political dilemma—is followed by seven chapters dealing with specific domestic subjects such as the role of religion and challenge from extremism, and the question of reforming institutions, economy, energy and education sectors. Obviously, unless the country’s polity truly starts to represent public aspirations and its leadership has the vision to translate them into practical realities, there is only a limit to which the ideals sought in each of these readings can be realised.

These ideals include Ziad Haider’s argument for “building an inclusive and robust Pakistani state invoking progressive Islamic values,” Zahid Hussain’s call for the adoption of a “holistic approach which also includes the political mobilization of the people to combat terrorism,” and Dr Ishrat Hussain’s multi-pronged strategy for institutional reforms, especially building formal and informal ‘institutions of restraint’ to guarantee good governance and prevent institutional decay.

They also include the respective courses suggested by Meekal Ahmed and Mudassar Mazhar Malik for wide-ranging reformation of the economic sector to place it on a viable footing and achieve greater competitiveness; Ziad Alahdad’s recommendation of an Integrated Energy Plan to overcome the aggravating energy crisis; and the “strategic priority” that Moeed Yusuf and Shanza Khan think the education sector deserves in terms of reformation.

Last four chapters of the book explore strategic and foreign policy issues which are vital to Pakistan—with Feroz Hassan Khan arguing how Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent is a source of strategic stability in South Asia, Ahmed Rashid underlining why Pakistan needs to pursue “minimum interest” in Afghanistan for preventing another regional quagmire, and Dr Riffat Hussain explaining what is required to let the India-Pakistan peace process make credible progress.

Munir Akram uses his long-standing experience in diplomacy to suggest a way out for Pakistan’s recent strategic marginalization in political, economic and diplomatic spheres at both regional and global levels. He proposes a new South Asian paradigm, premised on the United States and other great powers’ perception of Pakistan as a principal counter-poise to extremism and a key factor of regional stability and their active engagement in securing incremental progress in India-Pakistan relationship. However, the validity of such paradigm may have been constrained especially by recent deterioration in US-Pakistan relations.

To conclude, Pakistan: Beyond the Crisis State is an important contribution to contemporary literature on the country. The book is an excellent text for a graduate course on Pakistan Studies and an essential reading for all those looking for informed understanding of Pakistan affairs. It has particularly great value for policy makers in the outside world concerned with Pakistan and South Asia. Eve more importantly, the real utility of the volume is for Pakistanis, especially their ruling elites, provided they are wiling to learn from the lessons it teaches.

Copyright@ Ishtiaq Ahmad