A Vision For The Future

By Anjum Altaf

It is difficult to support any political party in Pakistan for an obvious reason. They are so full of corrupt, uncaring and incompetent leaders that associating with them comes across either as opportunism or stupidity. Those who manipulate political leaders are even less to be admired.

The kings and kingmakers have now led the country into very dangerous territory. It is a fact that Pakistan entered a moral decline early on when its value system was buffeted by Partition. Only one dimension of this decline need be mentioned to make the point — the land grab. It ensued at the outset, initiated by bureaucrats entrusted with the trust of abandoned properties, was followed by the rampaging era of land mafias, and continued by the legalized involvement of state institutions. This created a worldview in which the only way to get ahead was the  manipulation of rules in one way or another.

This rout of moral values seeped into other walks of life including sports, the arts, and academia. Once the generation fired by the emotion of creating a new country faded out, it was not replaced by talent of an equal stature — there are no modern Abdus Salams.

This decline was unsurprising since organizations that nurtured talent became the playground of patronage. Once again, a single example suffices. Consider the appointments to the various sports federations in Pakistan. As performance dropped precipitously across the board — in hockey, squash, athletics — there was no accountability. Changes, if they occurred, were part of the rotation of favourites coinciding with the change of political regimes.

Such a steep decline in moral values combined with the dominance of patronage in the allocation of resources could not leave the economy untouched. What can be a better indicator of the decline than the number of Rupees required to purchase one US Dollar  — from Rs. 3.25 in 1950 to Rs. 158 today. Granted salaries have increased but nowhere commensurate with the decline of the buying power of the Rupee. One way to imagine the change in real income would be to compare the kilograms of flour purchasable with the daily wage of an unskilled worker in 1950 and today. The difference would be marginal. The comparison would be stark with a country like South Korea that has progressed economically over this period.  

The nature of declines is such that they can remain gradual for long periods before reaching a tipping point at which a free fall begins. Pakistan might well be entering such a period where a randomly thrown match could ignite a forest fire. The political dynamics of such periods are quite distinct. It is no longer the case of political parties leading the people to force a change; rather it is mobs whom political parties can decide to rally behind if they choose. Such dynamics can be triggered by a policeman slapping a pushcart vendor or a doctor refusing to treat an indigent woman.

We are no longer living in times when a collapse of governance could be arrested by the intervention of a more competent external power like Britain which ended the anarchy of the decaying Mughal Empire. In today’s world, anarchy could linger unchecked with various players jockeying for advantage from the chaos without putting an end to the misery.          

In such a situation, with tragedy staring one in the face, it is an academic exercise to imagine what a political party would be like that one could support in good faith and with some hope for the future. For one, it would not choose the path of victimization. Not for nothing is the ‘Reign of Terror’ that followed the most celebrated revolution in modern history recalled with horror. No amount of people sent to the guillotine or confined to the Bastille succeeded in achieving the high-sounding goals of purification. 

It is self-defeating to create an environment in which every person, not just the guilty, begins to feel insecure for fear that some excuse would be found to prosecute those who do not fall in line. It is a self-defeating obsession to nab the last crook if the cost is to jeopardise the morale of millions of innocent people. A responsible political party would build the trust that no honest person need fear in its reign and extend the benefit of the doubt with the larger objective in view. 

A responsible political party would adjust to the dire situation by repairing relations with its neighbours even if that necessitated difficult compromises. With a vulnerable economy, each passing day weakens the bargaining position. People need to be taken into confidence instead of being misled by self-serving narratives. This adjustment would allow the reallocation of scarce resources to the stagnant economy.

A responsible political party would craft an indigenous, people-oriented economic policy instead of dreaming of recovering looted wealth or chasing external funds on terms not disclosed to citizens. Such a policy would focus on raising the incomes of the bottom half of the population with initiatives focused on  supply-constrained sectors like low-cost housing and agro-processing, which are less vulnerable to foreign competition. Along with boosting incomes, the policies would have the twin objective of creating the maximum number of jobs. This would trigger a virtuous cycle for products of industrial sectors running below capacity because of stagnant demand. 

A policy of this type would shift away from the la-la land of cutting-edge research, high-tech innovation, and cities as engines of growth and be grounded in the realities of where most people live (rural areas and secondary cities) and work (the informal sector) and of sectors where demand outstrips supply.

A responsible political party would also entirely revamp the education, health, environmental sanitation and contract labour systems, all broken at the moment. These revamps would enable people to realize their potential and be healthy and skilled for the needs of the economy. 

In short, a responsible political party would focus on the majority, not the minority; on rewarding, not punishing; on reality, not delusions; and on the future, not the past.

This opinion was published in Dawn on July 15, 2019 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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