You have a choice of images and encounters that you think would illustrate the present state of affairs in Pakistan. For instance, there was that unscheduled, late night press conference on Wednesday when Miftah Ismail and Musadik Malik appeared on our television screens, with glum looks on their faces. This was how the third hike in fuel prices in three weeks was announced.
More extended proceedings that belong in the genre of political circus were staged in Lahore when the annual budget of Punjab was presented not in the provincial assembly but in the auditorium of Aiwan-e-Iqbal. And this was just one episode in a long-running serial – a veritable soap opera – that is yet to be concluded.
For those who look for more dramatic action, there were scenes of police violence against Baloch women and other protesters who were demonstrating outside the Sindh Assembly on Monday in Karachi after two Baloch students of the University of Karachi went missing. It was a surprising display of police brutality, as families of the missing students were dragged.
(Yes, an inquiry was ordered on why excessive force was used against women, and the two students returned home the next day. But this is peripheral to what that scene of Baloch protest against enforced disappearances portrays in the context of the state of this nation and its strategic sense of direction. There is little appreciation of what it means to be a Baloch.)
For those who daily sit before their television sets and wilfully wallow in despair, there is now an endless outburst of anger and grievances over the rising cost of living by whoever is accosted by the TV camera. In Nawabshah, protesting rickshaw drivers set two rickshaws on fire, providing some exciting footage.
These are not pretty sights to look at. Pakistan is, from all perspectives, really in a tight spot. The IMF-dictated tough decisions that are seen to be inevitable are exacting a high price from the less privileged sections of our society.
Meanwhile, Imran Khan and his party have the opportunity to build up their campaign, though the promised long march has not yet been scheduled. A nation-wide protest is set for tonight. The top functionaries of the present coalition government, on their part, blame the previous PTI government I for the present economic difficulties.
But the bottom line is that there is something seriously wrong with Pakistan’s economy and that the situation is bound to get worse in the immediate future. The fall of the rupee is one measure of this dreary prospect. That whiff of good news we received on Friday evening, with Pakistan decisively moving closer to removal from the FATF’s ‘grey list’, may have no bearing on our ongoing economic difficulties.
We can see that our economic mandarins, with all their good intentions, are finding it hard to meet this challenge. This complexity raises one question that has apparently not troubled the minds of our rulers: what is wrong with Pakistani society that it is not able to generate the responses that are necessary to deal effectively with its present difficulties?
At this point, I need to explain that I possess no economic expertise. I am looking at the present situation mainly from a social standpoint. I can think of a number of other countries that would not descend to the lower depths that Pakistan finds itself in because of their national character and their collective sense of moral and intellectual values.
I have read many stories of how citizens, in a spirit of self-sacrifice, would come together in times of wars and calamities to protect their national interest. Pakistan belongs in a very different category – and there is statistical evidence for this moral degradation, the number of taxpayers that we have, for instance. Another rather simplistic thought is that we would not be so poor if there were judicious collection of property tax. A common person’s wisdom would find various ways of austerity to reduce, say, our consumption of energy.
Relevant or not, let me mention a headline I read on Thursday evening on the BBC World website: “Eight million Australians urged to turn off lights”. Australia’s energy minister has urged households in New South Wales, the state that includes Sydney, to switch off their lights for two hours every evening, if they “have a choice”.
It will be interesting to find the outcome of this appeal. But one can be sure that this idea would not be pooh-poohed by the concerned citizens. I had seen somewhere the figures of how much more fuel was imported in Pakistan when its price was rising. There is also ample evidence of the kind of privileges that the ruling class has allocated for itself. There is certainly some talk about austerity measures. But no radical steps of the kind that the situation necessitates are in the works.
A number of our learned social scientists had seen this coming. They have also been aware of the simple truth that business as usual cannot sustain a broken society. The time has come when the ruling elite is somehow persuaded to draw away from its present suicidal path and allow the Pakistani society to acquire some life-enhancing values and strength of character.
Understanding Pakistani society and energizing it with national purpose, integrity and trust is becoming a near impossible task because of its moral, intellectual and cultural deprivations. Nothing certifies this squalor better than the state of public education from the primary to the university level.
There is so much more that one can say about the devastation that the ruling ideas have brought about in Pakistani society. But to conclude, I have a forbidding thought. You may have read some opinion pieces recently on the phenomenon of how a monster turns against its own creator. The allusion, in a partisan way, is to Imran Khan who was brought into power by powerful stakeholders.
Isn’t the ruling elite another Frankenstein’s monster, turning against the state of Pakistan that had created it?
The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached at: ghazi_salahuddin@ hotmail.com