Contesting paradigms - Tanvir Ahmad Khan - Thursday, April 14, 2011

At a time when academic and journalistic discourse about Pakistan is often bent to serve the strategic needs of major powers, Dr Maleeha Lodhi has drawn upon the insights of a distinguished group of experts to re-locate this discourse in facts as well as in the true ethos of a nation so misrepresented in recent times.

Dr Lodhi blends her experience in journalism, academia and diplomacy in her own seminal chapter that provides the book with its sub-title as well as in its thoughtful design.

I read the book ‘Pakistan: Beyond the Crisis State’ almost simultaneously with the long essay called ‘Pakistan’s Future’ in which Stephen Cohen all but reneges on the optimism that informed his book Idea of Pakistan. My critical prepossessions of mind included the questions: how selective have the authors been about facts in the two cases; how far do the contributors to the volume edited by Dr Lodhi tweak the data to yield a feel-good conclusion; and how far has Stephen Cohen succumbed to the linear negative view of Pakistan currently in vogue in the think-tank community in the United States.

It is my impression that Dr Lodhi’s project does not shun diversity of views while Cohen’s dark foreboding about Pakistan’s future has a deterministic air about it. This is the opposite of Dr Lodhi’s faith in the resilience of the people of Pakistan and in several old and new factors that can still prove a doomsday prognosis wrong.

In fact the opening chapter of the book by the redoubtable Ayesha Jalal is the least optimistic of the essays that comprise the book. She has flagged the issues that bedevil Pakistan’s strategic culture with her usual diligence and there is no gainsaying that Pakistan needs a paradigm shift. She does not however make a persuasive case for her fear that the nation would not be able to make this shift.

Dr Lodhi’s own 33-page essay has a broad canvas and she tests her faith in Pakistan’s ability to chart a course beyond the crisis state against a number of issues that are otherwise cited to sketch an ominous future for it. She does it with her rapier sharp intellect identifying five factors that are central to understanding the Pakistan story: asymmetry between political and non-political institutions, feudal dominated order and culture, reliance of the oligarchic elite on borrowed growth, geography, national security goals and role of outside powers and persistence of centrifugal forces.

She addresses each of them in a historical context and leads us to a set of perceptions about transformational trends that should help Pakistan mediate and eventually overcome the negative factors. Is there, the essay, asks, a middle class moment in Pakistan’s evolution? Pakistan’s expanding middle class, she hopes, may well in the years ahead become a significant force and be able to impact more on national life. She rightly sees in the rapidly increasing connectivity brought by broadcast media, internet and mobile phones a powerful ally in this process.

I read her masterly analysis while haunted by the fear that the transformative factors can, on present empirical evidence, produce conflicting scenarios. Stephen Cohen, for instance, visualises many parallel Pakistans, almost in a state of strife, as the rising middle class embraces local histories and causes.

The last election took place after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto who could have conceivably articulated a national framework of ideas. The present coalition is held together by political bargaining of an entirely different kind in which the component parties often play divisive cards to get better terms of engagement at the cost of greater national cohesion. There is not enough evidence that the middle class is mobilised to resist continuation of Machiavellian politics.

The middle class is the best hope though past evidence is that its successful members have often aspired to feudal values and ever expanding land holdings; nor is the middle class immune to rampant corruption in our land. Again, the middle class itself is not stable. While segments of it are profiting enormously from globalisation, parts of it cannot find an interface with new opportunities and are slipping down.

The discussion of economic issues in the book is generally anchored in the assumption that remedial initiatives have to remain within the parameters of the dominant neo-liberal economic theories of our times. The main chapter on economy by Dr Meekal Ahmad emphasises macroeconomic stability and an export-led growth. His analysis of Pakistan’s economic fortunes since the Ayub era contains many useful insights. Ahmad, however, is an unrepentant believer in the discipline that the IMF imposes and feels that an earlier recourse to IMF would have avoided some of the setbacks that the national economy suffered during recent years. Dr Lodhi speaks of borrowed growth and its inevitable fragility, a sub-theme that should generate some fundamental debate.

I would commend the two chapters on civil military themes by Shuja Nawaz and Saeed Shafqat. Neither of them fights shy of acknowledging the overwhelming power and ubiquity of the armed forces and their emergence as a corporate entity. The army’s penetration of civil administration that General Kayani has reduced and their dominance of foreign and security policy issues are discussed in historical terms as well as the particular geopolitical realities of today. Both the authors focus on factors of change and point out changes in recruitment patterns such as the class origins of the officer corp and the greater geographical spread of the areas from where new officers come.

Two other chapters that should be carefully read are Feroz Hasan Khan on nuclear issues and Munir Akram on Pakistan’s strategic shrinkage. Khan is one of the best defenders of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent abroad. But Akram has not shed his hawkish plumage and his quest for the restoration of Pakistan’s strategic clout strikes one as more of an expression of hope. Hope as we know is not policy especially when Pakistan has a government that does not wish to entertain even this hope.

This is a book to be owned as it is a rare combination of two kinds of writing. One, it is an easy read uncluttered by academic jargon and it admirably fulfils its mission to substantiate its basic thesis about Pakistan’s ability to rise again. Two, Maleeha Lodhi has assembled such an impressive cast that various essays, cumulatively, double as a book of reference.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.


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