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Revenge of the State: People may have to pay

Published : Jan 16, 2017, 2:01 am IST
Updated : Jan 16, 2017, 6:53 am IST

In rough terms, poor economic choices and bad policies between 2004 and 2013 drove the country into deep macroeconomic destabilisation.

Pakistan itself seemed in terminal decline. But then an outbreak of stability happened. And through a combination of luck and determination, the state made a comeback.
 Pakistan itself seemed in terminal decline. But then an outbreak of stability happened. And through a combination of luck and determination, the state made a comeback.

A bunch of years ago, the problem was a declining state. Across swathes of social, economic and security interventions, the state was in retreat.

Pakistan itself seemed in terminal decline. But then an outbreak of stability happened. And through a combination of luck and determination, the state made a comeback.

And now we’re seeing a second unexpected outcome: the revenge of the state. A revenge rooted in a state that has grown in confidence at its successes and whose successes have given it the tools to impose its will.

Rewind to about a decade ago. Pakistan seemed to have run out of luck. An economic downturn coincided with an implosion of the security landscape. Politically, yet another failed dictatorship was being replaced by an untested civilian leadership and it was hard to know which was worse.

Twenty-oh-eight through 2011, Pakistan suffered some of it worst years ever. On top of a declining state were layered economic and security woes that seemed terminal. Pakistan itself felt like it was unravelling.

It wasn’t actually and a few sensible interventions helped steady the economic and security landscapes. Between 2014 and 2016, Pakistan was salvaged and put back in some shape.

But the great rescue has come at a cost: after doing what was necessary, the state is now increasingly imposing its unwelcome and alarming will and priorities on all of us.

With the latest abductions and this overall CPEC business, the new Pakistan taking shape is coming into view — and it ain’t pretty.

Start with the economic picture because it’s a little stranger and a bit harder to pin down. In rough terms, poor economic choices and bad policies between 2004 and 2013 drove the country into deep macroeconomic destabilisation.

It was always a stretch that the arrival of the N-League would transform the economy — the PML(N) only ever appeared better at economic management relative to the other political options. Its actual record in the 1990s was not too dissimilar to the other governments of the time.

But the arrival of the PML(N) in 2013 did create an expectation that business, the private sector, would get a boost. Maybe a crony capitalism-type of approach, but nevertheless one that looked at the private sector as the engine of growth and where the heroes would be businessmen, big and small.

The opposite though seems to have happened. Having established a sort-of macroeconomic stability, the N-League has embarked on a radical economic realignment: championing a state-led capitalism of sorts at the expense of the private sector.

The small businesses and traders, the big industrialists and exporters, farmers and traditional sectors, all seem to have been cast aside as the government itself has lodged itself deeper into the economy.

Think of every last big economic project inaugurated over the past three and a half years — everywhere and always it is the government that is the star, facilitator or creator.

Worshipping at the altar of CPEC and dragging Pakistan to medium-term growth via vast infrastructure spending is changing the profile of the economy itself. A new profile where the government is the economic star, not the private sector. Coming as it has after years of economic hurt, the alarm has been mitigated by the feel-good effects of a calm economic spell.

But state-led capitalism in a state with no real political accountability and weak regulation can be a recipe for gross abuse. The revenge of the state may end up inflicting a deep economic cost on all of us.

The security dimension is easier to see — and even harder to push back against.

The state always had an advantage in the inevitable fight against militancy: malign state policies over the decades may have created the problem, but the problem, specially once it grew wildly out of control, could only be combated by the state.

So whenever the state got its act together, the state — and the security apparatus within it — would necessarily emerge as the most powerful internal player once again.

But a powerful player with a new internal dynamic: the special rules needed to fight militancy have created special powers and special privileges that the security apparatus is now being tempted to apply elsewhere, in other domains, for different reasons. Like extending the lexicon of missing persons to online rights activists.

In disappearing the activists, a straightforward message has been sent: whatever they were doing, others should not think of emulating.

That someone in the state apparatus thought to and acted on disappearing the activists isn’t really surprising. What is troubling is how poorly positioned society is to resist the state. Because what the country is facing, and of necessity must accept, is a great ramping up of counterterrorism operations in the provinces.

And that ramping up — to tamp down the surviving extremism and militancy threat — will greatly enhance the power, profile and willingness to act with impunity of the security apparatus.

Because the fight against militancy will be long and murky and because the fight must be fought by the state, the state is looking at a long stretch of impunity — or impunity cloaked in legality.

We needed a strong, intrusive, muscular state to fight militancy, but as the state has grown stronger and more intrusive and muscular, we the people have grown more vulnerable to a state selecting its own priorities and targets.

The revenge of the state may just be beginning.

By arrangement with Dawn

Tags: counterterrorism, china-pakistan economic corridor (cpec), pml(n)