Thursday Jun 30 2022

Following Bangladesh model: The truth is uncomfortable

Map of Pakistan and Bangladesh — Canva/file
Map of Pakistan and Bangladesh — Canva/file

A lot of people ask why Bangladesh has been able to manufacture over a decade of economic growth enabling political stability. Part of the answer casts the intensity and transformative nature of the Sheikh Hasina era in a light that is more sour grapes than it is truth. The truth is uncomfortable and harder to articulate in a mainstream Pakistani newspaper. But here goes.

First, to reiterate: yes. PM Hasina reduced civil liberties in order to sustain a popular, but hardly overwhelming mandate for the Awami League agenda in her country. She tarred and feathered the religious right wing in part to sustain her rule, and in part to fulfill a fugazi secular legacy that Bangladesh has deployed effectively for economic growth at home and consumption in New Delhi (it is fugazi because Bangladeshi nationalism is anchored as much in Muslim identity and symbolism as any Muslim majority place on the planet – Pakistanis do not have the monopoly on this). Bangladesh is less free today than it was a decade ago and the state has hounded and put away those that don’t toe the line.

But ask Arsalan Khan or Mudassir Naru’s wife and child about Pakistani civil liberties. Or ask Amina Masood Janjua or Matiullah Jan. Or an arrested serving member of the National Assembly. Ask these folks about civil liberties in Pakistan. Have their stories of suppressed dissent helped fix whatever is broken here?

Did taking journalists off the air help bring the TTP to the negotiating table? Has a reduced national stature for the leading news channel enabled improved foreign direct investment? Have experiments in giving criminals indicted in other countries makeovers that convert them into leading Pakistani figures helped sell Pakistan’s narrative abroad? Are Russians in St Petersburg or Kaliningrad as dedicated to partnership with Pakistan as uncles and aunties across the DHA spectrum are to a partnership with Russia? Are more people watching more documentaries about how to start new businesses and secure easy financing from cash-rich banks because the state keeps manufacturing high-quality films?

Does hounding journalists to help empower parliamentary committees to find enough budget to commission Bain or Strategy Plus to do the research necessary to help inform better legislation on the best way forward for improved data protection laws, that will serve both the national security concerns of the deep state and the economic growth needs of a 19th-century economy and 15th century elite?

In short, less freedom in Bangladesh today than there was when it was an economic basket case can’t possibly be the driver of its economic transformation. Because similar inorganic constraints and obstacles to freedom in Pakistan have resulted in none of the things that would spur economic growth. Is the ‘reduced freedoms and civil liberties theory of economic growth’ a plausible proposition? The test results are already in on this one. Hard no.

From 2016 till now, Pakistanis have been treated to various doctrines and narratives about stability and the need for the country to make a big change toward focusing on the economy. And, to be fair, some of the things necessary to make this transition possible have happened. Certainly, the actions necessary to help Pakistan become compliant with various international regimes, largely anchored in UNSC Resolution 1267 have taken place.

Yet, prior to this era of compliance, there was at least a decade and a half worth of advocacy by thinkers, writers, politicians, and various other activists for such compliance. Those voices were labelled traitorous and treasonous. From roughly 2011 onwards, those labels weren’t just organic reactions of overly sensitive natsec hawks within wider civil society. Those labels were generated, promoted, and aggressively marketed by unknown and unidentifiable sources to help tar and feather politicians like Nawaz Sharif. All this is in addition to the long-term project of tarring and feathering all politicians as both corrupt and stupid (none of this is to suggest that those politicians have not done more than their part in fulfilling the results frameworks for this long-term project).

Yet the apparent raison d’etre for the post-2016 era of stifled freedoms and restricted civil liberties was the need to rein in the wilder elements of the national discourse, protect the nation from the various sources of fifth-generation warfare, and help build national stability constructed on the back of an exciting, urban, middle-class set of assertions about the key problem set in Pakistan: corruption and economic incompetence. But did this era bring the country stability or an end to corruption?

Clearly, it did not. The PML-N ran an ‘Absolutely Not’ campaign against the 2018 election result to help free its leader from jail. The PTI is running a ‘Vote ko Izzat Do’ campaign because its leader was freed from the PM Office. Sugar, wheat, and real-estate mafias that began with buying up BPS 20 officers four decades ago now own the full spectrum of the great and the good. China cannot muscle India into a BRICS Plus meeting invite for Pakistan but Iran gets a seat at the SCO table, the Afghanistan table, and the baby chair Narendra Modi has set up to nurse continued Persian duplicity in the region. These are the economic, strategic, and discourse fruits of the post-2016 ‘consensus’ or stability package that Pakistan has swallowed.

What is so different about Bangladesh that it has been able to chart a different path? Part of the answer may be in who PM Hasina is. She is the daughter of her country’s leading revolutionary freedom fighter. Her work is not informed solely by the need to hold power, but for that power to serve a wider, almost-messianic dedication to legacy and memory. Notwithstanding how wealthy her relatives have become, notwithstanding how nasty Bangladesh may have become for her opponents, and no matter the working conditions in the factories that have fueled the GDP per capita rise in Dhaka and across the country. Political will in Bangladesh is borne of real, visceral conviction to be a great nation.

What is the mirror image of political will here in Pakistan? What motivated the post-2016 era of stability-seeking interventions in politics and the economy? This isn’t clear.

Certainly, peace in the country and the region is often cited as important. But this importance is not what Pakistani soldiers and citizens have experienced. The TTP has made a significant comeback. The separatist insurgents in parts of Balochistan are stronger today than they were then. The economy is getting rag-dolled as much by global commodity prices and contra-inflation measures as by turnover. Eight finance ministers in six years: Ishaq Dar, Miftah Ismail, Shamshad Akhtar, Asad Umar, Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, Hammad Azhar, Shaukat Tareen, Miftah Ismail.

And so here we are nearly six years since the beginning of this era. Many would argue this era’s primary defining feature has been instability. Pakistan has experienced backsliding in relations with Saudi Arabia, the UEA, China, and the United States. Three decades of empathy and understanding for the Taliban has helped secure a Mullah Yaqub in Kabul that is laying a red carpet for Afghanistan-India defence cooperation. Politicians that spent the 1990s asking the nation to make sacrifices are watching as their children ask the same nation, but with double, the number of people, to make what? That’s right: more sacrifices.

Sacrifice. Pakistani children are already among the least well-nourished, least educated, and least healthy on the planet. Pakistani women remain disconnected from the economy, from banking, finance, from savings and from investments. Pakistani minorities stare at the flag wondering at what the emptiness of colour on it means for their children. Those who can flee? Do.

Every one of Pakistan’s peer countries on the planet, including Argentina, Egypt, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, and Thailand (the BRICS Plus invitees) were once trying to catch up with Pakistan – some until quite recently. Every single one, and especially Bangladesh, has surged far ahead.

There are lessons to be learned from the failures of the last six years. But can Pakistanis nurture the audacity to learn them?

The writer is an analyst and commentator.