A different perspective

These are trying, testing, and confusing times for Pakistanis of goodwill and sanity; for those of us who wish no truck with this insane talk of revolution, bloody or otherwise; for those of us who understand the historically destructive blind alley that is authoritarianism, whether it be socialist, military, or theocratic; and for those of us who only wish to see their country shrug off the legacies of the past three decades, and set its eyes firmly on the only road that leads to somewhere meaningful: the road to a peaceful and prosperous future for us and our future generations.They grieve, and shake their heads in stunned disbelief, at the utterly senseless murder of Governor Taseer. Worse, they are horrified at the chilling and surreal public messages in the aftermath, so tellingly conveyed on the one hand by the deafening silence (and the odd bizarre comment) of most of our leading public figures, and by the sickening reaction of those with a medieval mindset in our midst, on the other. Have we so quickly forgotten Swat and Fazlullah, and the price that eventually has to be paid for such actions and inactions?The bloodletting in Karachi continues. Do we all really not know what is going on there? So, why the pussyfooting by the media, beating about the bush while allowing the political parties their banal point scoring? Is it really our destiny that this lethal situation (that has defied a solution for more than two decades now) is to be a permanent political feature of that benighted city that is the engine that drives our economy?Everybody is talking about corruption, poor governance, and gas or electricity load shedding. Large public sector enterprises (PSEs) are haemorrhaging money. The governments (federal and provincial) are running fearful deficits that are bound to bring more economic misery through inflation. And yet, all opposition political parties killed the RGST proposals, knowing that it was a necessary measure (though not necessarily either the only or the appropriate one).Instead, the current airy-fairy talk is all about how hundreds of billions and more can be saved by stopping corruption in the FBR and making the PSEs efficient (but, ironically, when the KESC management decides to lay-off, through a golden handshake scheme, 4,000 employees it considered surplus, the politicians pressurise it to reverse its decision). But are these facts of our political life some startling newly discovered wisdoms? Have we not known about them for decades?

But wait! If the above sad litany is not enough there is more still to dampen the spirits (and that is without even discussing India, Afghanistan and the US). Apparently, it is not bad enough that we will limp along, lurching helplessly from pillar to post but surviving somehow nevertheless. Some say people like Stephen Cohen and M J Akbar give us but a few years before we fall apart. And there is much to think about when someone like Ahmed Rashid, influenced perhaps by recent events in Tunisia, reflects that we could so easily go the Iranian route; that if the current discontent and resentment can be exploited by the religious right to boil uncontrollably over on to the streets, even our army will side with the people, as the Shah’s army did.Now no sane person can afford to take lightly the serious dangers such pressures and stresses represent. And yet, though I think of myself as a realist, I refuse to be pessimistic about our prospects, even in the face of daunting odds. In a single phrase, and like Imran (though for somewhat different reasons), I firmly believe ‘we shall overcome’. Yes, I do not deny that in tinder-land any random spark has the potential to ignite a raging inferno, and it would be foolish to be unconcerned. But then let us not elevate a possibility to the status of a probability.

So, what are the reasons for my optimism? First of all, think for how long have we been hearing this refrain about ‘a failed state’ from the doomsayers? And, no, we are not going to not fail ‘because we are a nuclear state’ (as many of our dim-witted but loud super-patriots thunder — as if that is any guarantee) but for more solid reasons. In the decade or more since the mantra of ‘a failed state’ surfaced, have we not — broadly speaking, and on a wide front — moved substantially in the right direction (erratically, to be sure, and often with two steps forward but one back)?The single most important catalyst in driving us forward in the right direction is our media. For all its shortcomings and rough edges still, it is unmistakably becoming more mature by the year. Years ago (Daily Times, June 6, 2003), in a column entitled ‘Gibberish’, I lamented the fact that the TV channels seemed dominated by lackeys, obscurantists, and right-wing ideologues from the Urdu press. “Where,” I asked rhetorically, “are the likes of the editor of this newspaper (then Najam Sethi), who are sane and rational, as well as fluent in Urdu?” Is it not a different story now, when not only he but many another sane voice is increasingly being heard? The result is that public discourse is slowly becoming more rational rather than emotional.

I have long argued that the quality of public life (and this includes corruption, institutional responsibility, good governance, etc) cannot improve in a vacuum but is directly related to an improving social and cultural ethos. Our media is playing a pivotal role in rapidly re-moulding the social and cultural environment. As evidence, I note that our leaders and decision makers are increasingly conscious that it is no longer easy to lie or mislead the public with impunity. Nor is it enough now to waffle or babble. Cruel exposure is now inevitable and costly.The government may be inept and corrupt but, unlike the Arab states, it is not authoritarian. And there are new and welcome standards of political tolerance (and even co-operation) being set. Nor should anyone underestimate the government’s many long-term constitutional and political achievements. Our parliament may not be performing to the expectations of many (tell me a parliament that does), but it is folly not to appreciate the much solid institutional work it has done, and how, albeit slowly, it is finding its institutional feet. The superior judiciary is no longer anyone’s handmaiden, and is now a firm bulwark of the state. Finally, though the army remains the most powerful political force by far, I think it is inconceivable for it now to grab power directly. For better or worse, democracy is here to stay. Are these indicators of a ‘failed’ — or failing — state?

Sure, the economy is currently in a mess. But even here there are many indicators that belie the doomsayers. Is the economy not still growing (though at a paltry rate)? The stock market is considered a bell-weather of future prospects. What is that telling us about investor confidence? Even with all the industrial shutdowns, are exports not surprisingly at a historic high at the $ 20 billion mark? Have remittances not reached $ 10 billion? Sales of cars and motorcycles are up, we are exporting wheat, cotton prices are booming and our farmers have never had it so good.As for terrorism and religious extremism, is there not a far greater realisation now then there ever was that this home homegrown monster is an internal problem that we must resolutely confront? Sure, it is going to be a long, bloody and costly battle, but I have little doubt that it will be won with the help of a more aware nation that increasingly understands what is at stake. When, in the previous decade, have you heard the likes of Maulana Ashrafi have the courage to publicly declare that the likes of Qadri are not heroes but murderers?No. We have neither failed nor are we going to fail.“Let Hercules himself do what he may.The cat will mew and dog have his day.” – Dailytimes – Munir Attaullah