I wrote two weeks ago of the positive vibes I felt on my recent visit to Pakistan. These were a tangible increase in self-confidence in the middle and upper middle classes of Pakistan and a visible willingness to seize the initiative and become their own agents in the difficult and lengthy struggle for national transformation. But why, I asked myself, after writing about what could be a serious attitudinal change, do these signs of change make me feel better about a country that has resisted reform and transformation from its inception.
To understand that, I decided I had better reread Ian Talbot’s “Pakistan—A New History” to remind myself of the structural contradictions of the Pakistani state and the difficulties that face Pakistani reformers. Talbot, in my mind the dean of historians of Pakistan, has always laid out those contradictions objectively and clearly, and nowhere better that this recent compact work. He sums up the problem, I think, by observing that Pakistan is “a state which is simultaneously remarkably resilient and ‘soft’ in terms of its ability to implement basic economic and administrative functions.”
I think that perhaps Talbot is too diplomatic in that summation. It is not just basic economic and administrative functions that Pakistan has been too “soft” as a state to implement, but it has been too “soft” a state to undertake the basic political and economic reform that is required if the country is not ultimately to fall off its inertial glide path to mediocrity toward some sort of failure. To translate this thought into plain English, I mean that if it is not to continue to muddle along until finally something breaks and failure beckons, Pakistanis need to turn the linear path the country is on into a virtuous circle.
It took over 80 years after the revolution for democracy to take hold in France
No one I talked to while there would deny that the hurdles to transformation are high, and the task is fraught with difficulty. Nor would anyone deny that the structural contradictions of the state are very high barriers. What seemed different is that recognizing those difficulties and barriers, people seem willing to take them on, and to do so from the bottom. They believe, it seems, that political and social change in Pakistan has to start from below. They understand that both the political leaders and the military leaders – of the past and the present – are too much (to quote Talbot again) “in thrall to the vested interests of the religious establishment and the feudal class.”
Historical examples abound, of those structural constraints on reformers. The two leaders who have come to power with the reputation as reformers – and with, I think a realistic opportunity to achieve reform – are Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Pervez Musharraf – one a civilian politician and the other a military leader. Both promised reform and neither delivered any. Bhutto could have changed the direction of Pakistani politics forever as he was in the position to institutionalize civilian supremacy over the military, reduce the role of religion in politics, and devolve Pakistan into a federal state reflecting its social structure. He failed to accomplish any of these, and worse as far as I can tell, he didn’t even try.
As Talbot noted, and as I remember vividly, Pervez Musharraf came to power in a haze of great expectations about his “reformist” plans. While liberals frowned on how he took power through a coup, many thought of him as a great modernizer, probably because of his personal liberal outlook and behavior. I remember well-known liberals telling me that the coup was a great deliverance from the PLM-N government of Nawaz Sharif which was about to make Sharia the law of the land. But Musharraf’s modernizing credentials soon became quite tarnished as he failed to reform any of the serious structural impediments to modernization — a dysfunctional taxation system that has over the years reduced revenue as a percent of GDP to under 9% (which would be the center of an economic reform program that restored strength to the formal economy and brought Pakistan, after many years, to the point it could live within its means); a patrimonial rural social structure that his devolution program only strengthened; a weak surrender to the religious parties on social issues, in particular the blasphemy laws and women’s issues (do you remember the weak, embarrassing treatment of Mukhtar Mai?); and most importantly, diminishing the indo-centric drag throughout the society by normalizing relations with India. In the latter, and maybe some of the others, Musharraf may have come to power with good intentions, but was unable to overcome his need for legitimacy through the support of the military, the religious parties, and the feudals. As Talbot remarks, Musharraf was as in thrall to the religious parties and feudals as the civilian leaders that preceded him. Moreover, he was in the end, and as his end demonstrated, a military man through and through.
So for these remarkable and courageous Pakistanis who are now out working for a transformed Pakistan, I would say that history teaches us that in Pakistan, and in fact most other countries, real reform has to begin at the bottom. In countries in which there are charismatic leaders who have enough popular support to overcome vested interests, it can be guided from the top, but it is unlikely to stick if not supported from the bottom. Franklin D Roosevelt during the crisis of the great depression is, perhaps, the only real example. There are none I can think of presently, and I know of no such leaders hiding in the wings in Pakistan. Historically the reform that comes from the top is imposed in an authoritarian system, and by being imposed from the top, its shelf life is often limited. The Soviet Union is a good example; it lasted 72 years.
On the other hand, reform that comes from the bottom can take generations to take hold. Or if it comes in revolutionary form, as it France in 1789, it can go through stages of violence and counter-revolution before reform takes hold. It took France over 80 years after the revolution before democracy took hold. So the second lesson for Pakistani reformers is to understand that you may be laying bricks for a reformed structure that will come long after your time. But isn’t that better than just waiting for Pakistan to end either with a bang or a whimper?
In Pakistan, as elsewhere, it will take the kind of community projects I saw on my visit. These include community efforts to improve healthcare, and most importantly to improve access to education and especially for females. It is through education, which may take several generations, that real revolution comes, revolution that reforms instead of destroys. It will also take prioritization of effort; for example, there should be strong efforts to increase pressure on the government with regard to normalization with India. That would be a more rapid way to get at some of the other reforms, as normalization will accelerate other economic and social change.