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The presentist turn

In her latest book, it appears that Ayesha Jalal’s optimism got the better of her, overshadowing her solid understanding of the forces as they play out in the political arena

The presentist turn

Ayesha Jalal is Pakistan’s best known scholar and historian whose books have received critical appreciation throughout the world. Her latest book is an attempt to offset “the presentist turn” that has crept into recent scholarship on Pakistan by countering it  with a work of historical interpretation attentive to key shifts at the interconnected domestic, regional and international levels.

This endeavour can be seen as an honest and sincere one at analysing the various phases of the sixty odd years of this nation’s existence. By keeping an objective distance, the author has taken a detached view of the problems that have bedeviled this society/nation, and subsequently the country. The approach is impartial, not imbued in any colouration, and escapes from the splash of colours with deep ideological shade.

The ideological stamp has been one of the main causes for confusion while the lack of proper definition of terms is due to this absence of sense of history. The concepts, the values and the tenets are seen in absolute terms as static with unvarying application in all conditions, and not as either applied differently in different conditions or being the very product of history themselves. More often than not, being the product of history, the historical circumstances have to be understood and the concept placed within that context to appreciate that these have been dealt with a great deal of flexibility.

This absolutist approach has been prompted and then reasserted by an understanding of religion that has been cast more in the nature of permanent and enduring framework not subject to any change. Since the last many decades, the political narrative has been dominated by the overbearing presence of religion. The political landscape, too, is greatly conditioned by this framework. This has caused much confusion and has placed the eternal character of religious values in direct contrast to the political realities of the country. Instead of the two being cast in relation to each other in a dialectical tandem, these are viewed as mutually exclusive, as an either/or affair.

In the context of the post-World War II developments, Pakistan’s cold war policies could be understood in the context of a tilt that occurred firmly in favour of the non-elected rather than the elected institutions. The rise of the military to a position of enduring dominance within Pakistan’s state structure was the most salient development in the country’s history and deeply influenced its subsequent course. This in turn distorted the centre-region dynamics and the suppression of democratic rights during extended periods of military rule and wreaked havoc on the political processes, the delicate weave of Pakistani society, accentuating tensions not only between the centre and the different provinces but between the dominant Punjab and non-Punjabi provinces.

In the context of the post-WWII developments, Pakistan’s cold war policies could be understood in the context of a tilt that occurred firmly in favour of the non-elected rather than the elected institutions.

And even Nawaz Sharif who had been a prime beneficiary of Zia’s military dictatorship with the right political credentials, Islamic orientation and gender could not resolve the contradictions between an elected government and the political economy of defense.

According to Jalal, after eluding Pakistan for more than six decades, democracy was coming to be recognised by a cross section of society in all the different provinces as the one remaining salve that could relieve the extreme stresses caused by abortive political processes and military authoritarianism.

The author hoped that the 2013 elections were as free and fair as the structural existential realities of Pakistan permitted. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s insistence on electoral transparency would have been more meaningful if, instead of simply ballot rigging, it had broadened the discourse on electoral malpractices — to the larger and more pressing question of ensuring political neutrality of state officials conducting the elections.

The endorsement of democracy in the face of Taliban terror by the largest vote turnout in the last four decades was perhaps the most encouraging sign of all. Equally hopeful was the smooth transition from one civilian government to another and the establishments of the governments in the centre and the provinces without the usual political rancour.

And Jalal has left it to the gods by saying that only time would tell whether the geo-strategic situation that surfaces after the American endgame in Afghanistan would give Pakistan a reasonable chance to deal with the swarm of political, economic, social and environmental challenges that have weighed it down for so long.

But as events have unfolded in the past year and a half since the transfer of power, much that has happened has been packaged as of yore. Actually most of the political parties in power and the one in opposition did not make the fight against terrorism their main election slogan. Ironically, the parties that did make it their slogan lost the elections because they could not conduct their campaign for fear of terrorist attacks.

It has taken this government and the other main opposition forces another year and a half to be on the page where terrorism is being called the number one problem of the country. But the policies and the narrative of the military seem to be prevailing even in a setup that is civilian on the exterior. A grudging consensus, too, is being hammered into place but the general perception holds that these decisions will further undermine the democratic process and tarnish the ability of the civil institutions in tackling the basic issues of the country.

Ayesha-1If the same course is being adopted, albeit through constitutional amendments, it will be perceived as being done under duress and will reopen the debate about the political forces’ inability to come to any understanding about the major issues of the country. March towards democracy and the effectiveness of the institutions will b slackened. Despite all the pomp and noise about the elections being held under a neutral setup, a big turnout and the transition of power from one civilian set up to the next, the charges of rigging and of massive corruption have sullied the recent so called achievements. Now the acceptance of parallel judicial system will further undermine the civilian institutions and effectiveness.

It may appear that Ayesha Jalal’s optimism of “at last the things have started to work out” got the better of her, overshadowing her solid understanding of the forces as they play out in the political arena.

The Struggle for Pakistan
Author: Ayesha Jalal
Publisher: Harvard
University Press, 2014
Price in Pakistan: Rs1995
Pages: 432

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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