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Pakistan : What the Dickens? By Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)

I wanted to write an article about Pakistan. As I read through various papers, articles and magazines, I found myself at loss of words. I actually did not know what to write. So I am letting the mentally best endowed Pakistanis express what is ahead for Pakistan. You will note that not one of them has a solution. There is a sense of sheer helplessness prevalent. The scene in Pakistan is straight out of a Charles Dickens novel – pathetic at best. Is there anything beyond pathetic? The recent stampede deaths in Pakistan when free food was being distributed reminds one of the stories I read about the conditions in pre-revolution France. Anarchy or Revolution…take what you want…Pakistan is going towards an abyss…beyond which even the Pakistanis do not know what is there for them.

Consumer inflation raced to 35.4 per cent in March, the highest annual rise in prices on record, driven mainly by skyrocketing costs of food, electricity, beverage, and transport, official data showed on Saturday…

Poor citizens are already feeling the brunt of such high inflation, which has become unrelenting on the back of a messy cocktail of factors like political instability, years of financial mismanagement, the rupee’s depreciation, and as the government scrambled to meet IMF conditions to unlock a desperately needed bailout.  

Pakistan is imploding. The president and prime minister are at war. The judiciary is divided and the military is considering its options. The Election Commission of Pakistan challenges the Constitution and the Supreme Court. The prime minister of Pakistan attacks the chief justice of Pakistan. Government leaders threaten it’s either Imran or them. The doctrine of necessity is being revived by a caretaker government and its puppeteers pulling the strings.

A sizeable splinter within the military-led establishment is demanding that Imran Khan, as its former creation, deserves a second stint in power. Fractures have cascaded downwards and split the superior judiciary, bureaucracy, police and the general public……

Overspending on defence, overpopulation, overconsumption of luxury products, underproduction of industrial goods, undersupply of useful human capital, and a singular focus on real estate investments will exact their terrible toll in the months to come.

As the rupee sinks, to imagine that friendly countries will forever keep bailing out Pakistan — or that expats will resuscitate a bankrupt economy — is childish nonsense.

Let’s face it: a flawed concept of nationalism created a class of plunderers, both civilian and military. The chickens have come home to roost. The flour stampedes are just the beginning. The poor will pay first, but all will pay ultimately.

The  breadlines are growing, highlighting people’s desperation as making ends meet under conditions of galloping inflation is becoming increasingly difficult. Unfortunately, public and private efforts to get food to the deserving have been hampered by mismanagement, as was witnessed during Friday’s tragic stampede in Karachi.

Moreover, the sight of women and the elderly standing in long queues for hours to secure a sack or two of flour, and being jostled and manhandled in the process, is a sad one. And if the finance ministry’s prognostications are anything to go by, people’s misery is unlikely to end soon, as even higher prices are round the corner.

AS our judges, generals and ruling-class politicians continue to engage in myopic, factional battles for money and power, the teeming masses are increasingly restive.

Every day there are new reports of dozens being injured — some even dying — in stampedes during distributions of free/subsidised flour. Suicide-murders of entire families who have lost hope of securing livelihoods are no longer exceptional events.

If there is no genuinely good news, for the love of God — in any case, I have no idea what it may be — then be sure that political instability and anarchy will reign supreme; the sanity everybody longs for will remain elusive and the economy will not pull out of the tailspin it is in.

Everyone should be well aware of the consequences. We need only be vaguely familiar with world history to know what bloodshed can be unleashed when people are hungry, and worse still, their children are starving against the backdrop of the sumptuous banquets of their rulers.

I hate to be a prophet of doom and gloom but please don’t push the have-nots and ask for more from them. They have been squeezed dry, and have nothing else to offer but their wrath.

The  strategic choices most consequential to Pakistan’s future lie within. They involve dealing with recurrent economic crises, providing effective governance, defeating terrorism, making education accessible to all its children and generating jobs to absorb the population’s youth bulge to avert a potential demographic disaster. The implications of these internal challenges for national security are apparent and can be ignored only at great peril to the country.

