How Other States Advanced While Pakistan Fell Behind – OpEd


Pakistan stands at 75 years old but faces one of the worst crises due to a mix of domestic and external economic, political, and natural threats. Our economic, political, social, demographic, ecological, and external trends depict that the country may see huge political turmoil, economic meltdown, social disintegration, ecological crises, displacement, pandemics, terrorism, external tiffs, and ethnic conflict in the future due to a host of reasons. Some are deeply rooted in history, while others are the result of the ruling elites’ continued denial of the ground realities. 

 Our history dictates that three pathologies defined Pakistan’s struggle with its political identity on the eve of its independence. These were. 1) Islam-Secularism confusion, 2) presidential-parliamentary ambivalence, and 3) civil-military imbalance Those pathologies are very much alive, and without proper diagnosis and treatment, they have caused further pathologies in the body physiology of the nation. Some of those are the first, i.e., social instability, features poor work ethics, low productivity, and disenchantment with national development. Secondly, pathology is the corruption that becomes a way of life in undisciplined societies where individuals subordinate national interests to their own interests. Thirdly, in undisciplined societies, students do not take their studies seriously and resort to cheating on examinations as a normal practice. Fourthly, the pathology of an undisciplined country is its ineffective institutions, where, due to a lack of fiscal, social, and political discipline, the institutions become toothless showpieces that are generally used by the sitting government to hound its political opponents. Lastly, an undisciplined nation attracts international censure and a bad image, resulting in difficulties in travel and job opportunities for its citizens. 

Such a situation, coupled with a complex geostrategic environment around us, has resulted in a weak economy, governance challenges, dynastic politics, energy shortages, religious and ethnic segregation, extremism and intolerance, mediocre and artificial civil leadership, and has created a space for repeated military takeovers. 

Continuity of the status quo has resulted in a deficit of leadership at the national level. Now, why we are not producing good statesmen is a genuine question. Unfortunately, our nurseries of political leadership stopped functioning long ago. Colleges and universities must be the incubators of political ideas, statesmanship, and democracy, but we have banned student unions and constructive political engagement in academic institutions because a well-educated and informed citizenry is wrongly perceived by the ruling class as a threat to their continuous exploitative policies. 

Such shortsightedness in policy has badly affected the output of successive governments. The Ayub-Yahya years glorified military rule and gave high-level sleaze, inequitable progress, and military responses to crush ethnic gripes lasted in tragedy of 1971. Thereafter, in new Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto gave us a politicised bureaucracy, excessive control of the economy by the state, and political victimization. Gen Zia gave us extremism, sectarianism, widespread corruption, weapons, drugs, “jihad love,” and religious abuse. The 1990s saw much ineptitude and sleaze. The Musharraf years gave us terrorism. Since 2008, democracy has utterly failed, resulting in even more sleaze and ineptitude. 

Imbalances Civil-military relations are undoubtedly responsible for longstanding debts and have remained a major source of political and economic instability, hampering the democratic process and normalcy in the country. There is no denying that civilian supremacy is essential to a democratic dispensation. Indeed, there is a need to change the balance of power in favour of the elected dispensation. The military leadership, realising the ground realities, has now decided to be apolitical. Now the ball is in the court of civil leadership to show moral integrity, political maturity and foresightedness. 

The most prominent threat at the moment is the balance of payment crisis, with Pakistan facing the risk of sovereign default on external debt repayments. Though bankruptcy has been averted for the time being but the country is in dire economic straits. Our main problem is not only finance but also bad governance. Governance means more than maintaining law and order. It entails financial discipline, consistency, credibility, crisis management ability, integrity, transparency, effective service delivery, public interest protection, and national sovereignty.

