Volume 5, No. 9, September 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
Pakistan has suffered throughout its existence from ‘experiments’ foisted on the polity. The common thrust of these ‘experiments’ was to prevent the emergence and consolidation of, at a minimum, a democratic state and society. This was far from a radical aspiration. All it implied was the implementation of the spirit and letter of the Independence mandate, as formulated by founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Unfortunately, Mr Jinnah’s secular, democratic views, soon after Independence (and the process continues in one shape or the other to date) became the victim of the machinations of powerful institutions of the post-colonial state, particularly the military and bureaucracy (both inherited institutions from British colonialism). Hamza Alvi’s work was one of the earliest theoretical attempts to come to grips with this phenomenon, and the relative weakness of the political forces in society.
Initially, the military and bureaucracy appeared to be equal stakeholders in shaping the political system. But by 1954, when Pakistan joined the anti-communist alliances CENTO and SEATO, the political role of the military came to the fore. Incrementally, the military became the ‘senior’ partner in this state institutional coalition, to the detriment of democracy. Four military coups and three martial laws later, a truncated Pakistan (East Pakistan having broken away and re-emerged as Bangladesh in 1971) has been unable, despite brief periods of relative respite, to shake off the stranglehold of the military on national affairs. Today, that domination does not rest only on the physical might the military possesses, but on its relatively recent ability to mould the national narrative to its whims and wishes and increasingly suppress dissident and critical opinion.
The 2018 general elections and the controversial bringing to power of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government are but the latest manifestations of this continuing military dominance of politics and, increasingly, society through the promotion of a militarised culture in society. Unfortunately for the planners of this construct, and for Pakistan generally, this latest experiment appears to be turning into a disaster. The economy has tanked, inflation is at an unprecedented in recent years high, the rupee’s rapid slump against the dollar has increased the cost of imported goods, of which traditionally around 90 percent are plant, machinery and raw materials, hence relatively inelastic. Attempts by the government to reduce imports through regulatory duties, etc, have only succeeded in making a small dent in imports while raising the cost of imported inputs for industry, rendering it uncompetitive to break into the international market. Pakistan has been left behind in the post-Cold War globalised world by its inability to tap into the new system of global supply chains that have helped the export profile of countries like China, the Asian Tigers, Vietnam and Bangladesh to name a few. Terrorism over decades discouraged supply chain buyers from even visiting Pakistan. Some relief was provided by conducting such business offshore in the Gulf states, but it could not prove a substitute for normal ways of doing business with the world. Our prime export industry, textiles, having got bogged down in manufacturing low value added products and failure to modernise to add cutting edge value, has meant exports have hit a plateau and may even decline.
Land reform is no longer considered important since Bhutto’s flawed efforts in this regard were reversed during his later tenure and after his overthrow in 1977. Not one of our learned economists talks any more about the fundamental need for land reforms to open the door and pave the path for capitalist development. On the contrary, the traditional nexus between the large landowning and capitalist class is well, alive, and kicking. Ironically, having never seriously taken up its historic task of cleansing our polity and society of pre-capitalist hangovers in the interests of its own class and its development, the bourgeoisie in Pakistan has been exposed as a toothless wonder, hardly capable of transforming state and society in even its own image.
But of course history’s dynamics do not allow things to remain the same permanently. Rapid urbanisation (see Reza Ali’s article in the March and April issues of PMR), the changing agricultural landscape, the rise of a new, assertive urban middle class, the rise in consciousness amongst the oppressed, workers, peasants, youth, women (witness the tremendous Aurat March on March 8, 2019), religious minorities and nationalities shows the tremendous breadth and reach of a potential coalition of these forces to wrest the narrative and transform state and society, in the first instance, into a genuinely secular, democratic system.