Pakistan independence day
Pakistani youth take photographs in front of Happy Independence Day billboard with images of founder leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah and national poet Allama Muhammad Iqbal, displayed in Islamabad, Pakistan, Friday, August 14, 2020 Image Credit: AP

Four days ago Pakistan pumped up the volume to mark its birthday.

Across the country displays of pyrotechnics illuminated the skies.

Trumpets blared as muffler-less bikers and overloaded cars packed urban cities highways. National flags adorned every rooftop.

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Officialdom went into an overdrive of celebrations by pouring out messages of pride and hope. State media delivered the usual congratulatory command performance. Private channels were not far behind; all ran special transmissions and turned their logos into colours green and white. The fest lasted a full twenty-four hours.

Pakistanis had a blast.

Doubtless, the country has reasons to smile at 73. The mere fact that it has come this far is an achievement in itself. It was born in 1947 in the bloodbath of partition as the British beat a hasty retreat from most of their colonial occupations in the aftermath of the second world war.

At 73, and starting 74, Pakistan has to settle its core internal debates. Can it do it? Can it pull it off? Only time will tell but the irony should not be lost on anyone that these are same questions the country faced when it started its journey in 1947

- Syed Talat Hussain

Having sucked it dry financially, they left their most prized possession, India, in destructive disarray, dividing it into two dominions. Being the smaller of the two, Pakistan’s survivability score was either low or poor even by most generous assessments.

World’s seventh nuclear power

From that point to the present, where as the world’s seventh nuclear power it wields considerable strategic weight and is hard to be ignored as a regional force, Pakistan has defied heavy odds, including the loss of its eastern wing, the lowest moment in its turbulent history.

Yet the song and dance of celebrations doesn’t hide hard truths about Pakistan. It is a country in constant flux and one that continues to disappoint itself. Globally, it is at the bottom-end of human development index.

Regionally, it is a laggard trailing behind much smaller and more troubled neighbours like Sri Lanka, Bhutan and even Nepal--- ranked 71, 134, 147.

Pakistan is 152 according to UNDP’s 2019 rankings. Its economy is in chronic need of rescue. Except for bleeps of brilliance fuelled either by foreign aid or temporary spurts of consumer-driven growth, it has lurched from crisis to crisis.

But what really ails the country is its endless search for a stable political and governance model. Its journey since freedom reads like a veritable catalogue of political experiments by determined yet clueless scientists.

Power-balance between army and politicians

It has had three constitutions; three military rules; three phases of presidential systems; a kaleidoscope of Westminster parliamentary democracy tampered and rigged a dozen times to suit the power-balance between the army and the politicians.

While radical extremists haven’t had their full share of luck in governing the country, religious parties have combined in an attempt to enforce Sharia-like systems over and above the constitutionally-mandated ruling order.

The Pandora’s box of power and resource sharing between the centre and its four federating units gets reopened every now and then, feeding regional politics of hate and distrust that inevitably target a domineering federal government.

The age-old guns vs butter question hangs fire as a nation starved of funds for development is asked to pay more to secure its borders. The present government has cut down an already low social sector spending by a whopping Rs234 billions or 33% of the total outlay in 2019-20 but has not touched defence spending at all.

To meet its myriad financial obligations, the government in the first two years of its rule has borrowed $26.2 billion as loans. Next year it aims to borrow another $15 billion. At this rate it has become the largest borrower in the country’s history.

All of this framed into extremely uncertainty political matrix as the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf does not even have a working relationship with the opposition to push through necessary reforms.

More often than not it resorts to passing ordinances (temporary legislative measures that last only six months) to get the work done.

Managing high-end diplomacy

Even the most sought-after helping hand of the army in civil and social affairs has not been of much use in tiding over Pakistan’s growing challenges of governance — be that garbage disposal in Karachi, the country’s largest city and its financial nerve centre, or managing high-end diplomacy like stabilising delicate ties with Saudi Arabia.

Believing that the 2018 polls were thoroughly manipulated, the Opposition sees the government as a front for the country’s powerful Establishment while the government insists on tarring all of them with the brush of accusations of corruption.

There is no consensus on the way forward for a country in dire need of stable governance and sane, purposeful politics. All modern examples of reform and progress show that divisive and mercurial politics cost nations dearly but those who stick to the fundamentals of constitutional orders and do not deviate into radical experiments fair much better.

All long-term reform is doomed to failure if there is no agreement on how a country is to govern itself and what are dedicated roles and responsibilities of its vital organs and sub-ordinate institutions.

Pakistan has not learnt this core lesson well and that is why today you still hear passionate advocacy for presidential form of government, reducing the financial powers of the federating units and institutionalising the role of the Establishment in policymaking — a road-to-nowhere the country has tread many times before.

This endless debate more than anything else hobbles a resourceful and resilient nation of 220 million. It is hard to run without having found or figured out ones feet.

At 73, and starting 74, Pakistan has to settle its core internal debates. Can it do it? Can it pull it off? Only time will tell but the irony should not be lost on anyone that these are same questions the country faced when it started its journey in 1947.

Syed Talat Hussain is a prominent Pakistani journalist and writer. He tweets at @TalatHussain12