COMMENT: A nation divided —Shahzad Chaudhry - Monday, November 29, 2010

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An unfair socio-economic system, built around the denial of education and social security, reflects a total disconnect between the leaders and the led. The rich hordes exploit the market and then squeeze profit through price manipulation

Our biggest challenge today remains a nation divided along its fault lines and fissures. To any observer, it appears the most disconcerting indicator; a nation not at peace with itself, instead pulling in each and every other direction. That takes us increasingly close to a failed state status — something Pakistani observers are not loathe to propound. It remains another matter that Pakistan always muddles through. Ask Pakistanis and many will readily agree that a lot of that has to do with God’s grace rather than any deliberate design of recovery postulated through exquisite short to medium term recovery plans. To the Pakistanis’ credit, one may add resilience, though more likely that too can be qualified as the absence of any choice but to live or perish.

Most nations have their fissures: the Americans have their race and colour issue, the Chinese have their east-west divide and the Indians have a blatant rich and poor distinction. Other than Scandinavia where, discounting the migrants, a single cultural entity may exist, most others are multi-racial and multi-cultural. Yet these do not exhibit the fissiparousness that weak states perpetually threaten. What keeps disparate socio-ethnic creeds tied to a singular identity is none else but a dominating ‘parallel’ paradigm of success, of hope and promise, which assures each that remaining tied to the system offers the best chance of survival.

In Pakistan, for too long we have not had the paradigm of hope. We have had only short spurts: an earthquake, a war, a glimmer of hope attached to economic promise, but we have let all wither away, lost to incompetent stewardship or insincere and exploitative elites. Identities that were imposed were at best falsely contrived and did not stand the test of time. Divided nations usually are victims of conflicting narratives, leadership having failed to provide an alternative that could help coalesce into an engaging and sustainable paradigm of success. Such a paradigm, in essence, will have to lie in the wider domain of economic opportunity, recovery from difficult internal security dimensions, or institution of a social safety net that the people can relate to and which can bring succour to their impending fears for sustaining life and enabling hope and promise. None other will suffice in these challenging times. There seems neither realisation nor an effort in this direction.

Four major fault lines impinge upon Pakistan’s national fabric, some inherent in the structure, some self-created.

First is the religious divide that now seems to have lain dormant relative to our current travails. The Shia-Sunni divide was seasonal and episodic, yet has remained of nightmarish proportions due to the vulnerability of being exploited by elements looking to create ruptures. Iran, since 1979, only emphasised the challenging nature of this historical baggage that Islam as a religion has had to bear through the centuries. Iraq exacerbated the divide while Afghanistan and Pakistan today are living examples of how Islam’s subset factions have used the context to further independent agendas. Even more ominous, this exploitative trend has not yet seen its full fire and fury and is still geographically restrained. Pakistan has been rocked by religious strife for decades and has continued to pay the price in life and blood. The American presence in Afghanistan has exacerbated acute religious conflict and disparate voices each seek their own pound of flesh as opportunity presents itself to further political and financial gains.

The second affliction is regional. Pakistan was born with it. Most other nations have overcome this challenge via a shared national culture. If the going was rough for them, all were in it equally; when times become better — as in India — progress is as uniform as is the capacity of a state or the region to benefit. Somewhere resources helped, somewhere it was innovation in economic activity that generated opportunity, special economic zones and inter-state investment that helped. While others celebrated diversity, we converted it into a stigma and tried imposing a uniform identity. We achieved neither. Imposed identity fell through its false base while regional sensitivity has only reinforced fissiparity. In a weak economy and socially fractured polity, regionalism gains sustenance. In the absence of a promising paradigm, centrifugal forces prevail. Balochistan presents one such travail.

An acute divide between the rich and poor is our third self-generated chasm. An unfair socio-economic system, built around the denial of education and social security, reflects a total disconnect between the leaders and the led. Large swathes of the Pakistani populace, perhaps now exceeding 50 percent, live below the poverty line; 10,000 are added daily to the jobless; 40 percent of those between the ages of five and 14 remain outside the enrolment schemes. The rich hordes exploit the market and then squeeze profit through price manipulation. Only one percent pays taxes. When the Reformed GST is proposed, most dither because they wish to remain undocumented and therefore outside the tax net. The rich have excused themselves from wealth tax while a large presence of the landed elite in the country’s parliament ensures that agriculture, a significant segment of the GDP, remains untaxed. Tax that gets collected is frittered away by callous expenditure with the poor never getting to see any return on their payments. Eighty percent of taxation is indirect, forcing a chain of price hikes whenever a tax gets levied. The rich and poor divide remains the most telling challenge for Pakistani society, and after terrorism the second biggest threat to Pakistan’s internal stability.

The fourth divide that we force on ourselves is institutional confrontation. More importantly, the civil-military divide and politico-judicial acrimony are both getting institutionalised on the back of historical experience and pervasive insecurity. Of the two, the former has found deeper roots while the latter appears sporadically and is incidental. A vibrant media too gets pitched as a threat, at times with sufficient reason in contriving an institutional stand-off. In this free for all among the elites, there is little thought spared for the nation, its institutions and the people. We are ruthless in our treatment of other classes, stereotype happily, and in our bid to prove ourselves right, with a sense of passion deride all else. We remain unaware of the longer term damage that we cause to institutions. This remains a literal case of ‘Rome decaying from the inside’.

Structural deformities in our electoral political system manifest themselves in power politics, which remains the end-all of any democratic exercise. Since elections are fought on the basis of group and tribal allegiance, there is never the need to bring issues to debate. Poorly educated aspirants to the legislature, however moneyed, do not possess the wherewithal to fight issue-based elections. A fractious polity thereafter becomes a perfect umbrella for a patron-client allegiance culture that only reinforces the divisions within society. As a consequence, we continue to rot and edge ever closer in giving meaning to a failed state.

The writer is a retired air vice marshal and a former ambassador

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