Pakistan’s Gloomy Anniversary
August 17, 2011: In South Asia, as in many other parts of the world, national independence days are a time for editors and other commentators to reflect on their country’s state of affairs, spell out what’s going well and what’s going badly, and offer some — hopefully original –ideas about what can be done to set things right. We’ve made it a practice to check out these commentaries. We’ve found that they can often help us and other outsiders get a better idea of the national mood in these countries, or at least of their elites. With this goal in mind we went through the editorials and other commentaries in Pakistan’s English-language press that “celebrated” the 64th anniversary of the country’s independence on August 14.
Reading through them can only be a painful enterprise for anyone who wishes Pakistan well. We found that they offered an almost unrelieved sense of gloom – and very few specific ways to turn things around. A good number of them lament that the situation Pakistan faces this year may well be the worst it has ever had to confront since it won freedom in 1947. We recognize that the editors’ comments do not necessarily reflect popular opinion in a country where the minority who read newspapers mainly read those published in vernacular languages. But they are read by the elite and powerful and those in their circles.
What’s especially striking is how many of the commentators conclude that Pakistan’s problems stem from fundamental, longstanding failures in policy and governance. Thus Najam Sethi wrote in The Friday Times about how the dreams of 1947 have been lost in “a litany of false starts, corrupt practices, and misplaced ambitions that have transformed our imagined paradise into a living hell.” The editors of The Daily Times found that “every year, the people of Pakistan wait for some miraculous transformation of [their] country’s situation, but with each passing day things go from bad to worse….How long,” they asked, “will Pakistan continue to pursue policies that have not just hurt us but the outside world as well?” The Express Tribune concluded that “Pakistan has isolated itself from the world ideologically and is busy fighting its intrastate wars while blaming the outside world for its ills.”
Others observe that Pakistan has misdiagnosed its problems and hasn’t even bothered to ask the right questions. “Rather than gaining the maturity, the wisdom, the dignity that is expected to come with age,” said The News, “Pakistan appears to be toppling into the kind of disarray most often associated with angst-stricken teenagers who are struggling to cope with all kinds of emotional and social issues.” The Peshawar-based Frontier Post was harsh on the people who have led Pakistan since Jinnah’s death in 1948: they were “adventurers,” “opportunists,” pigmies.” “And the worst we have had is the present lot across the spectrum, a worthless congeries reeking with unparalleled mediocrity, rank intellectual bankruptcy, insurmountable power-hunger and, more woefully, malodorous corruption and malfeasance.” This is strong stuff, even in the elevated rhetoric often characteristic of Pakistani political expression.
Few positive comments relieve the litany of alleged mistakes and the gloomy appraisal of the situation they have produced. Sethi found hope in what seemed to him recent public awareness of the incompetence of the Pakistani military. Pakistan Today welcomed popular recognition that the threat from India is “no way as large” as has been painted by the military. This, it suggested, could lead to a welcomed reduction in the size and influence of Pakistan’s army. Dawn was pleased with recent small steps such as amending the Frontier Crimes Regulations to integrate the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) more closely with neighboring Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. It was also gratified at the issuance of a National Finance Commission Award that distributed national revenues more equitably among the provinces. The Express Tribune hailed the (admittedly negative) prospect that the present civilian government would be the first to complete a full term in office without being thrown out by the military. A number of papers noted with satisfaction the resilience of the Pakistani people and their historic ability to handle tough times.
What is to be done to right the situation? Inevitably, there are those who call for a return to the Pakistan of Jinnah, but offer no practical suggestions about how to get there. But one theme that struck us was the idea that Pakistan should stop blaming everyone else for its problems and take greater responsibility for its own affairs – and its own mistakes. The Express Tribune melded these themes, and at the same time castigated the wishful thinking and hypocrisy it blamed for much of Pakistan’s past misdiagnosis of its problems. The paper’s comment on foreign economic assistance particularly hit home: “It’s not only America we [Pakistanis] rail against. We also rail against the IMF, though we seem to have no qualms about taking billions of loans from it [and other foreign countries and international institutions]. Of course, the simple logic that if we were all to pay our share of taxes the state perhaps might not need so much money from donors or lenders is clearly lost on us….”
Sethi echoes this: “Learning to stand on our own feet rather than on American-IMF crutches should enable us to build and implement a socially just and efficient taxation and representation system that builds domestic credibility and international trust, encourages foreign investment and discourages the brain and capital drain.”
These are courageous and sensible, if overly hopeful words. But is anyone listening who is in a position to move Pakistan’s affairs along to the point that there will be no cause to repeat these jeremiads on future Independence Days?