Thursday, October 4, 2007

Whither Pakistan

I had originally intended to write this the new media way - chock full of links to corroborating sources. But it has been sitting in draft for so long that I am afraid that by the time I do that Pakistan will have already gone wherever it is going. With the recent imposition of Martial law I suppose I should update this post. But I am too lazy to do it and I don't think my fundamental take has changed. And anyway I don't think either of the two people who read the intermittent outputs of this blog will mind. To any third person who might wander and actually suffer through this in I hope you will excuse the rambling sloppy nature of my writing.

A common misconception is that democracy empowers people. In truth, empowerment is not a result of democracy, democracy is the reflection of empowerment. Governments reflect power balances in society, and if people either collectively or individually have power this is generally reflected in some form of democracy. The reflection of power in the form of democracy is best illustrated by that oldest (with apologies to Iceland) of democracies, Britain. In Britain from 1780 when less than 3% of the population could vote to universal suffrage in 1918 the power of the vote closely followed economic power. From the rule under Henry VI that in order to vote you had to possess land worth 40 shillings to 1884 when to vote you had to be a male house owner the right to vote was explicitly tied to economic power. And what does that have to do with Pakistan and its future? This, that when we talk about democracy in Pakistan we should not confuse it with democracy in Sweden. Or if we do it should be in terms of understanding that just as in Sweden democracy reflects the power balance so in Pakistan will democracy reflect the power balance. Just that in Sweden the average voter due to their economic clout may actually possess some power while in Pakistan, for the same reason, the average voter will possess very little. The political structure will reflect the accommodations and conflicts of the power centers in the country.

Power exists in a number of different ways. The two principal ways are through the ownership of resources, and through organization. Labor unions may not own resources but if they are well organized they can exert power. And it is clear that ownership of resources - money, land, - usually goes hand in hand with power. In Pakistan there have been two groups that have had power through most of its history, the moneyed classes (feudal landlords and "industrialists") through their ownership of resources and the military through its organization.

Things seemed to be changing in the late 60's as a newly emerging middle class in the cities distinct from the landlords started demanding a share of the power. Actual political parties with actual mass participation began to appear. One of them was the Pakistan Peoples Party led by Bhutto the father of Benazir and very much a member of the power elite. Despite his wealthy (very wealthy) background Bhutto actually was a real honest to goodness populist politician, and was soon immensely popular in what was then West Pakistan. He campaigned under the slogan "Islam is our faith, democracy is our policy, socialism is our economy. All power to the people." After he came to power he, more or less, tried to keep his promises, and embarked on a policy of economic redistribution involving nationalization of industrial sectors and banks. He set up a policy of low interest loans to farmers and small business and there was a push to increase exports. One can argue over the long term viability of his economic policies but at least initially they led to an increase in the size of the middle class.

A bit off the subject but relevant nonetheless, in the late sixties in Pakistan there was also a developing (reviving?) communist movement which had come into its own after a split with the Soviets after the 1965 war with India. I hesitate to call them Maoist because that label brings to mind the Naxalites in India and the Shining Path in Peru and perhaps the PKK in Turkey. These guys were Maoist in the sense that they believed that the peasants were the vanguard of the "revolution." They had some success in the NWFP, actually setting up a liberated zone in an area called Hashtnagar in the early seventies. The army tried to break them but, in a scenario repeated lately in Waziristan, were not able to quell them and a de-facto "liberated zone" existed for quite a while (I am not sure about its status now). After Bhutto took power the communist advance was stopped cold. Wherever the communists had succeeded in getting the peasantry organized a government minister would show up and sign over land deeds to them. End of revolution. Bhutto used to boast that during his tenure he had not killed a single communist and they had not gained an inch.

Bhutto had the misfortune of ruling during a period of global inflation. As the price of food went up so did the temperature of the populace. Also there was the matter of the nuclear program which did not endear him to the US. And then, in what seems to have been a favorite activity of all megalomaniacal leaders, Bhutto engaged in vote rigging to guarantee an election he would most likely have won anyway (shades of CREEP) and lost more popular support. With the tacit approval of the US the military took power and thus began the long dark period of Zia. I don't know how long Zia would have lasted. The increase in the size of the middle class had resulted in a demand for more power from the people and the military in Pakistan, unlike the military in say Burma, is not separate from the people. In time, it was possible that there would have been a movement towards democracy.

