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Alliance for change

Alliance for change

We face many paths to doom today — both economic and security-related — but only a few paths to avoid it. But the state doesn’t adopt these paths as they undermine the interests of strong civilian and military elites who control policy.

While egalitarian ideas drove Indian, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan freedom aims, ours mainly reflected the fears of Muslim elites about their interests under Hindu rule and had few pro-poor ideas. Since ’47, the Pakistani state has lived up very well to the objectives of its creation by ably guarding elite interests and ignoring those of the masses, so much so that it now faces doom. In fact, the Pakistani state may be in South Asia the one least focused on the people.

The limits of this elitism are vividly illustrated by the current perma-polycrisis. A crisis is bad enough, a polycrisis (one encompassing multiple domains such as economic, political, natural, social, etc) worse and a perma-polycrisis (a polycrisis that shows no signs of ending) more so. This crisis started as an economic one under the PTI and was exacerbated by the political standoff between Pindi, PDM and PTI; the global economic crisis; and finally the floods. No end is in sight to most of its immediate causes or the elitism in which it is rooted.

The history of successful states shows that social movements play a critical role in improving the quality of governance and making it more people-centred. Thus, it is critical for Pakistani society to organise itself better and form an alliance or coalition for change to force elites to adopt egalitarian policies that help avoid disaster. A coalition is a group of persons and/or entities that have common aims and who agree to work together towards achieving them. Coalition work includes three ingredients: agenda, partners, and strategies.

Our society needs coalitions to stand up to elites.

It is easy to list an agenda to avert doom. Economically, we must increase taxes and export revenues to reduce our fiscal and external deficits that often lead to crises; reform state enterprise (including milbus), power and water sectors; and increase investment and productivity to achieve sustainable growth. It means adopting poor-led progress strategies that make increasing the incomes of the poor as the main engine of national progress, by providing them with organisations, market power, protection, assets, skills and social services. Politically, it means civilian sway over Pindi and its spy agencies staying totally out of politics; devolution; police, judicial and bureaucratic reforms; peace with Baloch rebels and end of TTP terrorism. Externally, it means peace with India and good, balanced ties with all key allies like the West, Gulf states and China. Socially, it means ending extremism and full rights for women, minorities and other weak groups.

Progressive, grassroots, pro-poor groups are obvious partners for leading the coalition for this pro-poor agenda. But Pakistan’s situation is so precarious, especially economically even in the short term, that most components of this agenda would appeal to a much broader alliance, which is also necessary given the enormity of the task involved in swaying strong elite interests.

Thus, a broader coalition is needed, that includes pro-poor advocacy groups, farmer and labour entities as leaders, but also professional bodies of lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers and others, including media groups, business groups, academia and expatriate groups. This practically means all organised society willing to support such an agenda outside the narrow range of elite interests that currently control state policy or extremist and criminal groups. The starting step could be for progressive grassroots groups to come together and then gradually expand the coalition by inviting other societal groups to join it.

Finally, coalitions need effective strategies. Coalitions may be loose, when members work together for a limited time until they achieve or abandon a specific aim. They may also become permanent, with governing bodies, funding, and organisational structures. It will be naïve to expect such a diverse coalition to achieve any permanence. However, even so, a three- to five-year period may still be needed to influence state policy sustainably. The main strategy would be two-fold. First, it would involve influencing policymakers through direct meetings with them, media work, public meetings and protests. Second, it would involve educating the larger public about the issues and remedies to garner greater support for the cause.

The only feasible path forward for us now is for society to stand up to elites through coalitions. Even this doesn’t guarantee success, given the low odds of, first, putting such an alliance together and, second, it actually succeeding. But the chances of any other path succeeding are even lower. This sadly reflects our poor odds going forward.

The writer is a political economist with a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.

[email protected]

Twitter: @NiazMurtaza2

Published in Dawn, January 10th, 2023

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