Pakistan has experienced political turbulences in the past, and its current security and economic challenges are indeed formidable. Yet the country continues to show remarkable national resilience in the face of these challenges. This is contrary to its doomsday portrayal in mainstream media and literature—which remains largely impervious to the myriad complexities of Pakistan’s internal realities, especially some viable social, political and economic transformations the country has undergone in recent years.
Occurring amid critical circumstances, these transformations entail rare opportunities for reshaping Pakistan’s domestic politics and foreign policy, which need in-depth analysis and fresh insight. It is in this backdrop that I have convened a major conference on Pakistan from 10th to 11th May at Oxford University, where I head the Pakistan Chair at St Antony’s College.
This is the largest-ever scholarly event on Pakistan at Oxford, and, perhaps, in the UK in the last many years. It brings together 27 prominent experts on Pakistan from Britain, America and Pakistan to critically debate the political, social and economic transformations under way in the country, and rationally assess their potential outcomes for its internal politics and external relations.
The speakers, among others, include: Dr Faisal Devji, Prof Mukhtar Ahmed, Prof. RasulBakhshRais, Prof. Saeed Shafqat, Prof. Ian Talbot, Prof. Mohammad Waseem, Prof. Rashid Amjad, Prof Maya Tudor, Dr Ayesha Siddiqa, Mr Owen Bennett-Jones, Mr Imtiaz Gul, Mr Mosharraf Zaidi, Dr Tahir Wasti, Prof Yunas Samad, Dr Adeel Malik, Mr Tariq Malik, Prof. Hassan Abbas, Dr Tahir Kamran, and Ms Huma Yusuf.
Dr Devji, Director of Asian Studies Centre at St Antony’s College, and Prof Mukhtar Ahmed, Chairman Higher Education Commission, are the keynote speakers. Opening speeches are to be delivered by Mr Imran Mirza, the Acting High Commissioner of Pakistan in the UK, and Prof Margaret MacMillan, Warden of St Antony’s College.
The conference is organized around four themes. The first—Democratic Transition and Prospects—looks at key drivers of democratization, current state of democracy and its probable future course. May 2014 marks the end of the first year of present government, which entered office following the completion of a full term by an elected government in history. This is made possible due to consistent diffusion of political power—with the higher judiciary, mass media and civil society emerging as salient actors in the process. Mainstream political parties have also cooperated to balance the civil-military relationship. Socio-economic determinants of such meaningful shifts in politics, such as the surge of urbanized middle class and proactive youth, are worth exploring.
Recent democratic gains, however, remain fragile due to issues of governance, persistence of patronage-based politics and limited or receding capacity of the state to cater to the populace. The political role of religion continues to lack critical scrutiny, despite recurrence of hyper sectarian and extremist violence. Moreover, ethnic strife and problems of law and order remain largely unaddressed, and are further compounded by the gravity of economic crisis.
The second theme—Imperatives of Economic Progress—discusses Pakistan’s current economic woes and their short-and long-term solutions. The state of economy is evident from long power cuts that domestic and industrial consumers have to endure. The cost of business is on the rise, so are inflation and unemployment. Economic growth is dismal, while budget deficit and debt burden keep mounting. The ensuing crisis is further aggravated by the state’s inability or unwillingness to collect revenue through direct taxation and to focus on human development.
Despite these problems, Pakistan has a large informal economy that provides sustenance to the bulk of population, and a stock market that has generally performed well, and remittances from overseas Pakistanis have been on the rise. The country has considerable potential for growth in both industrial and agricultural sectors, provided the government pursues a viable energy plan and implements necessary reforms. The recently awarded GPS Plus status by the European Union may boost textile exports, but Pakistan still has a long way to go in realizing trade-centric economic growth.
The third theme—Foreign Policy Persistence and Change—focuses on Pakistan’s foreign policy challenges and opportunities on the eve of Western military withdrawal from Afghanistan. The lingering economic and security imperatives, and the real or perceived fear about the post-2014 spill-over of Afghan conflict, did recently force the country to pursue a regional pivot in foreign policy.
The present government has consequently attempted to harmonize key relationships, especially with countries of the region, so as to make use of the vast opportunities for trade and energy cooperation in South-Central Asia. It has pursued positive re-engagement with the United States and deepened strategic partnership with China. The government has particularly attempted to facilitate the reconciliation process in Afghanistan and taken tangible steps in the peace process with India. However, it is debatable whether change will eventually trump persistence in these two core foreign policy areas, where army’s interests have traditionally taken precedence over civilian aspirations.
