The confusion in our minds

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

AT a time when the nature of the state and the system of international relations are in a process of change, many questions are being raised about the functions and responsibilities of a government and its jurisdiction. Two interrelated developments have brought about these paradigm shifts to which we in Pakistan still have to adjust.

One is the fall of the Soviet Union which has resulted in the emergence of the United States as the sole superpower and the driving force behind the new world order. The other related development has been the eclipse of socialism and the resurgence of capitalism as the underpinning of the globalized economy that is now emerging.

These changes have thrown new challenges before all countries. This holds especially true for the Third World states, which had yet to complete the process of transition from colonialism to the post-colonial world, when this phenomenon emerged. Because of a singular lack of understanding about these developments, Pakistan has been muddling its way through.

Taking up the foreign policy issue first, one is astonished at the rigidity the governments in office in Islamabad have shown over the years in their dealings with other powers. Apparently, those who formulate the foreign policy of the country have failed to keep pace with the changed pattern of world politics. The fact is that there are not too many options available to a country which has limited resources and powerful neighbours.

When we were living in a bipolar world comprising two superpowers at loggerheads with each other, Pakistan’s policy-makers could get away to some extent by playing the role of a manipulating partner in the cold war game.

Although the cold war has ended, our foreign policy continues to be framed on the same old premises. Islamabad feels it can continue to challenge India because outside powers do not want a nuclear war in South Asia. That assumption is correct up to a point — the outcry is deafening when the two neighbours in the subcontinent periodically indulge in sabre-rattling and teeter on the brink of war. But in the process we have allowed our independence — the little that we could claim to have — to be eroded. While we have come nowhere close to winning our proclaimed foreign policy goals in Kashmir which has badly sapped us of our resources, our combative stance has certainly made us more and more dependent on the United States for our survival.

Pakistan’s present predicament is directly rooted in its Afghan policy in the nineties which ignored the changed international power equilibrium. Had Islamabad displayed more discretion vis-a-vis Kabul, Pakistan would not have found itself in the unenviable position of making a U-turn as it has been compelled to do in the post-9/11 period.

The country has fared no better in its domestic policy because of its failure to recognize the hiatus in the concepts of state power and the nature of governance. We have been so busy squabbling over the distribution of political power between the president and the prime minister, between the federation and the provinces and between the state and the private sector that some basic issues have been totally overlooked.

Pakistan still lacks “effective government”, to borrow the term from the UNDP’s Human Development Report 2002 which was released recently. Whether the country has been under military rule or a democratic dispensation, it has failed to decide what should be the role of the government. The rulers — all without exception — have been more concerned about their own survival in power than about their ability to perform.

Some issues which have come up in recently provide food for thought as to what should be the role of the government in the political systems which are emerging in today’s capitalist world . The courts and the police have, in the last two decades or so, been busy deciding non-issues, which should really have no relevance to the effective role of the state. As Asma Jahangir, that inveterate champion of human rights causes in Pakistan, has pertinently pointed out in the letters column of this paper, the state “has no business” to sit in judgment over the morality of the people. Apart from giving a handle to the perverse self-styled custodians of morality, it distracts the state machinery from its more important function of providing security and protection to the people.

In the same vein, one of our columnists, Ayaz Amir, observed that the government’s functionaries under pressure from the religious leaders have been overly extending themselves to prosecute blasphemers and legislate against the “anti-Islamic” Qadianis. This hardly leaves the government time and resources to attend to the basic needs of the people which are more essential not just in secular terms but also in the context of Islam.

In areas where the courts should be guarding their powers more jealously, the state has allowed itself to be rolled back. Take the example of the Mianwali incident when a murderer won reprieve from a death sentence by promising eight million rupees and eight women in marriage to the aggrieved party. In the hue and cry, no one noticed the fundamental issue at stake: murder is no longer recognized as a crime against the state which can be sidelined as the dispenser of justice in criminal cases by the citizens. It was General Ziaul Haq who introduced the Qisas and Diyat laws, but is it not strange that the present government is not too keen to restore the legal status of the state as prosecutor in murder cases?

This trend towards withdrawing from active governance in key areas of public life is too palpable now to turn a blind eye to. The UNDP’s report is a convincing testimony to the government’s failure to address the basic problems which directly affect the common man — though not the politicians or the military generals who are vying for high office. Although GDP has increased substantially in the period covered, the government has failed to deliver in the sectors which affect the poor people the most.

The literacy rate is down from 45 per cent in the last report to 43.2 per cent (youth literacy sliding from 62.7 to 57 per cent). Poverty has increased and now it stands at 34 per cent and Pakistan ranks 68th out of 88 developing countries (compared to 65 out of 90 in the previous report).

Which section of the people has suffered the most? Children and women. The percentage of underweight children (under five years) has jumped from 26 to 38. The use of ORT has registered a shocking fall from 48 to 19 per cent and not surprisingly the infant mortality rate has increased from 84 to 85 per 1000 live births. In the last report 1,600 children were reported as having AIDS. Their number has gone up to 2,200. Cigarette consumption, which is a pretty clear indicator of the mental, emotional and physical health of the people, has increased from 562 per adult to 620.

Shockingly, little has been done to improve the status of women. The government was too busy prosecuting blasphemers and adulterers and didn’t notice that the country’s ranking in the gender development index slumped from 117 (out of 146) last year to 120 this time. Female adult literacy is down from 30 per cent to 27.9. The gender gap in education has also grown by three percentage points and the health expenditure has declined from 0.9 per cent of GDP to 0.7.

It is strange that at a time when the role of the government needs to be carefully defined as the capitalist society encroaches on what used to be the jurisdiction of the state and the trend is towards less and less governance, we seen pretty confused. The paradox is that while we want to tighten the state’s control over moral issues, the government it is willingly abdicating its responsibilities in the field of social justice and public welfare. The private sector with its proclaimed profit-making motives is moving in to take control of crucial areas in public life which are critical to people’s well-being. The state is disengaging itself from these sectors and concentrating its attention on issues such as blasphemy, the personal religious beliefs of people and their sexual mores. Do these really affect the lives of citizens as much as lack of education, health care and failure to provide security?