Talking it over

A little pop sociology is needed to understand Pakistan’s elite

Written by Jaithirth Rao | Published: January 22, 2009 11:19:10 pm

All are clueless. Americans do not know what to do with a favoured ally where the state apparatus is unable and unwilling to help the hegemon. The British are puzzled. Rich Pakistanis buy properties in London. But when Pakistan-trained terrorists attack London’s Underground,there is no help from the Pakistani state in turning off the spigot. India is in a quandary. The attack by Pakistani nationals on India’s biggest city is not generating a mature response from the Pakistani leadership. Instead,key actors are making confused and contradictory statements. “The ISI director general will visit India.” “No,he will not. The earlier statement was a ‘miscommunication’.” “Kasab is a Pakistani national.” “Kasab is a Pakistani national,but XYZ should not announce it,only ABC should inform the press by means of an SMS text.” “Pakistan will act because Pakistan is the principal victim of terrorism.” “These folks are patriots,not terrorists.” “America is an ally.” “America is a bully sending drones into our territories.” “We want friendship with India.” “India is conspiring with Karzai in Afghanistan to encircle Pakistan by stoking Baluchi separatism.” “Kashmir can be resolved through trust and dialogue.” “The only way to deal with Indians is to fight a strong Jihad in Kashmir.” “Indians and Pakistanis are brothers.” “Indians are part of the Crusader-Zionist nexus.”

One can argue that the Indian leadership too is confused. But this confusion is legitimate because quite simply all of us are incredulous that the Pakistani state and its leadership so misunderstand the seriousness of the situation or are choosing not to. Do they not see that while India is hurt,the growing cancer within Pakistan could destroy that country and make Sudan or Somalia look like tea-parties? Apparently not — or the compulsion of domestic politics is such that no one dares to talk about the elephant in the room. The Indian media adds to the confusion airing loony ideas like military action which play into the hands of the Islamist extremists who want attention turned away from Pakistan’s western borders to its eastern ones. Net-net,no one knows what to do.

I would contend that we (the US,Britain and India) have under-invested in understanding the Pakistani society. Describing Pakistan as an “international migraine” and wishing that it would go away is a cop-out. Pakistan is a large country,a legitimate state and a reservoir of talented human capital. It suffers from contradictions like many other countries. We need to deal with Pakistan not as a monolithic entity,but as a mosaic where some tiles are pro-Western,others pro-Chinese,some are Saudi clients,others prefer the open environment of the UAE,some believe in a universal Islamic Caliphate,others believe that even the present Pakistani state needs to be split up,many alternate between sentimental attachment to India and an inordinate fear of “encirclement” by India. Not spending time and effort in understanding the Pakistani society in granular detail results in our being “surprised”,“puzzled”,“disappointed”.

That all politics is local is an old adage. The great statesman Sir Mirza Ismail argued that the appropriate translation of the proverbial “politics of the parish pump” in English parlance would in our situation be the “politics of the village well”. Zardari is apparently part Baluchi and part Sindhi and of Shia ancestry,married into a Sindhi landlord family. In any event,he is not a Punjabi Sunni. On top of that,his interests are in the world of business,a far cry from the military’s concerns. Nawaz Sharif is a Punjabi Sunni and among politicians possibly most acceptable to the military despite personal animosity between him and Musharraf. The Pakistani army has over the years moved away from its elite Sandhurst roots. The army is one of the few places in Pakistan where the lower middle class can look for upward social mobility and individuals of ability without connections can jostle with the elite. It is not an accident that General Kayani is the son of a non-commissioned officer.

In trying to understand why Pakistani leaders behave the way they do,we need to be cognisant of these and other patterns. Let us consider a range of questions:

Given his Baluchi-Sindhi-Shia connections,can a Zardari or for that matter a Bhutto appear conciliatory towards America or India and get away with it? Will he not be accused of having soft traitorous and heretical instincts?

Can the Pakistani officer corps,increasingly populated by upwardly mobile but traditional social groups (not by Aitchison college alumni as was the case in years past) take an overtly anti-Islamist or pro-Western stance?

Why is Pakistan not able to come up with a Sadat or a Mubarak who seem to be able to manage the contradictions within Egypt?

Despite having China as their close ally,why has Deng’s growth strategy not appealed to the Pakistani elite? They could easily increase their trade with China and create domestic prosperity instead of simply buying arms (nuclear and conventional) from their friends in the PRC. Why is this not happening?

Saudi Arabia has strong Islamic credentials. They are able to lock up extremists. Why can Pakistan not take a cue from them and do the same?

Over the next few months and years,we all need to collectively invest in understanding the Pakistani society better and in opening up dialogues with disparate elements within that society. Merely complaining that Pakistan is beginning to resemble a rogue state will not do. We need to understand persistent domestic compulsions within Pakistan and see if we can open up multiple dialogues not only with the elements in the Pakistani society who are ostensibly in power but with others whose motivations may be more complex and mysterious. In doing so,we may be able to resolve the conundrum of Pakistan and move it away from its “migraine” status. If we fail,the consequences for all of us are grim. For the unhappy Pakistani people the consequences will be catastrophic.

The writer divides his time between Mumbai,Lonavla and Bangalore

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