History is a great teacher but only for those who are willing to learn. Seventy-five years of existence and Pakistan is still fighting for its soul. Failing state, brinksmanship, wars, earthquakes, floods and economy in shambles is what we have to show for over several lost decades. Successive civilian and military governments have been unable to improve the overall well-being of their citizens.
The country’s soul has been deeply scarred by its elite, their specific set of elite bargains and the system of status quo. Obviously, something is rotten to the core if it has led us to where we stand now as a nation. The quote attributed to Einstein would be very apt here — insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
The current system of status quo needs to go
No matter who comes into power, it could be the most honest and competent of the leaders, till the current system and the existing set of elite bargains are completely done away with, there is no way Pakistan can move forward. The current system will continue to produce substandard leaders and substandard results for the most part and this is already reflected in all aspects of governance as well as key economic and social indicators.
Our national security is directly tied to our economic performance and the well-being of our citizens and we have failed miserably on this account. Certain quarters and power brokers need to pay heed to this and let the will of the people define and shape its politics as well as political economy. All they need to ensure if at all, is the rules of the game are fair and equitable for everyone or else completely step aside to let it evolve into a more open and more inclusive political system.
Over the seven decades since independence, all institutions have failed to deliver and it is uncertain that we would ever make it to a high-middle-income economy anytime soon. It will be a long and arduous road but we need to start somewhere. And that somewhere is to focus on a “development bargain” as defined by a leading development economist Stefan Dercon in his recent book called Gambling on Development. What it means is for a country’s elites to shift from protecting their own narrow interests and positions to gambling on a growth-based future for all.
There is no silver bullet for economic development, a good starting point would be to redefine the power relationships in the country to commit to development. Interestingly, Stefan’s thesis is relatively simple – economic development takes place when the country’s elites – the politicians, judiciary, bureaucrats, military leaders and other power brokers really want it to happen. When elites realize and decide that country’s broader economic development is in their own interests as well, it is likely to lead to better economic development outcomes. The focus needs to be increasing the size of the pie and not simply continuing to bite into a pie that is already depleted. This may ultimately lead to a political system that is more open and inclusive of the broader population and not just of the elites.
The way forward
If this elite bargain is not developmental but instead focused on the elite’s own interests through patronage, theft and corruption then economic progress is less likely. This also needs to go hand in hand with rule of law for all. This is something that needs to be realized by all key stakeholders in Pakistan sooner than later.
In the context of Pakistan though this poses further challenges given the complex history of civilian-military relationships. Nevertheless, the greatest fear would be if these elite does not reset the elite bargain to a long-term bet on development, we may soon reach a point of no return over the next few years or even earlier. In the current environment, only the strongest amongst the elite may be able to bring all the stakeholders together to reset this elite bargain where they all start gambling on development rather than gambling on their own specific interests. The elite also needs to pay attention to the warning that things can sometimes quickly turn so ugly that there may not be any pie left for them to eat from.
A reset of the elite bargain is a necessity lest the masses desperate enough with their backs to the wall completely shred the current system to bits and pieces with nothing left for any of the elites. There is no way a system that is fed upon injustices and unfairness continue to exist over the long term, it will and has to come to its natural death.