May 10, 2023
ISLAMABAD – Pakistan has been undergoing a national cohesion crisis since 1971. A series of events — I’d rather call them blunders — over the last few years has brought the country to the brink, and so far none of the most powerful men in this country (and they are almost all men) have shown consideration to the gravity of the situation.
This inability of Pakistan’s elites to internalise and grapple with the ongoing crisis is reflected on mainstream and social media, where the conversation, to this day, has barely matured beyond the typical finger-pointing and arguments in bad faith that are the norm in the country’s political landscape.
These arguments are at times wrapped in the facade of resilience, where only the most privileged in Pakistani society argue that ordinary citizens are strong, have character, and can bounce back. It is of course easy to talk about resilience from a comfortable, air-conditioned room in an elite part of a city in Pakistan. Little do these kleptocrats realise that this absurd focus on resiliency is a testament to their own privilege and self-centred worldview that blinds them to the misery and trauma that is being inflicted upon millions of ordinary households every single day.
Ego, ideology and wealth
Getting out of this crisis is not going to be an easy task and will require years, if not decades of focus and determination. But to ensure this happens, Pakistan’s ruling elites must abandon three key things — their ego, their ideology, and their wealth.
Ego can be defined as a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance and for far too long, the ruling kleptocrats in Pakistan have possessed an outsized ego. This is reflected both in terms of how they behave at home — with their protocols and entitlement on full display on a daily basis — and in terms of how they deal with the world. This ego has led to successive clashes within and between institutions, leading to a state that is barely able to function and deliver for ordinary citizens. Today, this egotistical fight has brought the country to the brink and fractured what little semblance of unity was left in Pakistan.
The first step out of this mess is for the ruling classes to eat some humble pie and be willing to engage with one another. The ongoing negotiations between the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) are a good start, but key leaders across institutions need to engage and treat each other with respect, not as mortal enemies.
Related to this ego is the ideology that Pakistan’s ruling classes have adopted and tried to sell to its citizenry for decades. This ideology is a toxic mix of fundamentalism and nationalism that has done immeasurable harm to generations of Pakistanis. It is this ideology that has birthed lynch mobs threatening and lynching foreign workers in the country, targeted assassinations of minorities, and attitudes that have permitted violent radical actors to find safe havens in Pakistan.
But it is irrationality, not radical violence, that is the most serious and dangerous consequence of this ideology. Combined with an outsized ego, this toxic ideology has led Pakistani elites to make one blunder after another, which in turn has caused irreparable harm to the country’s global stature. Recognising that the only way to force change is through coercion, the international community has also changed its ways, with the actions by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) grey-list in the recent past serving as a case-in-point — it was only after a period of intense monitoring and conditions over four years that the FATF eased up on Pakistan.
This ideology also influences economic policymaking, with the view that Pakistan is ‘special’ or that its ‘realities are different from the rest of the world’, leading elites to make choices that cause one economic catastrophe after another. This delusional thinking has reached new heights in recent months. Elite rulers are expecting some form of bailout that will rescue the economy, when in fact all signals point to no such bailout but only a minimum amount of funds that will barely keep the country afloat.
It does not need to be this way forever, as countries can and do radically alter their ideology when its ruling class recognises that the old ways are proving to be disastrous. The Meiji Restoration in Japan and the ongoing transformation in Saudi Arabia are two cases that Pakistani elites ought to look at for inspiration. Without a radical pivot in the core ideology that guides Pakistan’s behaviour as a nation-state, lasting reforms that truly deliver a way out will be nearly impossible to pull off.
Finally, as the saying goes, one must put their money where their mouth is. As Pakistan stands on the brink of economic collapse and runs out of money, the country’s elite must honestly take stock. For far too long, they have relied on regressive taxes and extractive economic policies to impoverish the masses while enriching themselves.
With no foreign handouts on offer, it is now up to the ruling classes to sacrifice their wealth and rescue the economy by taxing themselves. This includes taxes on real estate — a favourite investment vehicle for the wealthy — and other untaxed sectors of the economy, including agriculture. In addition, they must abandon their rent-seeking ways, both domestically and internationally, and work hard to compete with the rest of the world.
Ruling elites must change their ways or perish
Without willing to sacrifice their own short-term needs for the greater good, Pakistan’s elites will not be able to rescue the sinking ship that is Pakistan. And if they do not voluntarily take on some pain in the near-term, it is only a matter of time before ordinary citizens rise up and rebel, taking away whatever they can get their hands on.
For those who think such an outcome is not possible, a quick search of revolutions around the world should suffice. And if the argument is that “Pakistanis have never risen up”, then perhaps the same folks ought to read up on what happened in 1971.
The above prescriptions are likely to rub the English-reading ruling classes in Pakistan the wrong way, but this is no time for political correctness. This crisis has pushed millions of ordinary citizens below the poverty line; a statistic that was already too depressing to bear.
If Pakistan’s elites are unwilling to sacrifice their ego, ideology, and wealth during a once-in-a-generation crisis, they deserve the reckoning that is surely coming their way, likely sooner than later.