Paying the price for what exactly?

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Mosharraf Zaidi
The alarming thing about the political discourse in Pakistan today is that it is divorced from the two bookends within which public policy should be framed and conducted at all times in this Islamic Republic At one end of this spectrum is the micro: the interests of the individual Pakistani, her ability to survive a pandemic-stricken global economy, and a rule of law compromised village, town or city; her ability to pay for the things she and her family need; and her capacity to maintain the conviction that her children’s future or her nieces and nephews’ future will be better than her present. At the other end of this spectrum is the macro: the capacity of Pakistan to continue to keep an unrelenting and insatiable enemy at bay, to defend and secure the frontiers as well as the streets, the masajid and imambargahs and gurdwaras and temples and churches, and the capability of the intelligence community to not only thwart attempts to sow discord between Pakistanis, but also to successfully evade being dragged into micro and meso debates and conflicts that compromise the Pakistani state’s objectivity and its stature and prestige. The political parties that call themselves the opposition claim that the authority and agency of the ‘micro’, the individual Pakistani, is sacrosanct to them, and hence their obsessive focus on the fidelity of the individual vote. The ruling structure that calls itself the government claims that the protection of the ‘macro’, the security and integrity of the Republic, is above all, and hence its obsession with tagging all those that stand against this ruling structure as traitors, disloyal both to the macro, the state itself, and the micro, the individual Pakistani. The opposition and the ruling structure are both indulging in a fair bit of dissemblance as they make these claims. The common thread across both of them is not their stand for the individual rights of the Pakistani nor their service to the coherence, unity and strength of the republic. The common thread across both of them is the pursuit of the upper hand in the short-term competition of narratives, so as to help secure and sustain power over a public sector that is largely dysfunctional to the point of requiring special initiatives and interventions for both business-as-usual as well as emergencies. Almost everything resembling good governance in Pakistan in the last twelve years is a product of extraordinary compromises and initiatives, with almost no concurrent reform to help ensure that ‘what should be’ is normal. Instead, the ‘what should be’ is achieved through pathways and individuals that stand out, and are, for lack of a better word, abnormal. From 2008 to 2013, Pakistan’s fragile system was held together through the Presidency, rather than through parliament, or the cabinet or the executive. The fact that the system was able to withstand terrorism during that period, as well as the global pressure on Pakistan, as well as the impact of the global financial crisis, as well as the transition from a centralized to a truly federal system – all in a space of five years is – looking back, almost unbelievable. These achievements came at a great cost to the people of Pakistan, the 200 million or so ‘micros’. They also came at a great cost to the ‘macro’: tens of thousands of soldiers and spies were killed, our internal unity was put in a blender, our democratic norms were stretched, and damaging and toxic new narratives found permanent oxygen. From 2013 to 2018, Pakistan achieved some incredible wins. The two biggest are now taken for granted, but they should not be: beating terrorism and turning the lights back on. The terrorists that had destroyed the country by 2013 had only another year or so of space before time was up. The summer of 2014 saw the beginning of the end of organized terror as a threat to the Pakistani order, and the APS attack of December 16, 2014 fast-tracked that process. The win against terrorism came at a great price – paid by the families of our armed forces and police system, and by the people of the newly merged districts, as well as Balochistan. The surge in the capacity to generate electricity is the other. Through the first decade of the 21st century, Pakistan often resembled the ultimate development basket case, held back not only by conflict, incompetence and poor leadership, but by restricted physical capacity to do the things a normal country should be able to do: first and foremost of which is to keep the lights on.

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