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Where are we headed?

PAKISTAN has become a surreal place. It feels more like a circus where the more bizarre the somersaults the more appreciative the audience and the more clownish the act the more enjoyment it elicits. All we need is a gladiatrix with moustaches and that may well be on the cards.

For distraction I have dusted off my high-school copy of Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and enjoyed re-reading ‘Growltiger’s Last Stand’ and ‘Of The Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles (Together with Some Account of the Participation of the Pugs and the Poms and the Intervention of the Great Rumpus Cat)’.

But circuses are long gone, bread is becoming scarce, and cats cannot be belled in Pakistan. I cannot delude myself and fend off the dread of how and where all this will end even though I am reassured it is scripted. I am particularly frightened by the quality of the leadership that is supposed to lead us back to normalcy.

The recent address by the most important man in the country was so riven by illogic that it left one quaking in one’s boots. Where are the ideas that would get to grips with this situation of acute crisis? Reducing the population and getting the prices right are tired nostrums rendered even more meaningless when the terrain is being yielded to fundamentalists.

There is no relief in sight. The straight-faced pronouncement by next-gen leaders-in-waiting that God wanted them to vote one way and sent an angel to point in the direction sucks air out of the lungs.

A senior officer was confident that the new most important man will bring salvation, it could be read in his face. There is little doubt the present will extend into the future and that too if we are fortunate.

One recalls the age of empires when dysfunctional states were swept aside by superior forces. The Mughal Empire began its descent into anarchy in 1703; by 1857 it was history — the king was packed off to Rangoon and all the heirs put to the sword.

New, more competent, rulers took over albeit in their own interest — they not only built the trains but got them to run on time. (Compare the performance of our railway ministers who ran the legacy into the ground and gobbled up its assets as well.)

Pakistan is probably the only country in the world that is not the permanent home of its leaders.

In the age of sovereign states, a failing country cannot expect an external power to take over and reorganise it better. It is doomed to continue rotting till the bottom falls out.

One would think that warring elite factions would realise that when that happens all of them would be worse off with the death of the goose that lays the golden eggs, a prospect that would push them to cooperate in their own interests. It could conceivably, if they were up with the literature, also make them consider outsourcing the management of key enterprises to more efficient operators.

The Nobel laureate Paul Romer proposed such an idea for charter cities; the situation in Pakistan is so desperate that an extension across cities is no longer preposterous.

Alas, a unique feature of Pakistan rules out such cooperation. Pakistan is probably the only country in the world that is not the permanent home of its leaders. They are all anchored abroad with their capital assets in off-shore havens and refuges in stable locations. It is also the only country that flies in leaders, has them elected from pliant constituencies, and anoints them as prime ministers.

At this very moment, we have someone flapping his wings to fly back. This peculiarity engenders a super-extractive ruling class secure in the belief that when the bottom falls out it can fly away to safety and escape the consequences of non-cooperation.

How did Pakistan get to be like this? In most countries political parties arrive at a live-and-let-live understanding to avoid tit-for-tat victimisation. Even as huge a corruption scandal as Bofors in India was not resurrected by the BJP to send Congress leaders to jail.

Such a modus vivendi breaks down with the involvement of a non-political actor whose legitimacy rests on discrediting and demonising all politicians. Our last example was Musharraf banishing leaders of all leading political parties into exile. The perpetually heightened level of insecurity forces those who can to seek safe havens outside for times when the going gets tough.

Where do these unavailable alternatives leave us? What is likely to happen when the bottom does fall out as it will if critical issues are not addressed and food disappears from the tables? Instead of a more organised force from outside, the fleeing elite would be replaced by marginalised groups from within the country.

Their composition would be the parting gift of the erstwhile rulers who decimated all progressive forces over 75 years and inculcated both fundamentalist legions and a fundamentalist mindset. (If in doubt browse the school curriculum.)

Pakistanis could well be looking at the Talibanisation of Pakistan. The new rulers will claim the moral high ground — to start with, they will have no assets in off-shore havens and no ranches or villas abroad.

They won’t need foreign investments to construct signal-free corridors or imports to furnish mansions with Spanish tiles, German faucets, and Czech chandeliers. Nor would they crave French cheese or Swiss chocolate or Japanese sushi.

The country will survive and, ironically, soldier on. Those who failed continually at what they were supposed to do and succeeded at what they were not, draining and consuming in the process the bulk of the country’s resources, will not be missed. In their absence, and as a consequence of their failures and pyrrhic victories, the future will reach into the past as it attempts to reshape itself.

The dream of strategic depth might at long last come true if only for a while. But soon new fault lines will emerge because a lot of people will need to make a lot of adjustments against their wills as a radically different Pakistan struggles to rise from its ashes.

Anjum Altaf, "Where are we headed?," Dawn. 2023-05-27.
Keywords: Social science , Social issues , Social rights , Social reforms , Social justice