But it was not to be. Fortune smiled on Zia, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and Brezinski saw an opportunity to bleed the Soviets. Money poured into Pakistan from the US directly and through Saudi Arabia. The drug lords of Afghanistan moved to Pakistan and drug money (along with drugs) also appeared in large amounts, bringing a phenomenal rise in drug addiction and an increase in corruption. Much of this money was funneled to religious groups which were best positioned to recruit the fodder required for the bleeding of the Soviets. And thus arose a third power center in Pakistan, what for the want of a better word we will call the jihadis. Initially they were under the control of the military, and the military made use of them in a number of different ways. The fodder went to fight and die in Afghanistan. The money also went to empower the military resulting in a vast expansion of military owned businesses. And the money benefitted and enhanced the power of those in the military most closely tied to the bleeding operation giving them an added incentive to keeping the jihadi operations alive. After the Soviets folded the military used the jihadis to acquire "strategic depth" in Afghanistan by training and backing the Taliban. In Kashmir the military tried to use the Brezinski strategy against India. However, it was becoming clear by the end of the millenium that the jihadis were on their way to becoming a power center in their own right. In 1999 in the seesaw between the two established power centers the military again took power in the person of Musharraf. Early in his tenure Musharraf had recognized the problem posed by the Jihadis but was thrashing about for a solution.

And then came 9/11 and the supposed U turn of the Musharraf regime. At first glance it seems that this was the perfect opportunity to get rid of the jihadi problem. And so Musharraf seems to have thought. With 9/11 a true shock to the conscience the support for jihadis from the non-militant religious segment of the population had been dealt a severe blow. The US was providing financial support which used properly could cut the ground out from under the jihadis in their centers of power. I have written earlier about one Musharraf attempt to do so which foundered on the rock of the arrogant stupidity of a Republican congressional staffer. Another was informal discussions between the military and groups in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas to regularize the status of FATA - treating them like any other part of Pakistan and including them in the distribution of resources. Whatever the wisdom of these actions and whoever is to blame for thwarting them they were not successful in eliminating the Jihadi power. This year the Jihadis felt comfortable enough in their power to openly challenge the government - first in Swat and parts of NWFP and finally in the capital Islamabad itself. At the same time the old enemy inflation was increasing the frustration level of the populace. Economic development has increased the rich poor divide. Some of this frustration was vented in the Chief Justice incident.

Which brings us to today. The military has provided reasonably efficient government for a while. But the economic development has not been enough to get them strong support and in any case it has been uneven, increasing the rich/poor divide. If the military is to win against the jihadi challenge they need allies. And the only available allies are the wealthy and the political parties which represent them. Among them the PPP is the most reasonable choice. Its leader is one with whom Musharraf does not have a personal vendetta. It is reasonably popular and would provide the legitimacy the military needs to operate in todays globalized information society. The next step will probably be an agreement between the military and the PPP where the PPP, after winning the parliamentary elections leads the country into "democracy" while preserving the perquisites of the military. The military then settles down to the task of getting rid of the jihadis. Whether they will succeed will depend on how well the PPP can govern and whether they can provide some measure of economic and social relief to the populace and whether the military can subdue the jihadis without arousing nationalist sentiments in the NWFP and Baluchistan. In order to keep the public on its side the Military-PPP alliance will have to do something to alleviate the economic stress on the people. Rising inflation in Pakistan will severely hamper their efforts. In the best of worlds improving the economic condition of the people will lead to conditions where with more economic clout the people of Pakistan will be able to demand and get a voice in their governance - democracy as we know it. In the real world such a transformation requires leadership of a caliber that I don't see in Pakistan today. So the prospects are not that great.

On the international front one of Musharraf's contributions has been a gradual de-emphasis on the Kashmir issue. If this emotionally charged issue is taken off the table then given the globalization trends one would normally expect a gradual normalization and increasing trade with India. However, there is an axis developing with India and US on one side and China and Russia on the other. If Pakistan tilts towards China which has been close to Pakistan through fair times and foul it is not clear how far normalization can go.

They say trying times call out great leaders. They are clearly wrong. In these trying times when the future of the planet itself (in terms of its human population) is in jeopardy we have Bush. And Pakistan has Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto. But we go through history with the leaders we have not the leaders we want.

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