Rising From The Ashes

Rising From The Ashes
How does the country move forward from here? Is this the beginning of another era of military dictatorship? Will Pakistan always remain this way, and can it survive? These questions might be new for today’s youth, but the older ones among us have wondered about this more times throughout Pakistan’s history than we would like. It should be obvious to everyone, regardless of age, that the reason these questions keep coming back every few years is because the country’s leadership has made wrong choices at every one of these critical instances. Pakistan finds itself at the crossroads again due to the events during the last thirteen months and especially after May 9, and the decisions its leadership makes today will either be a part of dark history or a brighter future.

Based on Pakistan’s history, it is natural to think that the strong response from the military after the May 9 attacks on its facilities may take the country back towards military dictatorship. However, this may not necessarily be true due to at least four reasons. First, if the establishment wanted to take over, it could have easily partnered with PTI again, the most popular party, especially since Imran Khan was begging for its support to bring him back to power. Second, the military recognizes that immediate stability is a must for an economic turnaround. Third, the military also realizes more than ever before that a sustained economic progress cannot be achieved without long-term political stability, which cannot be achieved by derailing the democratic process. The fourth and very important reason is that with the new geopolitics, and blocs that are forming around Pakistan as a result, stability is very much desired by Pakistan’s friendly countries, and they might have pushed the military to take strong actions.

With the continuous pounding of the military leadership by Imran Khan and his vindictive approach to politics, it was clear to many that the chaos will continue even after the elections, irrespective of results. A 2/3rd majority or even a simple majority by PTI would have emboldened him to seek revenge from both the military and his political opponents - an inqilab that he was promising, and his supporters bought into. A loss in elections, on the other hand, would never have been acceptable to him and his supporters, resulting in a continuous state of dharnas and long marches, further destabilizing the country. Imran Khan’s actions and some judgements by the courts seem to have convinced the military and the government that decisive action had to be taken to get out of this chaos and bring stability to the country, they were just waiting for him to take the wrong step.

If the military leadership was forced to take actions for stability, economic progress, and strengthening democracy, as proclaimed in the ISPR press release, then it must dial down the heavy-handedness that is being deployed to remove any perception of de facto martial law in the country. Of course, justice must be done to those who planned, instigated, abetted, and carried out those attacks on May 9 – including those from within the military – but the state’s writ cannot be used as a vehicle to suppress people’s rights for a fair trial, peaceful demonstration, and to associate with any political party. There is no question that the attack on military or state’s installations cannot be accepted, but forceful suppression of people’s rights leads to a much bigger issue of discontentment with the state, shaking its foundation, and Pakistan has paid a heavy price for this suppression throughout its history.

The heavy handedness must give way to even handedness and it is incumbent upon the military, judiciary, and political parties as well as the civil society to start this process at the earliest. This political crisis has fully exposed the power structure and the games that are played and how things are manipulated by those in power, bringing disrepute to not only themselves but their institutions also. There is a talk of truth and reconciliation, but there is no need for one. Most truths have come out anyway, and the reconciliation will only happen when those responsible – belonging to both civilian and military institutes - will admit their destructive behavior and are held accountable. Much like driving on a motorway, people only change their behavior when the laws are enforced and when they know they will cause damage to themselves and those around them with their reckless behavior. Ending this reckless behavior is the necessary first step in rebuilding the state.

There is a sharp divide within civil society between the supporters and opponents of Imran Khan, primarily because of how these groups feel the country should be ruled. The supporters rightfully feel despondent with the turn of events and the exodus of party members, forced or volunteered, as they believed Khan is the only hope for Pakistan. Many of us felt even worse when Bhutto was hanged, or when Benazir was murdered, they lost their lives for democracy.

Imran Khan’s supporters, especially the educated urban class, who incidentally are well represented in the Pakistani diaspora in the western world, fail to understand that those who oppose Imran Khan are not pro establishment or even pro PDM. The opposition is primarily because of his authoritarian designs and the backdoor channels he used to get into power, thus preventing the progress of democratic process, and then trying to use the same model this time around. Based on the previous decade, it is a strong conviction among his opponents that Imran Khan’s movement is not for democracy. The primary motive was to get a 2/3rd majority due to his popularity, and then push for early elections so he has absolute power, not unlike that of an autocrat, to take care of his old political opponents, as well as the new ones in the military and judiciary.

