The terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team did more than turn Pakistan into an international sporting outcast. This was by no means the most bloody terrorist incident in a country wracked by growing violence. But its high impact shook the nation and set off international alarm bells about Pakistan’s precarious security. It renewed the debate in and between Western capitals about whether Pakistan was on the cusp of chaos. The terrorist outrage also served to dramatise the paradox of a government that continued to lose control even as it preoccupied itself with a power grab in Punjab.
It was also not lost on people that the provincial metropolis where the terrorists struck had been and remains the scene of a bitter political feud between the country’s two major political parties. Whether or not Pakistan’s chaotic politics contributed in any way to the security lapse in Lahore, the terrorist action left lingering public doubts that the incident might have been avoided had the provincial authorities not been distracted by the latest manifestation of wearingly familiar political machinations.
Meanwhile, the image of a government unencumbered by any order or discipline was reinforced by the chaotic spectacle of press conferences addressed by numerous and assorted government figures following the armed assault in Lahore. These haphazard public appearances, instead of credibly explaining why the security lapse occurred and reassure an anxious public about what the government proposed to do to bring the perpetrators to justice, injected a theatrical content to the official pantomime and denuded the government response of any seriousness.
And while the country was reeling from the terrorist outrage and still evaluating its ramifications, the government undertook possibly the speediest policy reversal in recent history. It announced, within just a day or so of promulgating a presidential ordinance setting up mobile courts, that it was withdrawing this, a move that was compelled by its realisation that ordinances cannot be issued while Parliament is in session. This left a hapless Prime Minister with the responsibility to inform the House that he had counselled the Presidency that the Ordinance be revoked. This once again demonstrated the erratic nature of decision-making in a government unable to follow established procedures for orderly, coherent governance. It also testified to its continued cluelessness about the fundamentals of governance.
These developments raised fresh doubts both at home and abroad about whether a government run by President Asif Zardari can ever come to grips with Pakistan’s myriad challenges and address the growing sense of despair that continues to cast such a dark shadow on the country’s future. Political leaders remain embroiled in a bitter standoff against the backdrop of a bleak landscape marked by growing despondency.
Opinion polls indicate that this despondency has reached a record level in the country, especially among the young. These grim findings paint a disturbing picture which, far from engaging the urgent attention or energies of the country’s politicians, mired as they are in the ongoing tussle for power, is being ignored at great peril to the country’s future.
A worldwide Gallup poll in 2008 that sought to take the pulse of young Muslims (aged 15-29) across the Islamic world, found that on virtually every question polled, young Pakistanis were by far the most pessimistic, more than their peers, for example, in Palestine, an occupied land, and Niger and Mali in Sub-Saharan Africa.
When asked if they thought they were thriving, struggling or suffering, 51 per cent of those polled in Pakistan said they were struggling and 35 per cent said they were suffering. This put the proportion who felt they were suffering much higher in Pakistan than, say, in Egypt, Indonesia, Mali, Niger or Palestine. To the question whether the young thought their standard of living was getting worse, close to 40 per cent of Pakistanis said it was getting worse and 41 per cent said it was unchanged, with just 17 per cent saying it was improving.
Questions on employment throw into sharper relief the scale of the sense of hopelessness in Pakistan. Asked if they currently held a job, only 24 per cent in Pakistan said yes, compared to 52 per cent in Mali, 35 per cent in Egypt and 47 per cent in Indonesia. Asked if they thought the present was a good time to find a job, only 12 per cent replied yes, compared to 16 per cent in Palestine, 21 per cent in Egypt, and 17 per cent in Mali. These findings appear even more troubling when seen in the context of demographic pressures in Pakistan which show that the trend is towards a further accentuation of the youth bulge with its obvious implications for social stability and radicalisation.
Anecdotal evidence also confirms that social and economic discontent is rising. Other polls show that the number of people who have faith in the future has been falling rather precipitously as the country’s problems mount and the security and economic crises deepen.
Halting this spiral of despair requires, above and beyond everything else, Pakistan’s politicians to show leadership. Leadership that can inspire confidence and set in train credible policies to create the expectation that things will improve. Engendering a sense of opportunity, fair play and justice also means strengthening institutions and the rule of law.
Hope sis in short supply today in Pakistan as a consequence both of the absence of leadership and sthe weakness of institutions .In a setting of economic decline, security threats and demographic stress, the challenge for leadership to live up to public expectations is even more imposing. A despondent nation is the antithesis of a resilient one that has the vigour and self-confidence to negotiate tough times and surmount challenges. And it is the task of leadership to lift the nation out of a state of demoralisation.
Hope is like confidence. Building hope and confidence rests, first and foremost, on credible leadership and then on its ability to chart a clear direction that can give people the assurance that a new course has been set, even if it takes time for policies to take effect. Generating hope also rests on forging and demonstrating the ability to address a cluster of interrelated factors which add up to good governance. Political stability, law and order, provision of public goods, economic opportunity, a sense of justice and holding public officials to account are among these factors.
The most glaring contradiction that defines the country’s present predicament is that while political leaders are locked in a no-holds-barred contest, the nation’s multiple challenges are being aggravated by the lack of attention, with unattended problems turning increasingly into intractable ones. In the high political drama that now rages, the country seems to be surpassing its own cheerless record of power plays taken to excessive limits, shaking in the process people’s faith in politics.
Cynicism marks the public mood as the game of political brinkmanship continues. The one thing that has emerged from the troubles of the past few weeks is an unlearnt lesson from Pakistan’s political history: that governments cannot rule in peace or ensure stability if they pursue iniquitous policies towards their political rivals. The certain loser in all of this is not just democracy but the country itself as it is pushed into a state of even greater uncertainty. Prolonged uncertainty will only compound challenges at a time when the nation needs leadership to douse the flames that are threatening to engulf the country and to break out of the state of despondency that is clouding Pakistan’s future.
The writer is a former envoy to the US and the UK, and a former editor of The News.