Looking for a way forward - Shafqat Mahmood - Friday, April 29, 2011

The ups and downs of Pakistan’s current political scene are interesting but have little bearing on what it will take to move the country forward. It is difficult to spell out the exact ingredients but unless fundamental decisions are taken in relation to politics, the economy, security and social development; no progress is possible.

The courtship dance between the PPP and PML-Q, the heat and dust over drone attacks, the continued target killings in Karachi and terror incidents in Baluchistan are parts of a troubled mosaic. They will contribute to Pakistan’s future trajectory but success or failure will lie in achieving a national consensus on tackling the roots of our malaise.

It may be instructive to look at examples of nations that have progressed at great speed but even there it is not easy to discern a common formula. Since the end of World War 2, and rapid decolonisation, the success stories are mainly in the East: China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and others moving forward such as India and Indonesia.

But now so is Brazil in South America, which has been turned around in a decade, Russia after the end of communism, and even tiny Mauritius. Some are democracies – India, Brazil, Malaysia and Mauritius – while others such as Russia and Singapore are authoritarian. Then there is China, which is a unitary state under the absolute control of the Chinese communist party.

What is it that has propelled these countries forward and has kept others behind? Eric Li, managing director of a leading venture capital firm in China has this to say in an opinion piece in the New York Times: “In today’s China, the individual remains part of the collective and by no means the independent and basic unit of society. Political power is not divided and balanced but centralised under a single political authority.”

He goes on to add that China has adapted from the West the market mechanism to efficiently allocate resources which has resulted in high rates of growth and lifted millions out of poverty. But, pointedly adds that “those with political aspirations contrary to the collective objectives of the state and society are severely constrained, even repressed.”

These views are not of a dissident but of somebody who lives and thrives in China. What he is reflecting is an elite consensus in the country that a centralised state apparatus will determine the trajectory of national progress and anyone who differs or comes in the way will be stopped by force, if necessary. He is not apologetic about this obviously dictatorial edict.

Singapore’s great leader Lee Kuan Yew also believes in the state’s firm control to move forward. While the island nation is ostensibly a democracy, it is openly authoritarian and dissent is not appreciated. The economic strides it has made are truly stupendous. Was it Lee’s vision that made the difference, or tight state-control and centralised planning?

It is often said in our country that we too would have moved forward if we had a visionary leader like Jinnah, the unstated assumption being that a single far sighted individual makes all the difference. The Chinese have disproved this because after decades of Mao and later Deng Xiaoping, the communist party has been led by different individuals but the progress goes on.

Again, the authoritarian assumption - that dictatorships create better economic progress - has mixed results. It helped in China, South Korea, and Singapore but was a signal failure in Brazil, which languished under dictatorships and even Indonesia. Brazil’s great leap forward has been under a democratic regime of President Lula and Indonesia’s under elected President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Discounting the progress made in Europe and the US under democratic regimes - long democratic traditions, solid knowledge and infrastructure base – Japan’s success also did not come under a dictatorship. India too has economically forged ahead in the last two decades under a democratic dispensation, as has Mauritius on a smaller scale.

What then are the lessons that we can draw for Pakistan, given that we face serious economic, political and security challenges. Some of these issues have been discussed at length in a book edited by Dr Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan, Beyond the Crisis State. While there is general pessimism all round, the series of articles in it suggest a way forward.

Dr Maleeha Lodhi in her signature article suggests that an emerging middle class will coalesce into a strong democratic movement “spearheading an agenda of reform that aims to make governance more effective and also more accountable and responsive to the aspirations of its people”. She acknowledges that the prospect of this may not appear strong at the moment but its stirrings are visible in civil society movements since 2007.

There are two assumptions made by Dr Lodhi, one that such a coalition of the educated middle classes has a possibility of emerging and second, that by definition it would be effective and efficient. To me, the first seems problematic and the second, possible, if indeed such a situation does emerge.

My cynicism about a middle class-based party rests on two grounds. The emerging middle classes are largely urban whereas the electoral spread in a parliamentary democracy is largely rural. This demography poses a huge challenge to such a coalition emerging.

Secondly, political affiliations of the people towards the parties they support congeal over long periods of time. There are some floaters in between who change allegiances depending on the circumstances but largely, party loyalty remains steady. This is true of Pakistan as of other democracies around the world. For a new party to create space is very difficult as Imran Khan’s unsuccessful attempt so far demonstrates.

There is little doubt though that if such a party does emerge, which would essentially constitute a significant portion of the best and the brightest in the nation, governance would indeed be better. But the wait may turn out to be too long. There are governance and economic challenges staring us in the face and decisions have to be taken now, not tomorrow, or even the day after.

If governance does not start improving now, we may begin to sink into a state of anarchy. We are quite close to this, but are not there yet. If immediate attention is not paid to improving and reinvigourating the state structure, the decay may reach a point of no return.

On the economic front, the state finances face an existential crisis. Again, we are looking for the Americans to bail us out - Hafeez Sheikh says one billion is coming before June - but are not ready to take the tough decisions that will allow us to stand on our feet.

There seems to be no political consensus when it comes to improving the economy or tackling the challenge of declining governance. This is certainly not the way forward. Its opposite is. Is there any possibility of this happening?

The lesson to be drawn from global experience then is that the nations that are ready to tough it out through difficult times and take hard decisions are the ones that prosper. Those who do nothing, wilt and die. We have a choice to make.

Email: shafqatmd@gmail.com 

Source : http://thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=44251&Cat=9

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