Beyond the ‘crisis state’ - Mosharraf Zaidi - Tuesday, March 29, 2011

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The notion of a new Pakistani nationalism is not new in a chronological sense. It is as old as the country itself. Its newness is in how widely it is dispersed and how explicitly divorced it is from the state-defined and military-dominated version of Pakistan’s economy, its history and its politics. Old Pakistani nationalism is India-centric, it is scared of multiple identities, it rejects indigenous cultures. Worst of all, it is confused. It often plays jump rope between being Muslim and being Islamic, being Indian and being Arab. Its fear of the Bengali language broke up the country, but has failed to break reality to it. Luckily, the new Pakistani nationalism doesn’t need an invitation. It is a product of the very realities that the old nationalism helped produce. Old Pakistan may be incapable of learning lessons from its mistakes, but it seems very likely that the new Pakistani nationalism is a product of the lessons of history.

Where’s the evidence of this new Pakistani nationalism? Like the answers to so many questions in life, I’ve found an answer to this one, in an exciting new book. Being released this week, Pakistan: Beyond the Crisis State (Oxford University Press) is a collection of essays by an array of some of Pakistan’s best and brightest minds. Each essay helps define some of the country’s most dire problems, and each one attempts to propose a range of solutions that are likely to help forge a Pakistani future more prosperous and more stable than today. Edited by former Pakistani ambassador to the US and the UK, Dr Maleeha Lodhi, Beyond the Crisis State is a solid effort to illuminate where hope will come from.

Two features of the book merit extraordinary consideration. The first is its refreshing honesty. The book does anything but tread lightly, even on some very, very sensitive nerves. In the opening chapter, Ayesha Jalal provides an account of some of the creative explanations often used to cohere the idea of Pakistan. In the shorter form, we are denied Jalal’s signature narrative style. Yet, this is more than made up for by the calm and assertive confidence with which she takes a hatchet to the state’s clumsy, inadequate and failed attempts to forge national identity in Pakistan.

The second is the outstanding and powerful positivity of tone that the book takes. Many of the contributors, like Ahmed Rashid, are not exactly known to be optimistic and positive observers of the Pakistani condition. Yet the book offers a realistic and positive set of ideas about what has enabled Pakistan to survive, as a society and a state, and what are the likely realities of the near- and medium-term future that will enable the country to go from surviving to thriving.

Lodhi’s own essay, from which the title of the book is derived, is an exceptionally good summary of post-1999 Pakistan. Her analysis of what constituted the substance of the Musharraf era, and what factors brought it to an end, offers a very cogent look at recent political history. Most importantly, she articulates some of the conditions that reflect at least a partial, if not textbook, kind of emergence of a politically relevant Pakistani middle-class. In her assessment of the five possible futures for Pakistan from here on, the most optimistic and most fragile is the evolution of this enlarged Pakistani middle-class.

The book relies on this narrative of a Pakistani middle class, both through explicitly appropriating the idea of an urban Pakistani middle class, and by implicitly addressing it, and challenging it to do better. In his essay, “Why Pakistan will survive?” novelist Mohsin Hamid revisits taxation and Pakistan’s unsustainable fiscal realities – an issue that he has written and spoken about frequently since relocating to Pakistan. Other contributors to the book include veteran reporter Zahid Hussain, former ambassadors Akbar Ahmed and Munir Akram, former IMF official Meekal Ahmed and the resident South Asia expert at the United States Institute of Peace, Moeed Yusuf.

Yusuf’s contribution to the book is an excellent essay he has co-authored with Shanza Khan, titled, “Education as a strategic imperative.” Derived from a research that Yusuf did for the Brookings Institution in 2008, the essay articulates the current state of education, the risks involved in allowing this situation to continue unchecked and the kinds of changes required to change direction, from the disaster that the state of education in Pakistan entails today to a situation in which Pakistan’s youth bulge becomes a competitive advantage for Pakistan.

On the whole, the book acknowledges the problems that plague Pakistan, and offers a reasonable set of ideas about how to tackle them. Best of all, there is decidedly none of the self-consciousness in this book that has in the past been a hallmark of efforts to articulate solutions to Pakistan’s problems.

Too often, corrective measures are suggested for problems, either with far too much anger and bitterness or with far too little introspection. In the past, we’ve often had to choose scathing, acerbic and insensitive diatribes, by folks with non-existent constituencies. Or we’ve had to choose delusional, self-righteous and inaccurate portrayals of history that slavishly seek to patronise those in power, with or without uniform.

In this new book, and, indeed, right across the emerging Pakistani discourse, the era of having to vacillate between two extremes might be coming to a close. We don’t have to choose between ill-informed, angry, insensitive diatribes and dangerous and concocted propaganda. Lodhi has edited a set of brilliant Pakistani minds, all of whom seem to be saying that Pakistan and Pakistanis have made a lot of mistakes. But that we need not repeat them. They also suggest that key institutional trends in Pakistan over the last decade indicate that the time for this learning may finally be here. These include a visible and empowered urban middle class, a loud and aggressive national media, unprecedented international pressure and support and a growing sense of self – a sense of Pakistaniat that is good enough, just because it is.

This sense of Pakistani identity is at the heart of what I call the new Pakistani nationalism. It is captured quite nicely in this new book. It is the beating heart of Pakistan, on Main Street and in the virtual reality of blogs, and social media. Perhaps it is best summed up by Adil Najam, the Boston University professor, environmentalist and international-relations expert. On his blog, “All Things Pakistan,” he defines Pakistaniat (a term that he may not have coined but has certainly helped popularise): “To embrace Pakistan in all its dimensions – its politics, its culture, its minutiae, its beauty, its warts, its potential, its pitfalls, its facial hair, its turbaned heads, its shuttlecock burqas, its jet-setting supermodels, its high-flying bankers, its rock bands, its qawwals, its poets, its street vendors, its swindling politicians, its scheming bureaucrats, its resolute people – in essence, all things Pakistani.”

The writer advises governments, donors and NGOs on public policy.

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