Pakistan’s prospects careen from bad to worse, but there is still some possibility that it might one day evolve in a more liberal and moderate direction
Events over the last few weeks have amply demonstrated the growing decrepitude of the Pakistani state, providing fresh justification for its perennial ranking at the top of the world’s failed-state indices. Yet out of the gathering gloom, several flickers of light can be detected.
First, though, there can be no doubt about the country’s cloudy prospects. The massive energy crisis, which has resulted in prolonged black-outs, has crippled the already weak industrial base. With the national government defaulting last month on its loan guarantees to power producers, some experts warn that the energy crunch is more of a threat to stability than is terrorism.
The economic crisis has also careened from bad to worse. Last week, Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh disclosed that the economy grew only 3.7 percent in the July 2011-June 2012 fiscal year, undershooting the government’s 4.2-percent target. Shaikh’s budget proposal to parliament the following day was widely criticized as perpetuating the status quo. Its presentation was also a riotous affair, with loud heckles emanating from the opposition benches and shuffles breaking out between parliamentarians.
The country is running wide budget and trade deficits, exacerbated by the marked decline in U.S. financial assistance over the past year. Inflation is at an 11-percent rate, investment is at the lowest level in decades, and the Pakistani rupee is trading at record lows. The Wall Street Journal last week quoted the head of the central bank, Yaseen Anwar, as saying that Islamabad may soon have to turn again to the International Monetary Fund even though repayment of a prior $4-billion IMF loan is likely to test the national exchequer in the months ahead. Anwar’s lament – “There are many serious challenges. I have a rough job here” – neatly encapsulated Pakistan’s situation.
The rise of religious extremism has continued unabated, including the escalation of violence throughout the country against the minority Shia community by the Pakistan Taliban and Sunni militant groups. Two weeks ago, Human Rights Watch took Pakistani authorities to task for failing to protect the small Ahmadi sect that is regarded as heretical by many Muslims, a theme that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also repeated when she released the State Department’s annual human rights report. The use of the notorious blasphemy laws against Christian minorities is another source of national disgrace.
Yet against this darkening horizon, a few glimmers of hope appear that are worthy of note. The current issue of OPEN magazine, an Indian weekly, carries an article about how the privately-owned television channels that have proliferated over the past decade have become forums challenging hard-line anti-India policies, government malfeasance and societal extremism. It reports:
A new breeze is blowing over Pakistan—most Indians are unaware of this because they cannot watch Pakistani TV channels—and it may well be a sign of the road Pakistan might go down in future. It augurs well for both countries.
Pakistan’s new media—actually old, but in its new incarnation—comes down really hard on Pakistan’s new and old rulers, including the military, for encouraging distortions in its new history books and spending time, effort and money on preparing for a future conflict with India rather than concentrating on building a better and more prosperous Pakistan.
It draws inspiration from India’s economic growth over the past decade or two. Its praise and admiration for India is almost embarrassing. It advocates free flow of trade between India and Pakistan. Just a few years ago, these thoughts would have been regarded as anti-Pakistani and deeply subversive. But Pakistan’s media is now free. It is on a roll and it is angry and rebellious.
On a related note, a new Gallup Pakistan poll finds that a strong majority approves of the deepening trade ties that are driving improved relations between India and Pakistan.
Encouragingly, too, the state-run Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation has asked All India Radio for a copy of its recording of the address Muhammed Ali Jinnah made to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on the eve of the country’s founding. In it, Jinnah, the leading figure in the Pakistan national movement, articulated the secular ideals he hoped would animate the new state, including the equal treatment of religious minorities:
You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State.
Pakistani officials have done much since Jinnah’s death a year after the country’s creation to mask his liberal views and decidedly un-Islamic ways, including censoring his remarks before the Constituent Assembly. So, the audio copy of his address is not just of historical interest. Similarly, the pilgrimage that President Asif Ali Zardari – a minority Shia like Jinnah – recently undertook to the tomb of a 12th-century Sufi saint located in India contained a good measure of political symbolism. Sufism is a mystical and largely tolerant variant of Islam practiced by many Pakistanis and is in stark contrast to the austere faith professed by the Taliban.
On a political note that deserves some cheer, Yusuf Raza Gilani last week became the longest serving civilian prime minister in Pakistan’s tumultuous history and, against all odds, the present government seems likely to serve out its allotted term – another first in the country’s dismal record of civil-military relations. It’s also managed to claw back some authority in the national security arena that previously was the sole province of the men in khaki. Of course, Gilani’s government is highly dysfunctional and unpopular, but its unexpected longevity nonetheless is a sign of Pakistan’s on-going democratization.
A final point concerns the growing number of leading voices calling for greater public scrutiny of defense expenditures, which consume about a quarter of the wobbly national budget. Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister who now heads the main opposition party, has in the past called for a reduction of military spending. Now Imran Khan, a rising political star, has joined the chorus. General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the powerful army chief, also recently acknowledged the need for greater balance in defense and development spending.
All these gleams of light, however tentative and faint, indicate that there still remains some hope that Pakistan might one day evolve in the liberal and moderate direction that Jinnah posited at the outset. The lesson for New Delhi is to continue searching out areas of engagement with those Pakistanis eager for more normalized relations. For Washington, justifiably frustrated by the double game Islamabad is playing in Afghanistan and the anti-Americanism coursing through Pakistani politics, it is important to continue helping build up the country’s increasingly influential civil society and supporting the often messy democratization process. There may be long stretches when such efforts appear in vain but they may end up making a good bit of difference.
This commentary was originally posted on Chanakya’s Notebook. I invite you to follow me on Twitter.