Futures from History
Pakistan is confronted by enormous challenges that can be overcome by a determined and rational leadership. All that is needed is improving the state apparatus.
In order to understand where we are going it is imperative that we be cognizant of the broader historical patterns that have unfolded on the South Asian canvas and see how the present situation stands in comparison. In broad outline, the recorded history of South Asia begins with the advent of the Mauryan dynastic empire around 320 BC and continues in patches until the rise of the Delhi Sultanate in AD 1206. From 1206 onwards, the record is much better and improves the closer one gets to the contemporary era.
What this record reveals, even in its outline, is sobering if not chilling. From 320 BC to the present day, a time span of 2300 years, South Asia has known, at best, 500 years of effective government and relative peace. These 500 years correspond to the peak periods of major empires (Mauryas, Guptas, Delhi Sultanate, Mughals, and the
British Raj). The rest is taken up by different degrees and kinds of chaos. Closer to home, between AD 1000 and AD 1800, the territories that presently comprise Pakistan were subjected to 70 major invasions and countless rebellions and raids.
Even the most dynamic and aggressive regimes struggled to keep one step ahead of chaos. Akbar, for instance, crushed 140 plus rebellions during the first 40 years of his reign. Aurungzeb spent the better part of his reign trying to crush revolts in Southern India. The British Raj that eventually succeeded the Mughals faced constant problems along its frontiers and repeated rebellions in the heartland, in spite of its regard for institutionalism, the rule of law, meritocracy, civilian supremacy, and its seeding of South Asia with the basic prerequisites of constitutional democracy.
With the termination of the British Raj in August 1947, South Asia broke up into warring states determined to exacerbate each other’s internal problems even as they failed to cope effectively with their own. Since 1947, the general trajectory of South Asia is towards greater political and administrative chaos set against the backdrop of unsustainable and uncontrollable demographic pressure. To some extent, the institutional legacy of the British Raj has mitigated the severity of the return to arbitrariness and chaos in India. In Pakistan, however, the situation is considerably more grim and reflects the South Asian pattern of chaos spreading from the outmost regions as the center goes under, somewhat like a chappati being eaten from its edges. For Pakistan, there are, in this broader context, three possible scenarios.
The first, which is already upon us in many respects, is that the state ceases to exist as a means of improving the lives of its citizens and delivering public services. In this scenario an unstable political system exhibiting high levels of corruption and mismanage- ment may continue to preside over a society in which public services are steadily breaking down. The rich will be able to move into gated communities, hire private security, produce their own utilities, and send their children and surplus capital abroad. The rest will stew in their own juices without electricity, gas, water, law and order, quality education/health care, but with mobile phones and televisions to communicate and heighten their perception of deprivation. The state will not, however, have the administrative capability to respond to this deprivation, no matter how many times civil society stages demos or people burst into protest. This can be called the nominal state scenario.
The second, which is not yet upon us but may materialize in the next 5-15 years, is that the state machinery breaks down and the country descends into criminal anarchy with local mafias and sectarian fanatics carving out their own spheres of influence (a condition referred to as parakandeh-shahi in the Persian political tradition). Pakistan will continue to exist as a cartographic and diplomatic reality but its administrative writ will cease to operate except for the cantonment areas and a few other key regions. In this scenario the fortunes of the state might be revived by intervention from two sources, together or separately. One is that a military savior emerges and pursues salvation by the sword. The other is that the most motivated elements in Pakistani society, the religious fundamentalists, overcome their mutual differences, and fill the vacuum. This future can be called the notional state scenario.
The third scenario is one with which many are already familiar owing to the West’s well-known if excessively paranoid fears of Pakistan becoming a failed state – a gigantic Yugoslavia-like entity with hundreds of nukes and legions of militant ob- scurantists determined to build a jihadist utopia guided by an operational calculus incompatible with the logic of deterrence and interest-based statecraft. This projection can be called the supernova scenario and would have truly global implications if it were to emerge. Once again, hardy and religiously motivated warriors would descend on the Indo-Gangetic plain bringing in their wake chaos and terror a foretaste of which was provided by the attack on Mumbai in 2008.
One of the basic deficiencies that the Pakistani elite is afflicted by is sheer ignorance of South Asian history. More interested in the national security and democracy and development discourse, hardly anyone in positions of authority cares to know about this part of the world. The reaction then of Pakistan’s educated to the crisis that threatens to overwhelm the state varies between delusional optimism and a longing for miracles that “should” happen and a despairing cynicism. Owing to our well-established capacity for cognitive dissonance, the two often co-exist happily in the same intellect.
The point to understand is that the future is neither absolutely pre-determined nor completely random and subjectively alterable. Pakistan is a deeply troubled state confronted by enormous challenges that can, however, be overcome with grim determination and rational leadership. The way to deal with these challenges is to improve the quality of the state apparatus, which, in South Asian history, means improvement of the executive arm of the state. That can only be done if our leaders and intellectuals stop mindlessly parroting fashionable clichés and learn rational lessons from our tragic history so that we can alter its course. The writer is the author of ‘The Culture of Power and Governance of Pakistan, 1947-2008 .’ He is currently an Assistant Professor of History at the Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.