OVER A COFFEE: Development: evolution or revolution? —Dr Haider Shah
We should help mainstream parties reform themselves by constant vigilance and provision of rationalist input to the national discourse
Last few days have been like a roller coaster of mixed feelings about the direction in which Pakistan is moving. There were happenings that whispered mildly that good days were coming and there were events that screamed ominously reminding one of Ghalib’s line ‘Na haath bag par hei, na pa hai rakab mein’ (neither reins are in hands nor feet are in the stirrups). For instance, Akhtar Mengal’s return with the intention of taking part in the forthcoming election augurs well for healing the open wounds of Balochistan. For me, however, the biggest news item was the reported changes in the Urdu textbook for class 10 whereby material that nurtured jihadist leanings in the impressionist minds of teenage students was removed. I was upbeat in my assessment that finally the biggest province of Pakistan had decided to make a fresh tryst with destiny leaving religion-propelled nationalism behind.
My optimism proved extremely short-lived as I realised that if you happen to be a prominent journalist and can publish a story on the front page of a well-known national daily effectively you run the country. Whether the honourable members of the judiciary or the respectable office bearers of government, all seem to be too sensitive to the need of playing to the gallery. When an overly pious journalist suddenly cries wolf about obscenity the Supreme Court turns into a state of pandemonium in a country where just recently a female teacher was shot dead in the tribal area for educating children and where polio vaccination remains halted due to the threats issued by certain groups on faith grounds. How could then a story written by Mr Ansar Abbasi prominently published on the front page of a major national daily with scandalous insinuations could have gone unnoticed? As a kneejerk reaction the former chief minister of Punjab wasted no time in vetting his religio-patriotic credentials by reversing the good work done by the clear minded subject specialists of Punjab textbook board. A friend rightly suggested to me that we missed the golden opportunity of bestowing the arduous responsibility of the caretaker prime ministership upon Mr Abbasi who, if given a free hand, would have cleansed this country of all the ills spread by liberal fascists, and thus, would have made Pakistan a true Islamic state.
Mr Najam Sethi has become the caretaker chief minister of Punjab. The pendulum-like movement between revolutionary struggle and corridors of power notwithstanding, I have great regard for the veteran journalist as a balanced, insightful and well-informed analyst. It is, therefore, pleasing to see a rationalist occupying a very important seat of responsibility in these turbulent times. It is hoped that he would do justice to his calling in two ways. First, ensures that elections are held in an impartial and transparent manner. Second, takes decisions as the chief executive of the province that set the biggest province on the right course of history. Top of the list is modernisation of school syllabus as political governments are often reluctant to take such decisions due to the perceived political sensitivity of the issue. Hope Mr Sethi feels the pulse of this historical responsibility because such courageous decisions are needed to put the country back on the right direction.
As the election season is now in full swing we can hear different discourses. One cultish discourse is promoted by the supporters of Imran Khan. The central theme driving this discourse is that Khan is the last hope of this country. Men are mortals and equating survival of the country with one human being is an extremely risky system of beliefs. Survival and development of countries depend on the growth of institutions. No doubt, we are faced with a difficult economic situation, but many European Union countries are in much deeper waters. In Cyprus, banks remained shut for many days to forestall a run on the banks by frenzied depositors as the country faced the imminent prospect of bankruptcy. A similar situation had developed in Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain as well. So we should not try to paint a very grim picture of Pakistan in order to justify gate-crashing of various messiahs. Yes, our deadly embrace of extremism is a constraint on our progress, but there are some positive indicators as well, which should not be ignored when assessing the current situation.
Over the last five years we have seen gradual strengthening of institutions. The judiciary is not only independent but assertive. Media has become a powerful watchdog whose say cannot be taken for a ride. The election commission is headed by one of the most respected personalities of the country and is showing its teeth behind friendly smiles. Political parties are becoming more sensitive about their brand image and respond immediately when aspersions are cast on their image. As a positive trend we also see greater visibility of young women in the top cadres of mainstream political parties. In terms of political developments we find that one province finally gets its name and the political party, which once was considered a traitor, is now an integral part of federation. Constitution has been purged of many impurities and the thorny provincial autonomy question has been settled through 18th amendment. We should be more hopeful about future as we are heading towards an election that marks the beginning of peaceful transition of power from one civilian government to another. Revolutionary slogans are addictively soothing but slow and steady wins the race. We should help mainstream parties reform themselves by constant vigilance and provision of rationalist input to the national discourse. Revolutionary ambitions cannot hasten the arrival. It is only through evolutionary process that development will come.
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org