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The immobilised nation

Economic sustainability and democratic consolidation will help the country more than obsessions with security, says historian of South Asia Ian Talbot

Stanly Johny 

Is Pakistan a failed state? The Economist calls Pakistan the "world's most dangerous place", while the Foreign Policy magazine's Failed States Index for 2012 places it among the 20 worst states. One can also find several scholarly works that paint a dangerous picture of this nuclear-armed South Asian country, particularly pointing to the security mess Pakistan is in. Ian Talbot, however, offers a broader study that examines several challenges facing Pakistan, in his latest book, Pakistan: A New History. Mr Talbot, a professor of history at the University of Southampton, has written several on South Asia. In his latest book, he offers a chronological analysis of Pakistan's history, which focuses on five key areas of the country's development: "its historical inheritance; the civil-military relationship; the external dimension; Centre-province relations and the role of Islam in Pakistan's public life".

The root of the problems Pakistan faces today, in Mr Talbot's view, goes back to the colonial era. Though India and Pakistan had similar inheritance of governance from the British Raj, "in reality these were different" because the bulk of what became West Pakistan was a British security state in Northwest India. "The compromises the Muslim League had to make with entrenched landed and tribal elites in this region and the dislocations of 1947-48 further reinforced a tradition of governance with privileged administrative efficiency and security over political and democratic development." This historical inheritance played a part in skewing civil-military relations in favour of the latter.

But it doesn't mean that the military's influence over Pakistan's politics was not irreversible. There were occasions when civilian leaders had opportunities to reverse this and reform the country. The ascendance of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to power in 1971 was such an occasion. Bhutto, who sought to transform Pakistan, had big ideas such as abolishing feudalism and empowering the poor. But at the close of Bhutto's rule, much remained the same, Mr Talbot says. During Bhutto's reign, "politics remained in the thrall of patron-client ties in which personality counted for more than ideology or party institutionalism. The party system displayed instability and immaturity rather than vitality and development, thereby opening the door for military intervention." Mr Talbot is also critical of Bhutto's "concessions" to Islamist demands. The 1973 Constitution, introduced by the Bhutto regime, denied non-Muslim citizens the possibility of attaining the highest office in the land. Such concessions opened the way for Zia ul-Haq's more wide-ranging state-sponsored Islamisation. In other words, Bhutto missed a great opportunity to reform Pakistan.

Zia's policies, on the other hand, exacerbated the crisis Pakistan was facing. Zia attempted to resolve Pakistan's quest for stability by means of Islamisation. The result was mounting sectarian violence and increased ethnic conflict, both of which were to assume major proportions in the decade following his death. But Zia was unable to crush his political opposition completely. Civil society continued to campaign for a democratic Pakistan, which eventually helped civilian rule to be reinstated. Though the new government tried to reverse several of Zia's policies at home, his attempt to secure a protectorate in Afghanistan and to use jihadis in Kashmir continued apace, argues Mr Talbot.

The country saw one more military takeover. General Pervez Musharraf, like his predecessors, also promised to reform the country and its political system. But "little was delivered". After nine years of General Musharraf's rule, Pakistan still had to resolve the issues that had stalled its economic and political development since independence. "If Pakistan was not a failed state under Musharraf's stewardship, it remained immobilised". The post-Musharraf government, though it has faced several threats and challenges, is close to completing its term. Given Pakistan's history of instability and uncertainty, this is certainly a big achievement, particularly considering that this is an elected civilian government. But could the Asif Ali Zardari government address in a meaningful way any of the key challenges Pakistan faces?

Mr Talbot will say no. Besides the security challenges, Pakistan is facing "massive" problems arising from population and environmental pressures. "They present potentially greater challenges to the state than the current security crisis." If Pakistan wants to survive, the author says, it should focus more on economic sustainability and democratic consolidation, instead of being obsessed with different concepts of security. Unless there's a major shift in the national policy direction, Pakistan is unlikely to muddle through, he warns.

Mr Talbot's work is based on hard research and his assertions are backed up with vast references. The notes and bibliography of the book run into over 40 pages. Unlike several other contemporary on Pakistan, Mr Talbot's work is more focused on analysis than on predicting the country's future. True, he warns of a future catastrophe, but he bases that warning on analyses of the historical settings. What the book overlooks, however, is Pakistan's ability to survive. Pakistan is not only a country of crises, but also one of great survivals. One should keep that in mind before foreseeing any catastrophe.


Ian Talbot
Columbia University Press
311 pages; Rs 499

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First Published: Sun, March 24 2013. 21:50 IST