The fourth theme—Role of Media and Education—looks critically at the challenges faced by Pakistani media and education and their respective crucial roles in shaping public opinion and empowering the youth for realizing progressive politics, society and economy. Mass media has proliferated, but it continues to face serious issues involving personal safety of journalists, sensationalism in reporting and the lack of competitive environment. Despite these constraints, scores of TV channels, print and social media have helped raise public awareness about political, social and economic issues.
The crisis facing education, from primary to higher levels, is apparent from negligible state spending on education, stark inequality in the delivery of education, and limited access to education for girls and people from rural and backward regions. However, the higher education sector has indeed made some progress, with growing enrolment rates and greater focus on quality research and adoption of latest pedagogical paradigms in universities and colleges. The literature is yet to make full sense of such transformations in media and education and their manifold implications for Pakistan’s future.
A detailed understanding of these intersecting themes provides a comprehensive snapshot of Pakistan’s present predicament and future possibilities. The conference has received overwhelming response from academics, writers, policy makers, diplomats, security officials and students-researchers—all those who desire to develop deeper understanding of Pakistan’s complex realities—beyond the stereotypical image of the country being portrayed in mainstream media and literature.
The five panels of the conference, with each panel having five speakers, explore the afore-mentioned themes The titles of the papers, among others, include: ‘Pakistan’s Third Democratic Transition’ by Prof Rais, ‘Challenges of Democratic Governance’ by Prof Waseem, ‘Mapping the Establishment’ by Dr Siddiqa, ‘De-Islamisation of Pakistan’ by Dr Wasti, ‘Pakistan’s Economic Resilience’ by Prof Amjad, ‘Pakistan-Afghan Relations and the Future of Taliban’ by Prof Abbas, and ‘Who Controls the Narrative? The Role of Media in Pakistan’s Democratic Transition’ by Ms Yusuf.
Prof Rais’s paper focuses on three sets of issues: the structural problem of Pakistani politics—the civil-military relations; the political culture—shallow roots of democracy in the society; and the issue of governance—poor performance of political elites. The main argument is that democracy grows, matures and gets firm roots only and only through showing positive gains for the common man, and that sets the process of building trust in democratic ideal and correcting the imbalance in civil-military relations.
Prof Waseem’s paper analyses both structural and operational aspects of the democratic governance and suggests the way out of the prevalent political, administrative and security crises. While elaborating the recent trajectory of civil-military relations, Dr Siddiqa’s paper offers to map out the power establishment in Pakistan – the various players and their strategic connections with each other. Such mapping will help understand the future direction of Pakistan’s democracy.
Dr Wasti’s paper demonstrates that the experience of Islamization of laws in Pakistan has not only been a complete failure to achieve its objectives but has also become a cause for the deterioration of the Pakistani society.
Prof Amjad argues that while Pakistan has displayed considerable resilience in facing up to the three major watersheds in its economic history—the Partition in 1947, the break-up of Pakistan in end-1971 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979—the continuing impact of the last of these has been far reaching, especially its negative impact on Pakistan taking advantage of the quickening pace of globalization that followed.
Prof Abbas argues that the turbulent nature of the Pak-Afghan relations is unlikely to transform into a more friendly relationship in the near future. In fact, the drawdown of NATO forces in 2014 is expected to increase the volatility of the Pak-Afghan tribal frontier both in terms of free flow of militants and tensions between the security forces of the two countries.
According to Ms Yusuf, the privately owned media outlets are vulnerable to security threats and political pressure. Moreover, previously marginalized voices that now engage in public debates include polarizing and violence-inciting actors, such as the violent extremist groups. In this evolving media landscape, her paper attempts to answer as to who controls the narrative and what implications does that have for the future of democracy in Pakistan?
The rest of the papers likewise discuss in detail various other aspects of the state of politics, economy and for foreign policy of Pakistan as well as the role of media and education in the country. Oxford has special relationship with Pakistan, in terms of educating some of its prominent leaders, from Liaqat Ali Khan to Benazir Bhutto. Occurring at such a historic institution of higher learning, this conference will help nurture mature understanding of the myriad realities of Pakistan—a country whose perception in the Western world unfortunately does not go beyond bombs and beards.
By Dr Ishtiaq Ahmad, WEEKLY PULSE MAGAZINE, May 12, 2014