Troubled times, but… —Rasul Bakhsh Rais

We must go beyond the cyclic repetition of what ails our society, and think of solutions that are pragmatic and rational, regardless of their political costs

It is heartbreaking how the optimism generated by the social movement of last year and the election held earlier this year has dissipated in just six months. ‘Troubled times’, as the situation is generally described at home and abroad, is a rather polite term for the multiple confrontations and crises we face today.

Enough empirical evidence exists to support this pessimistic view. In last year’s 60 Top Failed States Index, Pakistan ranked 9th, only two positions below Afghanistan. All twelve factors that researchers use to compile this index are still present in Pakistan, including demographic pressure; conflict; inter-elite friction; refugees and internally displaced persons; corruption and instability.

Terrorism tops the list of problems. The faceless transnational terrorists who challenge Pakistani state and society on a daily basis are woven into a complex web of local, regional and global power relationships. Our national security and well being will largely depend on how quickly and effectively we deal with this menace.

The fundamental structural flaws in governance lead to injustice, insecurity and poor quality of social services. Much of the discontent with rulers in our society stems from poor governance at all tiers. All public departments give the impression that those in charge have no faith in the state and no respect for the people. Treating people like colonial subjects generates pessimism and disrespect for authority.

It would be unfair to blame the present governments at the centre or in the provinces for these structural weaknesses. They have accumulated over decades, and there has been no long-term vision to address them. Our rulers had only immediate, narrow interests in mind and have been found lacking in resolve or even leadership qualities to work towards a solution.

The result of this neglect of decades is obvious — general disaffection and unhappiness, which feeds into religious extremism and social unrest, and undermines the legitimacy of the ruling elites and the state. The distrust that exists between the rulers and the people will thwart public support for even the best initiatives to resolve national problems.

There is a need to reflect objectively on the problems we face and try to understand their causes. History is replete with examples of people and society rewarding bold and out-of-the-box solutions to national problems.

As the history of modern times shows, politics can be an instrument of positive change in society. If all politics were Machiavellian — narrow, self-centred and driven by survival interests — progress would have been impossible or have occurred on a much slower pace than we have witnessed during the past couple of centuries.

The real art of politics is how to balance individual power interests with the general public good. The two don’t essentially contradict each other, at least in democratic politics where self-interest requires public representatives to seek fresh mandates and support. In true democracies, one person, group or party cannot survive long with false promises, misrule, factional politics or intrigue. Our story is very different, but the only durable solution to the current flaws and weaknesses of democracy is more democracy.

There is no problem on earth that cannot be resolved. Period. Many societies around the around the world were in worse condition than our present one. We have more strengths than any other comparable society facing the problems that we do. We have greater resources than many others. And our record over the past six decades since independence is not as bad as cynics would like us to believe. On many occasions in the past, the entire nation has stood together like a solid rock to face challenges — independence, social movements against unjust rulers, the recent earthquake, and the larger issue of justice in the society.

There is much social energy in our society that our political class can tap into, but the bitter truth is that a wide gap between the people and ruling groups has emerged. Trust is the missing link, which electoral politics cannot bridge.

There is yet another chance for our traditional ruling class of big landowners, caste and tribal chiefs and those who have earned their credentials through good political work. What can they do to pull Pakistan back from the edge?

With national morale so low we need trust building measures to bridge the credibility gap. The damage done during the past six months has only added to the accumulated distrust of decades. Trust is essentially a function of delivering on promises. And the time to act is now.

The age of rhetorical and populist politics is long past. So has the age of brutality and oppression, with only cunning and deceit surviving it. But this is also in an age of open media, and debates do more harm than good and serve only short-term objectives.

What we therefore need is leadership, courage, integrity, commitment to public good, and most importantly, working together and consensus building among all power groups. Unilateralism in domestic or foreign affairs has a very poor record. Perhaps these are unrealistic expectations, but this in my view is what can really give us hope and courage to face the troubles staring us in the face.

Dr Rasul Bakhsh Rais is author of Recovering the Frontier State: War, Ethnicity and State in Afghanistan (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books 2008) and a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at

Source: Daily Times, 23/9/2008

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