Changing Pakistan

Published : Jul 04, 2008 00:00 IST

Police stop protesters from marching towards the Punjab Provincial Assembly building during a rally against price hike, in Lahore on June 9.Ordinary Pakistanis are overwhelmingly concerned with quotidian issuessuch as acute scarcity and sky-high prices of wheat flour and vegetables.-MOHSIN RAZA/REUTERS

Police stop protesters from marching towards the Punjab Provincial Assembly building during a rally against price hike, in Lahore on June 9.Ordinary Pakistanis are overwhelmingly concerned with quotidian issuessuch as acute scarcity and sky-high prices of wheat flour and vegetables.-MOHSIN RAZA/REUTERS

As Pakistan shakes off the military yoke and democratises itself, India must reach out to it with generous offers of reconciliation.

DRAMATIC processes of change are under way in Pakistans society and politics, which have the potential to transform radically its state and its relations with India if only they are allowed full, unfettered play. This is a big if, conditional upon Pakistans democratisation and a considerable weakening of the hold of the military over society. Although this outcome is far from assured, the battle for achieving it has been well and truly joined.

That is the main conclusion from my visit to Pakistan in early June, after a gap of four years. My discussions with a cross-section of political commentators, social scientists, former civil servants and diplomats, and with civil society activists suggest that a paradigm shift is taking place in popular concerns and sentiments, and in public discourse.

This is especially evident in five areas. First, there is strong, widespread sentiment against the militarys authoritarianism, its betrayal of the promise of moderation, its gross political interference, its mismanagement of the economy, its corruption and avaricious grabbing of national assets (Military Inc), and generally, its parasitical relationship with society.

In the past, my interlocutors told me, public disapproval of dictators Yahya Khan and Zia-ul-Haq was widespread, but never developed into systemic or generic anti-military opinion. Today, the ubiquitous Go Musharraf Go slogan is part of a larger anti-militarist context. Until recently, the militarys dominance was seen as natural within a national security state (NSS) itself Pakistans normal existential condition. Today, aware of the toll the NSS has exacted, people are looking for alternative state definitions.

Second, there is a surge of pro-democracy feeling. Not only do Pakistanis long for accountable governance, they are acutely conscious that their state has been an anachronism in global terms and must fill the democratic deficit if it is to be regarded as modern or contemporary.

Unlike in the immediate post-Bangladesh period, when the Pakistani elite detached itself from South Asia and looked to West Asia as its defining identity, today it is re-rooting itself in the subcontinental context and is no longer embarrassed to talk about the common origins of South Asian culture right since the Indus Valley civilisation.

Third, peace with India has become a genuinely popular agenda. Reconciliation and peace are seen as a precondition for Pakistans own progress and prosperity. Whether it is because of greater people-to-people contact (especially in Punjab, which witnessed Partitions most gruesome violence), or greater mutual interaction through Bollywood, cricket or Sufi music, many long-standing psychological barriers have broken down. Kashmir no longer figures prominently in domestic politics or in foreign policy discourse as a reminder of hostility. It has disappeared from the front pages.

Fourth, the mullahs have been all but politically wiped out and radical Islamist parties are back to their under-3-per cent traditional vote-share. In retrospect, the 2002 elections, which followed the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, were clearly an aberration, affecting the adjoining North-West Frontier Province and Baluchistan. Further, the mullahs belief systems stand discredited for excesses such as the atrocities inflicted on Mukhtaran Mai.

This is not to argue that jihadi Islam is a spent force. It remains particularly strong in the tribal agencies that make up FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) near the Afghan border. But surveys show that popular support for it is running out. Fresh recruitment to its ranks has virtually ceased.

Finally, ordinary Pakistanis are overwhelmingly concerned today with quotidian issues such as acute scarcity and sky-high prices of wheat flour and vegetables, a growing agrarian crisis, crippling power outages, and wrenching water shortages. People link these in turn to issues of governance and accountability.

