Before a democratic government can stabilise, the middle classes, schooled in the Pakistan Military Academy narrative, start aching for another saviour on horseback, but none exists.

In the current crisis in Pakistan, there has been some comment over what might work better for the country's development — a “democratic” model or an “authoritarian” one. These categories may be misleading. Generalised arguments about “authoritarian regimes” and “democracies” hide far too many details under the hijab. There is vigorous debate about the shortcomings (real and imagined) of modern capitalist democracy and there is no reason to think that it is the final system under which mankind will live forever. But in the last 100 years, most absolute or dictatorial regimes have all either broken down, or seen capitalist development and evolved into some sort of democracy. The question then is not about democracy versus authoritarianism. It is about whether an “under-developed” state, such as Pakistan, can “develop” as a capitalist democracy without going through a fascist phase.

At least in Pakistan, the answer is clear. It either stabilises as a democracy, or it violently fails. There is no third choice. Let us begin at the beginning; at Partition India more directly inherited the mantle of British India, and a European-style modern republican Constitution to carry on from that point. At its own “Hindu rate of growth” and with some significant hiccups (e.g. the Indira Emergency, the massacre of Sikhs in 1984, the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat) it has gradually stabilised that system and while many middle-class Indians are intensely pessimistic about it, it seems the system will survive and even improve with time.

Pakistan had a more troubled beginning. It inherited the administrative and (rudimentary) democratic institutions of British India but combined them with the vision of a Delhi-sultanate charter state that was neither geographically nor culturally continuous with its actual borders or its existing cultures. The imagined state was located mostly in what is now Northern India. Its (partly imaginary) culture and language were not the culture or the language of actually existing Pakistan.

Myths and realities

Perhaps, in a democracy, these myths would have gradually meshed with existing realities, but we will never know for sure. The narrowness of the elite, the contradictions of the founding vision, the lack of historical continuity and the presence of a large army with an ignorant foreign patron (the glorious US of A) did not permit that alternative to flower. Instead, the army came in to try the “authoritarian” model. And the army was Punjabi /Pakhtoon, it was colonel Blimpish, it was politically naïve, its historical framework was superficial and mostly imaginary (as was its Islam) and its foreign paymasters had other priorities; it failed to create a stable system and when its leader was unable to quell persistent disturbances, called elections. The ruling military elite were not mentally ready for real democracy. They had imagined a controlled democracy and were shocked by the actual results. What happened next is well known and ended with the end of “United” Pakistan.

West Pakistan was a more manageable and integrated country and could have stabilised, but Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's mistakes permitted the army to come back in. General Zia-ul-Haq tried another round of “authoritarian” rule, this time with a better thought out (and much more dangerous) personal Islamic vision.

The narrative he chose to guide the state was incompatible with actually existing cultures, incompatible with peaceful co-existence in the region and incompatible with democracy. It promoted jihadist militias and covert foreign adventures and undermined already weak democratic traditions and organisations. After he exploded, his vision continued inside a partly Islamicised, partly mercenary military high command and a spectacularly stupid public ideology that now floats somewhere between the Jamat Islami and the lunatic fringe.

If this “vision” were to be enforced at all, it would destroy the existing cultures of Pakistan and (perhaps more important to those focussed on “development” at all costs) it would lead to an endless civil war and then to wider war in the region, undermining any possibility of serious economic development. But luckily or unluckily (depending on how committed you are to the Paknationalist dream) it is not a workable vision. In actual practice, the army rules through an endless stream of dirty deals, robbing various Pauls to pay various Peters in an attempt to get past this year and this problem, while somewhere in the background there hovers this permanent vague dream of a glorious day when they will be rid of these politicians and other riff-raff and will have a clean run at greatness.

Problem with army's vision

After eight years of Pervez Musharraf, there was open rebellion in Balochistan, an independent Islamic emirate in FATA, a nationwide terrorist problem and new compromises with the same corrupt politicians. This is not just about foreign pressure or Gen. Musharraf's mistakes; it is a fundamental problem with the army's vision and its “system”. It repeatedly collapses before it can reach the Promised Land, each time leaving bigger problems behind. Then the “failed politicians” return, but without obtaining full power, especially over the army and its agencies. They are constantly harassed and “legacy problems” remain outside their purview, further undermining any possibility of real progress. Before the democratic system can stabilise, the middle-class, trained by now in the Pakistan Military Academy narrative, is aching for another saviour on horseback.

While there is much talk in the “authoritarian” camp of Imran Khan and his Scandinavian-democratic-Islamic revolution, the actual authoritarian alternative is a military coup, with a “great leader” shooting many thousand people and ruling with the proverbial iron fist. But what ideology and vision will unite the army to carry out such ruthless action? The only ideology for such total change that can mobilise Pakistan's army is not “nationalist capitalism” or imaginary Scandinavian Islam, it is an Islamism that lies somewhere between modern Maudoodite Islam and “pure” Salafist Islam.

'Hindu rate of growth'

If not these (and presumably the people musing on authoritarian states are not thinking of Maudoodi or Zawahiri) then what? If General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani takes over tomorrow and does not enforce “true Islam” and does not shoot a few thousand people, what exactly will he do to transform the country? What common purpose will guide his army and in what direction? He will end up with the same compromises and the same old faces and eventually with another round of fresh elections and a new attempt at civilian rule. Why go through the cycle again to start where we are now? It's much better to opt for a “Hindu rate of growth” under messy democracy, with no quick solutions and no one answer, but with a willingness to allow elections, disagreements and compromise. This sounds like weak tea compared to some imaginary “authoritarian” alternative, but the crucial point is this: there IS no good authoritarian alternative. It may be time to go the slow route.

(The author is a Pakistani-American with an interest in history who moderates Asiapeace, an internet discussion group.)

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