Pakistan’s state and economy are controlled by the elite. This was the thesis espoused by Dr. Ishrat Hussain in his 1999 book Pakistan: The Economy of an Elitist State. The elite has been making policies that are consistent with a system that barely falls short of an oligarchy. It serves the elite’s interests maximally and the public’s interests minimally. Since our elites already control most of our resources, they aren’t interested in economic growth or increasing the size of the pie. Their preoccupation is with maintaining their lion’s share of the pie. The only way to escape this poverty trap is to come up with a new “elite bargain” that promotes growth and development. Further, a conflict between the military and political elite is structural and not personal, though it is often presented as a personal conflict.

The foreign front is too mismanaged. A perceived threat from and conflict with India, a love-hate relationship with Afghanistan, not too warm ties with Russia, and sowing doubts and aspersion over the traditional Sino-Pakistan relationship keep Pakistan “drudging” along and off-balance, hence pliant to pressure of international lenders.

These challenges together make us perhaps the riskiest, most unstable nuclear state with largest population of 22 million people. Now the biggest question is, “Can we avoid all those issues facing the nation?” I look for lessons from six major “comeback” states that faced major crises at the time but rose from the ashes to make significant progress in all areas. For example, first, Japan saw US nuclear attacks and occupation after 1945 but soon rose as its economic rival. Its crisis was mainly due to military adventurism but Ethnic unity, a long state history, US aid, and a sole focus on economics led to its progress. Second, Mao left China in a poor state in 1978, but China is now a superpower. Its crisis was mainly economic, due to misrule and a choked economy but its Ethnic oneness, a long state history, past success, a focus on economics, and diaspora ties led to its progress and now is second largest economy in the world. Third, Russia emerged from the ruins of the former Soviet Union in 1991, which fell due to economic malaise and military overreach. Russia saw, but overcame, economic and ethnic turmoil. It hasn’t seen Japan’s or China’s success, yet its natural resources give it some progress. But Putin’s misrule and military overreach again risk national and global stability.

 India faced a big economic crisis in 1991. It has also seen much ethnic, religious, and Maoist strife, but without those posing existential threats. Its economic problems were due to overregulation. Progress came via deregulation, focusing on education, strong diaspora ties, and an able bureaucracy. In 1998, Indonesia too faced huge economic turmoil, terrorism, and ethnic strife that led to East Timor breaking away. Long army rule, ethnic divides, and a short state history were the main causes but Democracy, devolution, and the country’s location in a dynamic region aided progress. Fifth, 25 years of colonial-style rule rendered Bangladesh an economic basket case. Army rule increased its strife. Yet it now has fast economic growth due to civilian rule, ethnic oneness, and export-led growth.

 A look at these states, most of which are our age peers, particularly India, Indonesia, and Bangladesh, shockingly shows they gained political stability, social harmony and economic prosperity via the “bad egg,” but we are reluctant to learn from their good practises and their histories.

 In the 2023 polls, we have the last chance to avert doom if we fail to hold free, fair, and transparent elections as in 1971 and the new regime does serious overhauling and restructuring of the whole system in five years. After that, it may be too late. The post polls 2023, new political dispensation must ensure due share to all irrespective of their race ethnicity in the state structure in the light of sayings of the great political thinkers, from Plato’s “The Republic” to Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” a compelling necessity to give a due share in the structure of power to all, even at the farthest corner of a state. Similarly, the Chinese state constructed the institution of state servants strictly on the principle of equal sharing among all stakeholders. The ancient kings of China made frequent visits to far-flung areas to find young talent for future bureaucracies, maintaining equilibrium between the developed and underdeveloped areas. Ruin comes when a state itself promotes rulers from peculiar areas, as our ruling elites are doing since beginning and deprives the vast majority of the three-federating unit’s’ voiceless population, which has no status beyond servile.

Sher Khan Bazai is retired from civil service as Secretary Education Balochistan. The writer can be reached at [email protected]

Sher Khan Bazai

Sher Khan Bazai is a retired civil servant, and a former Secretary of Education in Balochistan, Pakistan. He can be reached at [email protected].

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