Incredible as this might seem, the electricity supply situation in Pakistan is much worse than in India, with power cuts as long as four to eight hours in cities. This is largely attributable to the governments failure to add a single megawatt to generation over the past eight years which only makes people angrier with the military. The sole temporary (and partial) solution to the outages on offer is an individual one: expensive inverters which only the elite can afford. Similarly, people are looking for alternatives in health care, water supply, education and urban transport, which have all visibly deteriorated over the past one and a half decades since I visited Pakistan first. They inevitably raise issues of policy and focus on equity.

These trends have not left even the army unaffected. It has cold-shouldered Musharrafs proposal that it should prosecute under the Official Secrets Act critics like his former colleague Lt.Gen. Jamshed Gulzar Kiyani, who recently blamed him for the Kargil misadventure. It is reportedly reluctant to back him in the event of a confrontation with the ruling civilian coalition. Many retired generals and diplomats have asked Musharraf to quit.

Some of these changes have come about as a result of long-term social processes: economic growth, which has led to the ascendancy of relatively self-confident urban and rural middle-income strata, spread of education, and changes in social values. The upper peasantry has overthrown some of the shackles of the old feudal order and is in search of new opportunities of self-expression. A modern professional middle class has burgeoned.

Added to this is rising civil society activism, best captured by the remarkable lawyers movement for the restoration of superior court judges unfairly dismissed by Musharraf. South Asia has rarely witnessed such a progressive campaign by a white-collar group. Not to be underrated is the impact of Pakistans recent media explosion, marked by free and robust debate more irreverent and more intensely political than in India, and growing public awareness of human rights and civil liberties.

As Lahore-based political scientist Mohammad Waseem puts it, these social trends are related to a generational shift from an India-centric and India-obsessed military-bureaucratic and political elite to a group which was born after 1947 and has grown up and risen to powerful positions in a markedly different climate. The old elite nurtured bitter memories of Partition, was preoccupied with the Hindu India vs Muslim Pakistan opposition, and had a non-territorial nationalist consciousness, at the centre of which is a clash of cultures defined by religion.

By contrast, the new generation, which has matured over the past decade or so, does not define itself mainly in opposition to India, and is free of the burden of that uniquely violent past linked to Partitions mass killings. It does not premise the very survival of Pakistan on hostility towards India.

All these long-term factors make for a much greater thrust towards democratisation than, say, 15 or 20 years ago. But in the short term, a lot can go wrong. Pakistans political leaders can make bad mistakes. Its parties are relatively uncrystallised, and have very little experience of, or success in, fighting military dictatorships or external pressures.

These pressures are considerable. The U.S. is keen on keeping Musharraf in power because he is loyal to it. Besides deploying 90,000 Pakistani troops in the U.S. war on terror, and causing over 1,000 fatalities, he willingly handed over more than 600 Pakistani extremist suspects to the U.S. in return for millions of dollars, and connived at their detention in Guantanamo Bay. He managed to keep A.Q. Khan under detention.

Now, journalist Ahmed Rashid has revealed that Musharraf allowed a secret Central Intelligence Agency base inside FATA this past January to enable anti-militant missile strikes by drones. However, relations between the U.S. and Pakistani militaries have reached their lowest point since September 2001 not because Musharraf no longer commands the Pakistani army, but because it is utterly demoralised thanks to fighting a battle that is not its own. Hopefully, this may bring about some change in Washingtons attitude towards Musharraf.

At any rate, this is the moment for India to make major, generous overtures to Pakistan and help consolidate its democratisation and demilitarisation. India can earn tremendous popular goodwill by unilaterally lifting trade barriers and liberalising visas. This will not hurt our economy, but will work in Indias long-term interest. Similarly, India should tell Pakistan that it is prepared to negotiate a gradual demilitarisation of the border: grand reconciliation is not mere rhetoric.

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