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[email protected]: A troublesome start, 7 decades of hurtling towards the abyss...what next?

Tilak Devasher | Updated on: 14 August 2017, 16:25 IST
(Arya Sharma/Catch News)

As Pakistan turns seventy, I analyse three crucial markers –

– Where it has come from

– Where it is at and

– Where it is headed

As a new country that came into existence on 14 August 1947, Pakistan did not start on a clean slate. It inherited the legacy of the Pakistan Movement. Three elements were crucial.

The first was the opportunistic use of religion by the Muslim League in the run-up to the 1945-46 elections that led to incremental doses of Islamisation, starting with the Objectives Resolution of 1949.

Growing Islamisation has led to intolerance, insecurity and violence and a situation where today different sects of Islam are almost at war with each other, where the persistent killing of Shias is being called genocide.

The second was total dependence on the British to nurture the Muslim League as the key representative body of the Muslims of the sub-continent and Jinnah as its ‘sole spokesman’.

Then, as is now, the League was a body of notables and lacked the kind of grass-roots foundations that the Congress had. As a result of the dependence on the British, the Muslim League remained stunted as a movement and a political party and frequently split into different factions. Unlike the Congress, the League was unable to develop an agenda for governance that was to prove a big handicap for Pakistan in its formative years.

The third was transmitting the Muslim League’s quest for parity with the Congress for an obsessive quest, post-creation – for parity with India. This, in turn, led to the nascent state becoming fixated with security and that too physical security.

Enemies within & not without

Ironically, Pakistan’s greatest threats today come from its own blind spots and internal haemorrhaging rather than from beyond its borders.

Post-creation, successive rulers, both military and civilian, have survived by leveraging Pakistan’s geographical position while ignoring critical areas of governance. As a result today, cumulatively, Pakistan risks multi-organ failure due to a complex blend of problems.

One of the issues that Pakistan has had to grapple with over the last seven decades is the problem of identity. Despite being created in the name of Islam, the alienation of different ethnic groups, notwithstanding their being Muslims, has continued to be a persistent phenomenon in Pakistan.

East Pakistan broke away to become Bangladesh precisely because language had far greater salience for the Bengalis than religion. Pakistan has also had to face bruising insurgencies in Balochistan, the fifth of which is continuing today, due to its quest to impose a centralised and Islam-based national identity on ethnic groups whose language, culture and history militates against such imposition.

The terrorism factor

While Islamisation had a certain salience in a country created on the basis of religion, the growth of jihadi terrorism and violence prevalent in Pakistan today is the result of a deliberate state policy. Pakistan has used terrorism as an instrument of state policy to further its agenda with at least two of its neighbours – India and Afghanistan.

By making a distinction between ‘good’ terrorists who operate in furtherance of its interests and ‘bad’ terrorists who target the state, Pakistan has become the victim of its own policies.

During the last 15 years, Pakistan has lost more than 50 thousand civilians and soldiers due to terrorism. According to the State Bank of Pakistan, the total direct and indirect loss and damage to Pakistan’s economy has been $118.3 billion from 2002 to 2016. As a result, Pakistan is a far more insecure state than it was, say, two decades ago.

That nothing has really changed despite various ‘operations’ is evidenced by the fact that an international terrorist and the head of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) Hafiz Saeed has been allowed to form a political party. This underlines the continued warped thinking in Pakistan.

How the army sees it VS how the state sees it

One reason for such persistent aberrations is the army’s perception of security that dominates the polity. The issue of civil-military relations goes to the heart of the problem of governance and democracy in Pakistan. The fact that the army has come to dominate key issues of statecraft, like security and foreign policies, is not disputed though why it does so is hotly debated.

The army’s continued domination even in times of civilian governments is as much due to the army’s need for control as it is to the failure of civilian governments to establish their writ over the army. Since the army is trained to think in terms of physical security, other elements of security have been ignored in Pakistan.

