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Genesis of a mess

Nov 6 2018 - How do major messes get created? The genesis of some messes reflects the decisions of elites over a small period of time, eg, the Rwanda genocide. But other messes emerge gradually, with various elite groups adding different, mutually reinforcing, layers of the mess over time to produce an intractable situation.

Dr Niaz Murtaza

Today, we face one of these complex messes with high ethnic and class tensions, extremism, political instability, economic stagnancy, corruption, civil-military imbalance and poor social indicators. South Asia is a poor region. But even within it, our problems are more acute. Others are gradually shedding such problems. We seem stuck with them and are ahead today only of Afghanistan and perhaps Nepal.

How did we get here and who added which layer of the mess? The path dependency idea suggests that a state’s initial inheritance limits its development trajectory for long. But external factors and how the nation deals with them and its inheritance via national will also matter. For a state divided horizontally (ethnicity, faith etc) and vertically (caste and class), one must also review internal struggles over the national will and whose will usually won.

Our inheritance included divisions, and low income, literacy and industrial levels. There was a tiny educated but elitist middle class. The nation lacked precious natural resources and its agrarian base was controlled by large landowners. It had to establish governance quickly to deal with the large inflow of refugees that gave it an initial welfare bias. The logic for freedom invoked faith, but didn’t clarify whether the aim was securing Muslim rights or having a faith-driven state. Many say this freedom rationale was the root cause of the current mess, but this view needs more analysis.

The will of elites and unelected forces has remained dominant.

Faced with big challenges and internal divides, the middle class in charge centralised power rather than mobilising and empowering all identity groups. The Kashmir issue was the first major external factor, which turned the welfare bias into a security one, heightened centralisation and empowered unelected forces. The Korean War provided a windfall. But it accrued to a tiny group of traders and made them into industrialists as the state marginalised farmers to benefit traders.

The Cold War alliance with the US exacerbated existing fault lines. Power shifted from elite politicians to bureaucrats and then to generals, the centralisation and elitist biases were strengthened and ethnic demands further marginalised. High-level corruption emerged. All this ultimately led to the ’71 division. But curiously, despite other issues, faith issues then were relatively muted, challenging the thesis that extremism today is the inevitable result of the faith-based freedom logic.

The ’71 tragedy nonetheless made us geographically and ethnically more cohesive and this and the marginalisation of unelected forces gave a fresh chance to build an egalitarian state. The PPP’s initial politics raised hope, but it was dashed as earlier biases re-emerged soon. The Gulf bonanza and the huge out-migration gave limited prosperity to the masses. But it also pushed us under the sway of the theocratic Saudi state, with its impact on state policies evident even under Bhutto.

These trends intensified under Zia, coupled with the Soviet Afghan invasion. The use of Saudi Salafist ideas by the state gave rise to faith-based politics. It is doubtful that sans the Saudi links, extremism would have become so embedded in Pakistan despite the faith-based freedom logic. Drugs, arms, mass corruption, sectarianism and ethnic conflicts reached new heights. Under the Musharraf era and a new US alliance, extremism crystallised into terrorism. Two fair polls invoked hope of democratic consolidation but governance remained abysmal and the dubious 2018 polls dashed hopes further. Thus, today, the burden of the initial inheritance remains largely intact. Furthermore, external factors coming our way have done more damage than good and have exacerbated the burden of the initial inheritance. The will of elites and unelected forces has remained dominant.

Generals, bureaucrats, landlords, industrialists and the middle class have all contributed to the mess, each ruling group blinded by their immediate interests. We share many of the same limitations of other larger Saarc states. But commitment to people’s welfare seems higher in Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh.

The defining difference seems to be the presence in Pakistan of a deep state that is more immune to popular pressures than even corrupt politicians, that freely uses faith to strengthen its own hand and often has entered into harmful alliances with the US. Thus, while there are many offenders in the Pakistani story, the biggest external one has been the US and the biggest internal ones its client generals.

The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.

This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan

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