There are two views on recent events in Pakistan. For some, Pakistan has shown its true colours as a chaotic and disorderly failed state. There were border skirmishes with India, more deadly extremist sectarian violence in an already deeply troubled province, rumours of a “soft” military coup as an unknown “Sufi cleric” and his followers demanded an end to corruption and —not to forget — another judicial demand that the prime minister be arrested on charges of graft.
For others — admittedly in a minority — these and other equally strange developments were signs of a “maturing” and thriving democracy, of a people waking up to their rights as citizens and a vivid illustration of the strong independence of the judiciary.
Finally a “people’s revolution”, Pakistan’s version of Egypt’s “Tahrir Square” in the streets of Islamabad, exulted some commentators. Hush, it’s another army conspiracy to derail democracy, said others.
Both narratives have been expounded with equal force. They leave observers hungry for more information and less glib explanations, more facts and less fiction. However, now that the turmoil of the last few days appears to be over — at least temporarily — it’s wise to reflect on lessons learned.
First, the rapid sequence of tragedy in Balochistan and farce in Islamabad hasn’t helped Pakistan’s already battered reputation.
This is not just important for reasons of PR but also because Pakistan desperately needs foreign investment. No one is going to put money in a country seen to be always a mere heartbeat away from a suicide bombing, a terrorist attack or a deadly explosion.
Le Monde, the influential and much-respected French newspaper, recently described Pakistan as “the sick child of South Asia,” noting in a scathing article that “there is something desperate about Pakistan”. As soon as the country shows signs of improvement, things go badly wrong, the article underlined, adding: “frankly we would love to be able to give some positive news about Pakistan … but the task is impossible.”
Le Monde is not alone. Despite admirable attempts by Pakistani diplomats and others to put a positive gloss on recent developments in the country, it really is not easy to be upbeat about Pakistan.
Secondly, yes, it is certainly good news that the current democratically elected civilian government looks set to complete a full five-year term. But 66 years after independence, should that be a reason for serious reflection or a cause for celebration?
Third, can democracy really be reduced to the organisation and winning of elections? Yes, true, free and fair polls are crucial but shouldn’t the focus also be on what happens after the ballots are counted and the new — or old — leaders speed off in their limousines and move into their luxury houses?
There is no doubt that citizens want to vote. But after the elections, they also expect good governance. They want a government that can deliver food, water and electricity. They want a roof over their heads. They want access to proper schools and hospitals and they want to work.
Pakistan’s beleaguered politicians have failed the governance exams for decades and the generals who swagger in periodically have not done much better. It is important to fight corruption but equally crucial to insist on good governance and the delivery of basic services.
Fourth, justice and politics do not mix. It’s heartening to see that Pakistan’s top judge has emerged as a modern-day Robin Hood. But the public probably wants justice in Pakistan to be about more than the issuing of regular arrest warrants to serving prime ministers.
Fifth, the tragedy in Balochistan provides more damning proof that Pakistan must get its priorities right: the real danger comes from extremist groups which regularly foment sectarian violence and have very effectively used terrorism to destabilise Pakistan and Afghanistan. A government must provide protection for all religious groups on its territory. The inability to stop attacks on Shias, Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus — and women — represents an unacceptable failure of governance.
Six, it makes no sense to start another vicious circle of Pakistan-India tensions over Kashmir or any other piece of land. Both countries have too much at stake to engage in another round of accusations and counter-accusations. The corrosive language of confrontation must be replaced by cooperation.
This is important not just for Pakistan and India but also for South Asia as a whole. The region lags behind in meeting most of the anti-poverty Millennium Development Goals, its children are undernourished, women discriminated against and disease and illiteracy are rampant.
Trade within the region is a mere fraction of what it should be. As Southeast Asia has illustrated, the future belongs to countries that can stop fighting and start cooperating to meet region-wide challenges. The 21st century is about building effective regional blocs, not sustaining regional animosities.
Finally, as shown by the flurry of tragedies, dramas and mini dramas over the last week, the run-up to the elections is going to be a tumultuous time. There will probably be further storms in more teacups, more violence and all kinds of evil attempts to derail democracy in Pakistan.
Seen from the outside, Pakistan does seem to be trapped in an unfortunate cycle of mishaps, misplaced hopes and unhappy accidents. There is general consensus that the country’s resilient, hard-working and long-suffering people deserve better than what they have ever received from soldiers or politicians. For many, the only true and uplifting narrative about Pakistan is one that speaks of the strength and fortitude of its people.