By Ishtiaq Ahmed
Saturday, April 5, 2008
Now, with the process of transition to civilian rule complete, the question many of us have in mind is: have we finally crossed the threshold from convoluted paternalistic military rule to a genuinely responsible democratic government?
It is too early to say anything with certainty, because this is not the first time that civilian rule and democracy have been restored after a long spell of military and quasi-military rule, only to be supplanted by another military takeover. The fact that Pakistan lacks strong democratic institutions suggests that a repetition of that vicious circle cannot be discounted. There are, however, some grounds for optimism.
The vision of government spelled out by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani is progressive, balanced and realisable. He wants to establish the rule of law, cut drastically the spending on the Prime Minister’s House, provide cheap housing to the poor, stimulate the economy so that new jobs can be generated and eliminate the curse of terrorism, but not through military action alone. He would like to devise a comprehensive strategy which includes political and economic measures as well. He has also promised to make the minorities feel that they are an integral part of the Pakistani nation.
Pakistan will function as a genuine federation and provincial autonomy will be respected. With regard to Kashmir, he favours a fair and peaceful settlement of that dispute. He declared relations with China as unbreakable and expressed a strong desire to develop good relations with the United States and the European Union. Diaspora Pakistanis can only wish him success, and lots of it.
Perhaps in some future pronouncements the rights of women could receive special attention, because it is too important a question on which progressive reform and change is needed. No society can progress and claim to be civilised and humane if it neglects gender equality and does not act resolutely to curtail domestic violence and exploitation of women.
Also, a revolutionary change must be effected in the educational policy so that all citizens of Pakistan can claim the right to education as an inalienable human right. Pakistan lags behind India in many ways when it comes to education. The difference is particularly noticeable in the evolution of a very large Indian middle class that is more educated than it is wealthy. In Pakistan, a broad educated middle class is largely absent. Also, a comprehensive policy would be needed to not only alleviate poverty but to eradicate it. This will take a long time, no doubt, but it must be given priority.
Feudalism and tribalism should be wiped out and industrialisation given priority. There is no doubt that the market economy is the best way to utilise the factors of production. The market can generate wealth most efficiently and effectively, but it has no mechanism to distribute wealth equitably. Therefore, government policy will have to be devised to achieve a fair society.
In this regard, a new vision on the environment is also needed. It was somewhat surprising that the prime minister did not spell out the broad contours of his environment policy. Some reports suggest that Pakistan will become a desert in 40 years if global warming is not arrested. We have to do our bit to fight global warming, but indeed it is a threat that can be met effectively only through regional and global cooperation.
Pakistani towns and cities are already suffering a great deal because of pollution, filth and neglect of sewerage facilities. I believe along with India and Bangladesh we constitute the biggest bulk of humanity that defecates out in open space. Many diseases thrive in such conditions. We are a proud people indeed, but I find little pride in the continuation of public defecation. Community toilets and urinals are badly needed all over Pakistan.
More importantly, we need a thorough discussion on the philosophy of representative government, democracy and human rights so that all sectors of the polity—the state apparatuses, the elected government and parliamentarians, the judiciary, as well as autonomous bodies such as universities, chambers of commerce, trade unions, and human, women and civil rights actors, are educated into their functions and responsibilities from which they can also claim rights.
The military will have to focus on its chief professional responsibility of maintaining a credible defence.
As someone who has never believed in the nuclearisation of India and Pakistan, I am now resigned to the fact that only comprehensive, worldwide nuclear disarmament can eliminate the threat of nuclear war from the world. India and Pakistan are not likely to give up their arsenals while others keep them. I have heard from visiting Indian speakers at Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies that only after India carried out its nuclear explosions in May 1998 did the world began to give it respect.
Additionally, sound economic policy and concomitant financial and fiscal reforms helped India gain even greater respect from the world. I suppose Pakistan already enjoys such “respect,” but what is needed now is emphasis on developing the economy and steering clear of vain military adventures.
Imagine Pakistan and India living in peace, their economies growing and their populations receiving better education and more opportunities to work hard and prosper. In the next 20-30 years this region could become the centre of the world. The greatest strength of South Asia has been its amazing capacity to accept pluralism of faiths, ethnicities and languages. Fundamentalist movements in this region have been trying hard to destroy this grand mosaic, but they should not be permitted to succeed.
What is missing in South Asian societies is respect for the individual in general and a tendency to deny humanity to those born poor. We need to cultivate and internalise a culture of human rights which is the greatest gift of the liberal heritage of the western civilisation.
The writer is a professor of political science and a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore. This was written for The News International