But external security challenges have been no less imposing since the country’s inception, confronting it with enduring dilemmas. The burden of history and tyranny of geography — a volatile neighbourhood and the headwinds of geopolitics unleashed by big power competition — have consistently put security from external threats at the top of Pakistan’s national agenda. Contested borders inherited from colonial rule compounded this dilemma.

More than one dictator out of our illustrious breed of many is on record unashamedly telling the media on camera that the Constitution is no holy document and can be shredded at will and tossed into the rubbish bin. Dictators will be dictators. Their existence hinges on trampling on the Constitution.

But even they need facilitators. And some of the reputedly best legal minds in the country have tripped over each other and rushed to help with drafting Provisional Constitution Orders — PCOs — and amendments, when the dictator has snapped his fingers (the dictator has always belonged to one gender in our case).

Does anyone care what is in the larger interest of the country? Not one stakeholder or decision-maker.

These legal minds who have intimate knowledge of the Constitution, unlike laypeople like you and I, have come up with near perfect ways to undermine it, such as new oaths of office for those who dispense justice and form the ultimate court of appeals.

They have had the gall and ingenuity to develop terms like ‘chief executive’ to give a uniformed military ruler a ‘civilian garb’. They have been so eager to oblige the dictator that they wouldn’t have shied away from stitching a cloak with ‘Superman’ lettered across it, had the dictator asked for that.

Disappointment is the word that comes to mind when one thinks of Pakistan’s current situation. Sheer disappointment. Not necessarily with the state of our economy, the abysmal security situation, or even the uncertainty in the air. All these things have afflicted us so often that they no longer seem unusual.

So, if it isn’t that, then what? To put it bluntly, there seems to be little to no hope. In Pakistan’s excruciatingly frustrating history, there has always been something to cling on to, even if bordering on the delusional. If not the politicians, then one would look towards the judiciary. If not the judiciary, then even the army. And if not them, then perhaps someone else. But at any point, it appears, that one or the other could be identified as a possible solution to the problem. And that allowed us to keep ticking along. Until now.

This time round, however, there is realisation that no one is the solution, and no one has learnt from our past. In life, we are told from a very young age that it’s okay to make mistakes so long as we learn from them and don’t repeat them. However, no one tells you the irony of following such advice in a country whose functioning is predicated on collective amnesia and blissful ignorance. Tragically, we are forever held hostage to a merry-go-round that never stops and is anything but merry.

THE events of last week have given a vicious twist to the ongoing power struggle between the ruling coalition and the PTI opposition, diminishing any hopes of the deadlock between the two sides being resolved through negotiations. Both the opposition and the government have hardened their respective positions.

What is happening now may not be unfamiliar to Pakistani politics that has remained stuck in a vicious cycle of vendetta, but the current chaos seems far more consequential, with the country on the verge of economic collapse. The clock is ticking but our power elite appear to be least troubled by the gathering storm.

The country’s fate is now hostage to a senseless power struggle between a reckless populist force and an obsolete conglomeration at the helm. With the democratic political process all but dead, the spectre of despotism is staring us in the face.

The growing number of suicides driven by hunger and poverty should dispel several myths that have bred Pakistani complacency over recent decades. First, that the ethnolinguistic, tribal and feudal nature of our politics means that politicians inherently draw on grassroots support, and so will take care of their constituents — in the name of retaining loyalty, if not as a public service.

The other is that Pakistan is among the most philanthropic countries in the world, and that informal charitable giving can substitute for a functioning social welfare state. The fact is, Pakistan is fast slipping out of global giving indices as even middle and upper-middle classes feel the pinch and are less forthcoming with donations. When the pie shrinks, it shrinks for everyone.

At some point, desperate Pakistanis will clue into the fact that the new rules of the game are personal survival at the expense of others. In other countries, at other times, such realisations have given rise to major — often left-wing — political movements. Sadly, the only groups in Pakistan poised to exploit the mounting desperation are violent extremist groups. If our mainstream parties do not change tack and refocus on the public’s urgent needs, we must fear for a future, fragmented Pakistan. 

Lastly…I will not say god save Pakistan…all I can bring myself to say is …may god have mercy on the innocents in the land of the pure…who are suffering for what they did not do…

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