Older readers will recognise this mantra from the past: “South Korea stole our first Five-Year Plan.” According to this urban legend, when a Korean was accused of this petty larceny by a Pakistani, he retorted: “Yes, but we implemented it.”
The other pat on the back we give ourselves is about how PIA helped establish Air Malta and Emirates. I suppose that’s how those who have failed comfort themselves after having been knocked out of the league many years ago: in our period of decline, we sit around, reminiscing about the good old days.
Younger Pakistanis may find it hard to believe, but there was a time when Pakistan was held up as a model of development. India, constrained by its tightly regulated economy, was plodding along on what was called the ‘Hindu rate of growth’. Buoyed by foreign aid, then quite efficiently utilised, and with relatively liberal economic policies, Pakistan grew at a respectable rate that gave economists the widespread expectation that soon, the country would reach the take-off stage.
In the mid-1960s, a Turkish friend who worked for one of his country’s financial institutions told me that Pakistan’s Industrial Development Bank (IDBP) was cited as an exemplary state-sector enterprise in his organisation. As a young student, I remember feeling quite proud of my country. What institutions do our young people have to be proud of today?
In 1963, I drove from Germany to Pakistan with some friends over a series of steadily deteriorating roads. In Iran, we came across a metalled road 100km or so before and after Tehran. The rest were unpaved dirt roads. Poverty was so widespread that workers in eastern Iran would beg us for a box of matches. When we crossed into Pakistan, it was like entering a developed country: although the roads in Balochistan were also unpaved, they had been neatly graded and properly marked. The border rest-house where we spent the night was adequate, and we were cooked a hot meal. Sleeping in the open under a brilliant, star-speckled sky, it felt good to be back.
So what happened to derail this success story? The short answer is 1965. This brief, pointless war, needlessly provoked by Pakistan, destabilised Ayub Khan’s government, and set in motion a chain of events that had far-reaching consequences that haunt us still. Without getting into the causes leading up to this military disaster, I do see it as a hinge moment in our history.
Although the economy has grown in fits and starts since then, governance and institution-building have recorded a steady and terminal decline. Internationally, we are toxic, with our geopolitical location, our nuclear arsenal and our scary jihadi threat the only reasons why we figure in the calculations of other countries.
Many Pakistanis are convinced that if only we would get a good leader, everything could be fixed. Scores of readers have emailed me over the last couple of years, complaining about Asif Zardari. “What have we done to deserve him?” they moan. It’s almost as if they think some celestial figure should parachute down to take over. The reality is that all the actors are on the political stage, and we know what the options are.
A sizeable chunk of our chattering class is convinced that once Zardari quits the scene, rivers of milk and honey will start flowing again. Considering that his predecessors in the presidency include such stellar figures as Ghulam Ishaq Khan, Farooq Leghari and Pervez Musharraf, it is difficult to understand how Zardari can do any worse. Indeed, whatever his many detractors say about him, his performance in office has been far better that anybody could have hoped for.
Of course, the inevitable allegations of graft swirl around this government, as they have around every elected civilian government in the past. The only reason military rulers have been spared this scrutiny is that our media moguls know better than to take on the generals over such a sensitive issue. Mere politicians, of course, are fair game. The wildest, most unfounded charges against them can be amplified in the megaphone that is the electronic media today.
Political discourse in Pakistan today resembles a Roman amphitheatre where gladiators fight and die before a mob baying for yet more blood. In this hysterical environment, it is next to impossible to initiate and sustain a sensible discussion on the real issues. When people get used to a steady diet of raw meat, it’s not easy to convince them that vegetables are good for them.
Thus, deadly serious matters like religious extremism and violence, illiteracy, poverty, the need for clean drinking water, rapid population growth, the degradation of our urban and rural environment and the water crisis are impatiently swept aside by the public and the media. What counts most to them are the NRO, the 18th Amendment, allegations of graft and the comings and goings of politicians, judges and generals.
This national preoccupation with peripheral issues lets the government off the hook. When the political discourse is diverted away from our pressing problems, the administration is under no pressure to deliver. While civil society is ready and willing to agitate for judicial independence and against the NRO, it does not show the same energy and zeal to take to the streets to demand better governance. I suppose ‘Go, Musharraf, go!’ makes a better slogan than ‘Clean drinking water for all!’
One reason for these warped priorities is that we seem to prefer to talk about abstract issues rather than mundane ones. For our educated middle class, access to clean drinking water is not the problem it is for millions of deprived Pakistanis. Ditto for education and health services as they can generally afford not to rely on creaking state facilities.
In most societies, pressure for change comes from an educated middle class. Until this class feels strongly enough for the country’s masses to demand an improvement in their lives, little will change. Currently, our civil society’s problems are more to do with the courts and government departments, so their focus is on reforming them. The media’s concern is to improve circulation and audience figures, so they whip up sudden squalls in the teacup about non-issues. And we lap up these little dramas and express our indignation in the comfort of our drawing rooms.
Meanwhile, in the real world, children starve quietly, or grow up stunted, unloved and malnourished in a hostile world. Uneducated, they have little chance of finding a job. But at least we have the consolation of being blessed with an independent judiciary.