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"A Congregation of Pain"

Pakistan at 64

by TARIQ ALI

The queasy condition of Pakistan, incapable of either a complete collapse or of throwing up a regime that could move the country even a few steps forward, has been a cause for depression for many a decade. The privileged elite — military and civilian — live happily in their bubble exercising military, political, administrative, economic and judicial power over the whole land.

This is, of course, the case in most countries, but in Pakistan the contrast between rulers and ruled is so stark that there is nothing to protect the weak majority from the powerful and rich minority. Kinship networks, like protection offered by gangsters, can do a bit but any notion that this can substitute for the state in providing the necessities of life — water, electricity, subsidized flour, health, education — is a form of reactionary utopianism. Progress, to be meaningful, has to be in the interests of the collective as a whole. This has never happened in Pakistan.

The fault is neither in the stars nor in the people, whose forbearance and patience have been exemplary. They have tried everything in terms of political parties and military regimes and have obtained nothing. Despite this fact, there is no gadarene rush to join even the moderate Islamist parties, leave alone armed jihadi groups. Till now a large majority of Pakistanis have resisted this course, despite the inducements on offer in the next world. Contrary to global media images, ordinary Pakistanis are not attracted to religious extremists.

Demography is always ignored: 60 per cent of the country’s population is under 25. They live off their wits and part-time work. Unemployment is huge. A majority of them want education, jobs and an end to political corruption. Will these demands ever be met?

There have been three constants in Pakistan’s political life: the United States, the Pakistani army and a corrupt, uncaring elite, currently symbolised by President Asif Ali Zardari, known throughout the world as someone whose interest in making money and accumulating property transcends all else. The last opinion polls in the towns showed him on 2 per cent. Cruel Punjabi taunts often greet the venerables of the ruling party when they venture out to meet the people. This is slightly unfair and could apply to all the Muslim Leagues as well. The fact is that people are disgusted with politics and see politicians as crooks out to make money and feed the greed of the networks they patronize and which double up as useful vote banks.

The US is currently waging war in Afghanistan that has leaked into Pakistan and destabilized the country even further. Add to this the US drone attacks, agreed to by the country’s rulers, that supposedly target ‘terrorists’ but end up killing innocents. Civilian casualties, if one takes the lowest figures, are now just under 2,000, mainly women and children.

The Pakistani army and other security forces are showing signs of strain at having to carry out attacks on their own people in the border villages in the northern provinces. The army forcibly removed 250,000 people from the Orakzai district on the Afghan border and put them in refugee camps. Many swore revenge and militant groups have targeted the ISI and other military centers.

The economy is in a mess and the conditionality of IMF loans bears little relationship to what citizens need. To insist on indirect sales taxes in a country where the rich pay virtually no tax at all has to be grotesque by any standard. To force the Pakistani government to raise electricity tariffs led to riots in many cities with WAPDA offices being burnt to the ground. Pay more, get less is the IMF-inspired message.

The 2010 floods revealed an elite incapable of providing real help to its people. Related horror stories are still doing the rounds. Poverty alleviation programs are a drop in the desert. Military expenditure dominates the budget. Political gang warfare has wrecked the largest city, Karachi.

The time has come for another military coup, but the army is unpopular and Washington in no mood to green-light yet another military takeover. In any case, the military dogma backed by some western academics that Pakistan has fared better under its generals than its politicians is a sick joke. Facts render such a view unsustainable. Politicians and generals share an indifference to the fate of the common people. The disastrous way of the world is to abandon everything to the market and private profit. It no longer works and even less so in countries like Pakistan.

The inner decay and disintegration of the country proceed apace. A profound disillusionment accompanied by nihilism had already set in some decades ago when, in one of his most moving poems, Faiz Ahmed Faiz referred to the fatherland as “a forest of dead leaves”, “a congregation of pain”. Nothing has managed to reverse the trend. The powerlessness of individuals faced with the apparatus of powers big and small has only been enhanced by what is happening now. Sooner or later, the people will rise and sweep the rubbish aside. Don’t ask me when.

Tariq Ali’s latest book “The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad’ is published by Verso.