Pakistan’s Big Lie and Great Truth – 15 Nov 2022

Pakistan is in prison. A polycrisis prison. How will Pakistan escape this metastasized set of crises of economy, security, polity and society? Not the way it got into it. That has to be the starting logic of a way out. You cannot exit a complex maze by trying to take the same path that you took to get there.

It scares me to write these words. The immediate implication one may draw from this is that a constitutional and democratic way out is not possible. Whilst an honest and critical mind must acknowledge the possibility of this being true, an honest observer must also acknowledge the other truth. There has never been an attempt to allow Pakistan’s constitutional and democratic reality to exist. The mechanisms, processes and systems designed by the 1973 constitution and the pluralist and federalist democratic institutions reinforced by the 2010 amendments to the constitution have never been truly tested. Can we honestly declare someone to have failed a test when the test has never actually been attempted?

So the way out of the current Pakistani polycrisis is to not repeat the practices and narratives that got us into it. What got us into this mess? For many (some with vested interests, others too stupid to know better) the answer is ‘democracy’. Pakistan has supposedly arrived at and entered the polycrisis because of corrupt, incompetent and egotistical democrats.

The answer therefore is either no democracy, or less democracy, or at best, a vastly altered democracy that flips the logic of denying a single individual monarchical powers (like an all-powerful president), and invests in the myth of a man (or woman) of destiny that can change the fate of this great nation of 235 million people. Of course, all of this is the wrong answer. Why? Well, first, how did this wrong answer become the go-to response for so many well-meaning and otherwise intelligent folks?

The proliferation of this spurious logic about Pakistan’s incompatibility with democracy has been a grand disinformation project in which decades of effort have been invested. The nonsense of democracy having driven Pakistan into this ditch has been uttered without fear of contradiction with more passion and fearlessness than any other lie in the country’s history. Indeed, this may be more responsible in getting us into this polycrisis than any other single factor. This is the big Pakistani lie that has been repeated so many times, and so shamelessly, and so repetitively, that even the most rational and discerning mind will often find itself acknowledging the validity of the hateful incompetence, corruption and egotism of the Pakistani democrat.

All the while, the big Pakistani lie’s greatest oxygen is the obfuscation of the great Pakistani truth: the military enjoys an unaccountable and unlimited ingress into social, political and economic affairs that it has neither the legal authority, nor the competence, nor the capability to engage in. Let me repeat this, because the truth merits repetition. May Allah protect our soldiers, our chain of command, and the purity in the hearts and heads of our soldiers, spies, seamen and airmen. Pakistan’s great truth is that its military enjoys an unaccountable and unlimited ingress into social, political and economic affairs that it has neither the legal authority, nor the competence, nor the capability to engage in.

Until the mechanisms, processes and systems of Pakistani democracy are purged of the illegal and contaminant interventions – micro, meso and macro – by elements of, or associated with the Pakistani military, there can be no exit from Pakistan’s polycrisis prison.

In practice, this all seems like idealistic nonsense. The entire spectrum of politics today hinges on the retirement date of a four-star general. This is the kind of power that the military has cultivated for itself. This is also the kind of power that the people of the country have afforded to the military – out of the nation’s sense of gratitude for the services of our soldiers, spies, seamen and airmen. In the last several months, we have seen two things evolve.

The first is a diminishing of the overall power of coercion enjoyed by the military. It turns out that when a spoilt brat is thrown out of the VIP room by the same people that let him in in the first place, the brat doesn’t go quietly. That noise that Imran Khan made (and before him, the noise that Zulfi Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif made) is a direct challenge to the authority and power of the military.

That the military always wins is not a product of any kind of brilliance in the officer corps of the Pakistan Army or the dark, smoky rooms in Aabpara. The military always ‘wins’ because its power rests on the permanence of the state. Yet to keep winning, it has to maintain a place in the Pakistani imagination that places it above the muck and grime of Pakistani politics. Imran Khan has dragged the military into the public square, like Sharif had before him. Recovery requires a time out for the military. And everybody knows it. What happens to the coercive power of the country’s most important corpus when it is challenged the way Khan has challenged it? This is a big question for the next chief to grapple with.

The second is the threat of a full-scale economic meltdown. In the last 18 months, four highly capable and experienced finance ministers have had a chance to serve the country and keep it solvent. Imagine this being the job description for a finance minister anywhere, much less a country of nearly 120 million people below the age of 23.

Abdul Hafeez Shaikh was probably let go because he was not willing to be as aggressive as Shaukat Tarin. Shaukat Tarin decided to play Russian roulette with the fiscal deficit, with a full chamber, Miftah Ismail managed to avoid and delay what seems like an increasingly likely catastrophe, and Ishaq Dar came in all guns blazing, but discovered that the world isn’t where it was in 2013.

The problem isn’t Shaikh, Tarin, Ismail or Dar. The problem is the viability of Pakistan as an economic proposition. Neither Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, nor the IMF, nor the Communist Party of China can continue to bail out an entity whose only economic direction is the next bailout. This isn’t about friendship or brotherhood. It is about credibility. There is no knight in shining armour that can change this.

Only a credible change in direction will convince outsiders to come back to investing in the idea of Pakistan as a stable and reliable partner.

This change in direction requires three elements that the current military and political leadership seem incapable of providing.

One, a domestic political and social compact and ecosystem in which there is no threat of mass unrest. Dozens of countries have raucous politics. None of them seems to be on the edge of anarchy. Protest marches and dharnas that shut down businesses, cause containers to be assembled in the capital city, and scare off investors are cancer for Pakistan.

Two, a compact for decision-making that is not a spectacle. No country needing as much confidence building among investors and donors dares to manufacture as many foreign-relevant crises as Pakistan does. The TLP wants to define relations with France. Imran Khan wants Joe Biden to kiss the Taliban’s forehead. The Sharifs want China to disapprovingly wag their finder at Khan. Pindi, Islamabad, Bani Gala, Aabpara, Jati Umra, Naudero all need to be able to talk and resolve some issues without resorting to fighting ALL their fights on prime time television.

Three, a renewal of state capability that prioritizes quick, litigation-free decision-making – especially on issues related to the economic well being of the country. The existing PAS dominated decision-making system has already collapsed. It is held together by the helplessness of politicians, the benefits afforded to Pindi of invisible governance via DCs, and the paralysis of bright and honest individual officers. In sum however even with a perfect set of the existing mechanisms, processes and systems, the Pakistani state is incapable of serving its people. It demands urgent and immediate structural alterations.

All this requires the underwriting and guarantor-ing of the military, but it also requires the complete dissociation of the military from intervention – micro, meso or macro.

If this seems an impossibly delicate task, it is because it is impossibly delicate. But these are the wages of overseeing the wreckage that is the economy, polity and society today. It is time to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

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