These include vital areas of water, education, economy and population (collectively called the WEEP factors) – areas on which the well-being and longevity of any country depends. These have deteriorated to such an extent that the very survival of Pakistan could have been endangered. Pakistan faced an emergency situation in all these four areas about a decade ago. Due to lack of action then, it should be in the disaster management mode today, but there are no signs that it is.

For example, in about less than a decade it is estimated that Pakistan will need water equivalent to two-thirds of another Indus River to feed its population while there are no additional sources of supply. And this is without India utilising fully its share of the western tributaries of the Indus and Afghanistan not storing the waters of the Kabul River. Water scarcity in Pakistan will unravel any gains that the country has made in the past seventy years.

Or take its population. Over 60% of Pakistan’s population is in the working age group of 15-64 years creating conditions of reaping a demographic dividend. The problem, however, is that Pakistan’s economy generates jobs for less than a million annually while three million young persons are entering the labour force every year and will continue to do so for the next forty years. So what happens to the over two million illiterate or poorly educated youth, year-on-year for the next four decades?

The danger for Pakistan is that instead of reaping a demographic dividend the youth bulge will become a ‘demographic horde’ with serious implications for law order, civil unrest and terrorism.

And the money?

Ostensibly, the economy looks okay. The stock market is doing well, foreign reserves are healthy, the growth rate, though below 5 %, has picked up from the under 4% growth of the 2000s.

However, the deterioration of macro-economic indicators reveals structural problems in the Pakistan economy that should be a major cause of worry for the leadership. In the last three years, the government has borrowed $25 billion in foreign loans and $30 billion domestically.

According to the State Bank of Pakistan, the total level of public debt and liabilities has swollen to 75.9 % of GDP in FY 2016 up from 72.2% in FY 2015 and likely to worsen in the next few years.

This type of borrowing is unsustainable and together with declining exports and remittances from overseas workers, the Pakistani economy is headed for a severe balance of payment crisis in the near future.

And what now?

What of the future? Where is Pakistan headed as it enters its eighth decade?

Undoubtedly, Pakistan has survived these seven decades due to some positive elements that would include the vitality and resilience of its people. Its geographical position that attracted the US to bail it out thrice in the last seven decades and now China that is investing heavily in Pakistan. There is also the degree of democratic consolidation with one civilian government succeeding another in 2013, the liveliness of its media, both print and electronic, the current independence of its Judiciary that has to an extent rectified its dubious past record, the discipline and chain of command of the army holding firm etc. 

Despite this, a combination of demographic pressures, an uneducated horde of young people, lack of jobs, increasingly diminishing water supplies, an economy on the drip and an increasingly radicalised population are problems of such magnitude that cannot be wished away as Pakistan enters its eighth decade.

Four markers that Pakistan is pulling back from the abyss would be:

– Carrying out structural reforms of the economy and depending on internal drivers of growth instead of external bail-outs

– Paying serious attention to the water crisis, the educational emergency and harnessing the demographic dividend

– Avoiding patronising terrorists of all hues and developing counter-narratives to check radicalisation and sectarian divisions in society

– Reorganising the role of the army and the intelligence services to adapt to civilian supremacy and strengthening democracy and looking at not merely physical security but also to other sinews of power

Pakistan thus stands at a crucial moment in its history. The present trajectory of its development, if not rectified, will take it to the abyss.

If the next seven decades are to be different from the previous seven, its leadership will have to demonstrate foresight, understand the multi-dimensional crises facing the country and be prepared to take resolute action to tackle each of the problems.

Unfortunately, the signs that this is likely, are just not there today.

The author is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. He has also written – Pakistan: Courting the Abyss published in December 2016 by Harper Collins India.


Edited by Jhinuk Sen

First published: 14 August 2017, 16:25 IST
Tilak Devasher @catchhindi

Tilak Devasher retired as Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, to the Government of India. His book Pakistan: Courting the Abyss is releasing shortly.