Reboot or reset

There are a few common refrains of why Pakistan is the way it is

Shahzad Chaudhry April 23, 2021
The writer is a retired air vice marshal and a former ambassador. He tweets @shazchy09 and can be contacted at [email protected]

The last few weeks have been instructive, once again. We are never short of days when the same lessons aren’t learnt over and over again. Something is not right (I deliberately avoid using ‘rotten’) in this state of Pakistan. For too long it hasn’t been right at all. We stumble badly over the same hurdles and never learn. Perhaps there isn’t another option under this order. It throws up just one recourse which only makes us sicker. Why are we a fractious society? Why are we helpless before the challenges which face the state and the society? What keeps us from searching for relevant remedies to our ailments? Why are we scared to think anew what might work for us? Why are we fearful of accepting that maybe, maybe the solution that we pursue is misplaced?

There are a few common refrains of why Pakistan is the way it is. The first and the most popular is the heavy handedness of the military which allegedly has never let truer democracy take root through its machinations. This is drilled into our political discourse as the prime reason for not being what we could have. Like all finite conclusions this one needs a larger than fair qualification but it surely did slow the institution of purer political values. Next is the polar opposite when politics is stated as an incompetent, self-serving and a corrupt disposition unable to throw up honest leadership betraying the trust placed in it when it had its turn. As an aside it was politics and its manifest failure and excesses which enabled the context of military takeover(s) and their popular acceptability. The coups always brought a sense of instant relief in the prevailing environment. Third of course is how the economy has crumbled under its distortions which is on the verge of crashing. And how such distortions have exacerbated and redefined societal divisions deepening the chasms and the fissures.

We are a broken society and a system in need of repair. Period. Our parliament doesn’t work, our governance is inadequate and overwhelmed, our markets are easily manipulable and unregulated, and our justice system is broken and for sale to the highest bidder, or to the most influential. We must accept these as our collective ailments as the first step to seek a remedy and rebuild the nation to save its statehood. Kicking the can down the road is no more an option.

The 1956 constitution was framed under a sense of dominant fear. A nation that was in the throes of putting itself together, had a bloodied birth, was a consequence of a fractious political canvas, where half its composite parts were either politically manipulated to agree to a new federation or were forced to acquiesce through referendums and coercive measures could have only been fearful of its sustenance and its future. The threat of India or its enmity may have been a handy ploy that imposed the need for togetherness in the initial days but that too soon ran its course. The constitution was thus federal in nature assuring measured autonomy to its constituent states. Too fearful of fissiparous dissolution it had to integrate a semblance of independence to the provinces. The 1973 Constitution picked up from where the 1956 draft had left with additional modifications to appease a growing religious sentiment. What came in between was the One-Unit which had to be dismantled when it forced the break-up of the country.

If the 1956 constitution was founded on fear, the 1973 was only a convenient throwback to an earlier solution without reference to the context that existed in 1973. By this time the country had seen three wars with India and had stood the test of time. It could have been bolder in asserting the developmental context of both the state and the society for the future. So while laws remained assiduously federal the conduct of the leadership was mostly autocratic per the flavour of the time. ZAB was patently autocratic. This only got changed in 2010 when the 18th Amendment restricted central assertiveness through statutes emboldening the provinces to the verge of a confederation. Whether it will strengthen the federation remains to be seen but the wholesale allocation of powers to the provinces has come without them assuming the responsibility that comes with power. And this disconnect has lain the entire structure fragile. The provinces far more independent in their matters have failed to restructure their administrative system to generate indigenous revenues and remain fixed to the handouts awarded under the National Finance Commission (NFC).

In this case an undeveloped society is being run under laws suiting the genius of a developed society. Provincial governments politically opposed to the federal government are loathe to work in harmony with the latter and are repeatedly defiant of whatever developmental initiative emerges from the Centre. The gradual evisceration of the common interest list means the federal government cannot venture into provincial domain and vice versa even if a coordinated input is needed in planning and financing. Some areas like health, education, law and order and economy remain central to the growth of a society like ours but can remain unattended because of such bifurcation. The recent wheat and sugar scandals which have hit people across the country through contrived shortages — some deliberately induced to make the federal government look weak — is a case in point. That could be the case for any federal government.

An underdeveloped society needs a focused attention to its central needs of education and social responsibility and respect for rule of law to bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots to avoid pushing them into the awaiting traps of extremist ethnic, religious and nationalist denominations. Pakistan today stands fractured for exactly these reasons and for the lack of concerted efforts at building its society. Structural barriers in its statutes restrict effective allocation and attention even when there is a will. Events of the last few weeks indicate these gaps in our social make-up and a society’s inability to come up with rational recourse. Our riposte of burning Pakistan down will not change attitudes in Paris or in Amsterdam. What is needed is an intellectual response to such offensive caricatures in a strategy which sensitises international sentiment to the offensive nature of such playfulness. The best recourse is to ignore such instigations but that is a far cry where emotion rules over reason.

If indeed we must graduate from a medieval society to a more informed and deliberated one it shall need a concerted effort nationwide. The Constitution and its statutes must provide the vehicles for an integrated national effort to reshape the society say over the next three decades. If it involves revisiting the Constitution to forge more responsive structures it must be done. The politics of the country will need to come to a consensus on where a central responsibility exercises a planning and a coordination function and the provinces act as its implementation arms. Short of a presidential form of a government this could be our only way out. We could later revert to more progressive governance models.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 23rd, 2021.

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