This struggle between democracy and authoritarianism is not new and has been there since Pakistan’s inception and is well documented in history. Pakistan’s first cabinet was mostly made up of highly educated Muhajir bureaucrats and industrialists. They failed to give representation to democratically elected members of Muslim majority provinces in a highly centralized government, which incidentally was a complete opposite of a federal system promised in Lahore resolution to the Muslim majority provinces. Slowly, in 1950s, this central government was transformed to comprise primarily of bureaucrats and military from Punjab, leading to the first martial law in 1958 and the breakup of the country in 1971.

Even though Pakistan had some spurts of genuine democratic progress, the urban educated class in general, a numerical minority, continued to have a strong opinion that the majority of the less educated or uneducated Pakistanis cannot make the right choice, ironically similar to Sir Syed’s argument against democracy in the late 19th century, albeit for Hindu majority (The Pakistan Paradox by Christophe Jaffrelot, pp. 39). They always prefer a strongman, and have supported authoritarian regimes by Musharraf, Zia, and Ayub over politicians. This group also had a strong support for the hybrid regime and army’s involvement in politics until early 2022.

This class also dislikes politicians, due to their feudal base and the narrative of corruption that was always targeted towards politicians only. In Imran Khan, they saw an educated, English-speaking cricket hero, who they can relate to and were willing to ignore his alleged financial and moral corruption and the fact that he also relied on feudal class for his rule. As they now understand better that the military must not lead in running the country and corruption is more widespread than just in the political class, one hopes they will come to the realization that one-man shows cannot solve the country’s problems and a true democracy is the only solution.

Like many other societies, there are multiple divisions in Pakistan. Instead of letting those divisions define our behavior, the country must unite for a common goal. Irrespective of our political and other affiliations and whether we live in Pakistan or outside, we want to see Pakistan progress and prosper. We know all too well that without economic progress, the country cannot lift its vast population out of poverty and solve socioeconomic issues. We also know that the country can’t build a strong defense against its enemies or be relevant to its people and its friends without a strong economy. If there is one lesson we must learn from China, it is the importance of economic growth. For thirty years after initiating economic reforms in late 70’s, China’s only focus was on its economic development without asserting itself on the global stage.

However, continuous political stability is required to achieve this level of prosperity, and history tells us that this stability cannot be achieved in Pakistan by authoritarianism and one-man shows from either military dictators or civilian autocrats. Forcing these solutions on the people of Pakistan is the primary reason for these political crises throughout Pakistan’s history. The solution for Pakistan is a pluralistic democracy, providing opportunities to all - irrespective of religion, sex, caste, creed, or race. This will require strong commitments from the military, political parties, judiciary, and civil society to not only strengthen democracy but also to make it deliver to the masses, as per Article 38 of the constitution.

If military leaders are convinced that democracy needs to be strengthened, they must send a loud and clear message to their rank and file that the behavior of previous military leaders, especially during the past 10 years, is not acceptable and they will be held accountable.

The political parties must also show commitment to bringing reforms in the democratic process and its continuation. This means electoral reforms such as candidate selection through primary election process instead of the politics of electables, limiting the power of party heads, and improving financial accountability.  They must also amend the Constitution to ensure all assemblies complete their terms and elections are held at a pre-determined date only by removing powers from the prime and chief ministers to dissolve assemblies.

And, most importantly, political parties must commit to better governance by empowering local governments.  In today’s world, it’s the local governments that are directly involved in improving socioeconomic conditions of their communities. This is how Singapore, a small city-state, changed and this is how a small fishing village, Shenzhen in China, transformed into a hub of export oriented high-tech manufacturing and led the path towards economic growth in China. Pakistan can use these models at cities and SEZs level, and expand with time by empowering local governments.

The people of Pakistan have shown remarkable resilience throughout the country’s 75 year history, and it is time to give them power and opportunity to lead change. For Pakistan to be strong so it can deal with the world on its own terms, it must focus its energies on becoming the most prosperous nation in the subcontinent by the time it turns 100. This can only happen with a stable and uninterrupted democratic process, removing distortions which are only benefiting the top 1%, and growth oriented economic policies utilizing its young human capital to the fullest. Instead of exporting its brightest to the rest of the world for foreign remittances, Pakistan needs to provide them opportunities at home so they can build products and services for exports for a much better return.

The hard task in not in punishing arsonists, it is in rebuilding and in rising from the ashes.