Opinion Columnists 17 Jan 2017 Optimism vs gloom: I ...

Optimism vs gloom: In search of a vision

Published Jan 17, 2017, 12:35 am IST
Updated Jan 17, 2017, 1:08 am IST
Pakistanis will remain on uncertain footing, fearful of falling, and that too on unfamiliar ground.
Pakistan flag.
 Pakistan flag.

Karachi: The words on these pages over the past few days have well captured the despair many of us feel at witnessing the slowly sinking ship that is our democracy, our human rights, our freedom of speech, our very belief that humanity is united by a basic sense of decency.

But if you follow Ahsan Iqbal on Twitter, you’re probably in a much cheerier mood. From his perspective, “Pakistan is rising”. This year has started on a particularly high note: on the Economist’s January 6 ranking of the fastest growing economies, Pakistan was the highest-ranked Muslim-majority country. The CEO of Nestle Pakistan has said that Pakistan is poised to enter a “hot zone” of economic activity with double-digit growth. The year 2017 will see Pakistan break free from its categorisation as a “frontier” market and romp ahead as an “emerging” economy as per MSCI indexing, which will no doubt attract more investors. The Nikkei Asian Review has given Nawaz Sharif “top marks” and predicted he’ll win the 2018 elections thanks to his administration’s orchestration of an economic turnaround and the CPEC windfall.


How does one reconcile the growing anguish of many Pakistanis with the buoyant projections of the country’s outlook on its planning minister’s Twitter feed? During a recent prize acceptance speech, British novelist Zadie Smith discussed optimism and despair, and reminded us that “in this world there is only incremental progress. Only the wilfully blind can ignore that the history of human existence is simultaneously the history of pain: of brutality, murder, mass extinction, every form of venality and cyclical horror. No land is free of it; no people are without their bloodstain; no tribe entirely innocent. But there is still this redeeming matter of incremental progress”.

Smith also warned that those with “apocalyptic perspectives” might miss incremental changes and fall into despair.

Perhaps that’s the issue — too many liberals and champions of democracy are giving in to their apocalyptic perspectives and failing to suitably revel in the incremental progress?

Sadly, I think not. The problem is not one of perspective, but of precariousness. Pakistanis are despairing because they no longer know the rules — and more importantly, the values and priorities — of the country in which they live. And this sense of precariousness, and the uncertainty and fear it produces, is a direct consequence of the state’s confusion about its vision for Pakistan.

A Pakistan in which sectarian militant groups are defended by the interior minister and social media activists disappeared is not an unfamiliar place.

How could we forget the 1980s so soon? Such events align perfectly with an entrenched belief that Pakistan is under existential threat from its neighbours and the world’s great powers, and that only a securitised state can protect the nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. In this context, anyone that threatens the power and control of the securitised state — whether it be external actors with Cold Start doctrines or no-name Facebook users who question security policies — is the enemy. This paradigm is consistent and familiar.

But Pakistan cannot both be rising and existentially threatened. These world views do not and cannot align. The state’s dilemma is that it cannot reconcile the disconnect, nor can it wilfully induce cognitive dissonance among the public. And while this disconnect endures, Pakistanis will remain on uncertain footing, fearful of falling, and that too on unfamiliar ground.

A country cannot simultaneously experience prosperity (reflected in the rise of a middle class, improving socio-economic indicators, inward investment and greater connectivity with the world) and peril (which demands authoritarianism, surveillance and repression).

The past few days are a good illustration of why the contradiction must be resolved. Each good news story about Pakistan’s economic prospects and positive outlook is undermined by a negative news headline about persistent militancy and widespread human rights violations. International allies, investors, and the diaspora community may rejoice at the former, but they don’t like the latter. Even our all-weather friend China has called for tighter border controls with Pakistan (at the same time that it’s putting up the cash for mega projects aimed at facilitating the movement of goods and energy supplies across that border).

Our powers that be should not be greedy at the expense of Pakistan’s institutions and social fabric. They cannot have their cake and eat it too. They cannot have both complete power and prosperity. They cannot live by the fallacy that Pakistan is both rising and falling at every moment. They must choose between optimism and despair as they craft their vision for the country, and know that their choice will be reflected in the daily experience of its citizens. My vote is for optimism, and the open, democratic, progressive and prosperous Pakistan that it entails.

By arrangement with Dawn