Give me something positive about Pakistan, asked Bob Hathaway, director of the Asia Programme at the Woodrow Wilson Centre for Scholars in Washington DC, as we sat down to lunch in the basement of the Reagan Building on Pennsylvania Avenue. The tone implied that he didn’t think there was much that could be termed positive.
Hmm, I said, let’s see. People are still getting married, having children, thinking about their future, sending them to schools, caring for them when they fall ill, respecting their elders, honouring their dead and burying them, going out in the evenings to eat, or be with friends, going to their jobs, feeling happy and sad, depending on what the occasion is, and generally living, or wanting to live, just like other people do. Artists are creating; music is being made, theatre, especially slapstick, is thriving. The media is straining at the leash; the courts are functioning, even if not always efficiently.
I find these to be good benchmarks, in some ways far better to judge the health and resilience of a society than the pointers used by economists to measure growth and prosperity. Those pointers are important of course, but they don’t measure the spirit of a people.
I didn’t think Hathaway would be convinced by what I had said but he was and that is a measure of his incisiveness.
But what about the government? This bunch of rulers has been called inefficient, corrupt and venal. Not without reason either. And yet, this government has entered the fourth year of its rule; it has managed some important policy measures, the National Finance Commission award being one such. There has also been the 18th amendment, in its scope and the consensus it drew second only to the original exercise that got Pakistan its constitution in 1973. There has been the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order, 2009 which has granted self-rule to that area; a commendable step. Also, the government, despite being in a slim majority – not enough for it to form the government singly – has managed to retain its coalition support. No mean feat that given conflicting interests of coalition partners.
The operations against extremist elements have been a mixed bag but the security forces retain their morale and have also captured large chunks of the territory in the tribal areas.
There are many problems too. Many people don’t pay taxes; people can be brutal and kill fellow citizens with impunity; there is corruption; the criminal justice system needs a drastic overhaul, as do hospitals and schools. But again, in varying degrees, this is also the story of most states in the region and beyond. Complexity can beget many problems, more so when states are passing through periods of transition.
It is a terrible cliché to talk about the half-full or half-empty glass but there’s basic truth in that formulation. How one looks at a situation is crucial in determining one’s perspective. Pakistan is going through a transition with a capital T which subsumes in itself many smaller transitions. The process, or processes, will not always be smooth. Quite often, as in the case of Karachi, the situation can get violent and take a terrible toll on human life. That is not condonable but one can cite history and realise what bloody battles go into streamlining societies.
Hathaway agreed. He said there was much in the history and the present of the United States to suggest that transitions can be violent and brutal. There are also other examples. None of this is to justify the minuses the state and society of Pakistan are beset with. It is in fact terribly important that we continue to work towards getting a final shape on many issues. But what is vital from the viewpoint of our discussion here is the realisation that there are multiple ways to see a country, not just one which posits that Pakistan may be on the verge of failing; worse, it may already have failed.
That is a hasty assessment, not just because it begins and ends with a worst-case scenario but also because it ignores the people of Pakistan and their daily lives. Moreover, as I argued with Hathaway, some of what we are witnessing, though ugly at this point, is likely to move Pakistan towards some kind of resolution of the pressing issues.
Transitions are never easy. They can also mean several years and decades of political and other bickering before things settle down and political actors begin to frame and then abide by the rules of the game. One cannot put a time on such fluid processes but the very fact that this government has survived and the political opposition, despite ups and downs, has let the government be, for the most part, manifests a degree of maturity not seen before.
Also good is the fact that we are now grappling with issues that were usually swept under the carpet. Grappling can be messy business; it can lead to violence and other acts of misdemeanour. But the very fact that not much can remain hidden, and that the only way to deal with contentious issues is to tackle them, provides hope of better things to come.
The writer is Contributing Editor, The Friday Times.