Asif Ali Zardari with George W. BushWhen President Ayub Khan became politically vulnerable, the army chief General Yahya wrested power from him, but shortly thereafter, unable to deal with the political crisis, presided over the dismemberment of Pakistan. He was forced out of office by the army itself after a humiliating defeat in the 1971 war and the birth of Bangladesh.

Similarly, when President Musharraf was forced out of power, having lost American support, Asif Zardari stepped into his shoes – similar scenario, different actors. Zardari also proved his lack of vision and political acumen and serious apprehensions are being expressed about dangers to the territorial integrity of Pakistan.

One year in office, Zardari has failed to steer the country out of the political and economic morass that, in large part, is his government’s own making. He violates the parliamentary system that he presides over by sidelining the prime minister and running the government with the help of sycophants and unelected cronies who capitalize on his insecurity arising out of his quest for legitimacy.

That he receives wrong counsel and is out of sync with the popular mood became amply clear from his stand on the issue of restoring the judiciary, which he had to unceremoniously reverse under military pressure when thousands of angry protesters began marching on to Islamabad demanding reinstatement of the judges.

Domestically, his government has failed on all fronts. It lost its writ over most of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), after which the local Taliban continued their march into Punjab creating an environment of terror. Its shaky grip on the state machinery strengthened religious extremism. After a relative period of stability under Musharraf, the economy has rapidly declined and is in doldrums. Investment has dried up, unemployment has risen steeply, and inflation has caused consumer prices to spin out of control. Ironically, while the common man carries his cross, unsure of his next meal, politicians in power roll in luxury.

The Pakistan People’s Party that Zardari coerced into submission after Benazir’s death is gradually finding its voice. Dissensions are clearly visible, signaling a split.

On the external front, his submission to American diktat to promote its Afghan-Pakistan interests, rather than national interests, makes him very unpopular at home. His foreign ministry is ridiculed for being “On Her Majesty’s Service” – a reference not to the British Queen but to the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. The Chinese disapprove of Zardari’s pro-American policies, which is why he failed to secure a meeting with senior Chinese officials on his last visit.

Pakistan today is a dysfunctional state, in grave and imminent danger of collapse. An air of despondency and gloom has blanketed the country. People are extremely concerned about their present and the future. The worst has happened – they have lost hope and are resigned to their fate.

This is the Pakistan of today, Pakistan under Zardari.

This is in sharp contrast to the Pakistan of 1947 when fired by a hope and a dream, ethnically diverse Muslim communities of the subcontinent came together with the intent of forming a pluralistic society under the leadership of Jinnah – a man of principles, integrity and vision and believer in the rule of law. He accomplished the impossible; he created an ideological state – and history.

Partition of the subcontinent was a nightmare of gigantic proportions. It triggered the biggest transfer of population in world history (15 million). A resource-less government in Pakistan had to deal with monumental issues of governance, communal violence, rehabilitation of millions of destitute refugees, an empty treasury, lack of industry and infrastructure and an ill-equipped army fighting a war in Kashmir.

Yet the people and the Founding Fathers successfully came out of those dark hours and accomplished the herculean task of building Pakistan from the ground up despite chaotic conditions, through sheer hope and courage. Another people might not have even survived.

Jinnah gave his life for Pakistan, dying on the roadside in an ambulance that broke down. Liaquat Ali Khan, the first prime minister, left only a few hundred rupees in his bank account when he was assassinated. Such were the leaders then.

And that was Pakistan then – Jinnah’s Pakistan.

In less than sixty years Pakistan made the unfortunate and painful transition from Jinnah’s Pakistan to Pakistan under Zardari – a journey from hope to despair. The people who once controlled their destiny have lost control over it. The leadership that symbolized integrity gave way to soldiers of fortune who sold their souls to the devil. Political institutions that Jinnah began to create but did not live to see take root have been gradually dismantled.

Taking advantage of leadership vacuum created by the passing away of the Founding Fathers, the country was seized by inept and corrupt politicians belonging to the feudal and moneyed class, ambitious government servants and power seeking generals. In various ways they all prostituted democracy, misruled the country, and robbed the people. Their political adventurism brought the country to the brink.

And while Pakistan was pillaged and raped, people watched from the sidelines, silently and helplessly. They had failed their country. The people, the political leadership and the system of governance, like the legs of a three legged stool, are equally important. None can be dispensed with.

Although the blame for this tragedy is rightly heaped on politicians and military rulers, the buck does not stop there. The people of Pakistan – the civil society, and the system of governance that allowed this to happen, must equally share the blame.

The people let the country down on four counts.

Firstly, they failed to integrate into a nation, even though they had a common language, religion and historical experience to rally around. They followed heterodoxy rather than develop a broad-based religious and ethnic homogeneity, a shared culture (retaining multiculturalism), common values and, importantly, a unified national identity. National identity is largely a product of government policy and this was shunned by politicians because their appeal and power base was mostly limited to their provinces and they played ethnic cards to win elections. A unified national identity would have posed a challenge to their leadership.

Secondly, as members of civil society they failed to protect the country’s interests. Knowing all too well that political leadership was there to exploit and not to deliver, the civil society should have vigorously responded, even if this meant display of street power, the like of which was witnessed recently, to throw up a middle class leadership. This would have ensured accountability and kept politicians on the leash.

Thirdly, the card of religion was overplayed. The premise that Islam would serve as a unifying and binding force in a society that was historically and deeply divided along ethnic tribal, cultural, linguistic and sectarian lines did not work. In the modern socio-political environment, economic and political considerations, not religion, become overriding concerns, particularly when survival is at stake. East Pakistan’s struggle for independence was one example.

The Subcontinent was home to Muslims of all colors and creeds who either converged from other regions or locally converted, all carrying their own baggage. Except for a limited degree of interracial, intercultural and inter-sectarian integration among Muslims, syncretism remained, suppressed for fear of a Hindu onslaught, and was swept under the carpet during the freedom struggle. Once the Hindu threat disappeared after partition, the differences emerged and intensified.

Poverty, illiteracy, and ignorance enabled the rise of the semi-literate and illiterate mullah whose orthodox interpretation of religion promoted intolerance, bigotry and extremism. And when political and economic interests clashed on the issue of control of key national institutions and financial resources by one province, the ethnic blame game marred inter-provincial relationships; clan identity became the key to political affiliations and regional nationalists pitched the provinces against one another. Religion-based integration receded in the background while parochial mindset took control.

Fourthly, Pakistan suffers from the curse of mass obsession with personality cults that inhibits sound political judgment by the voters. Pakistanis keep falling in love with charismatic politicians and keep returning them and their dynasties to power, irrespective of their credentials. And when heirs inexperienced in statecraft leapfrog into power they generate chaos, corruption and inefficiency, which stymie political institutions. President Zardari is one such heir.

With these deep fault lines crisscrossing the socio-political landscape and in the absence of any conscious effort at erasing them, the society began to pull apart rather than come together.  Collectively, therefore, people have failed to think or function as a nation, even in 62 years.

The present system of governance is heavily flawed. It allows unbridled misuse of the state machinery by politicians and vested interests driven by greed for power and wealth, which has made a travesty of democracy. Even the best of democracies suffer from some form of inefficiency, but when an environment is marked by mass ignorance and illiteracy; political incompetence; absence of effective checks, balances and accountability; a corrupt and inefficient judiciary; and an indifferent civil society, democracy becomes a tool in hands of the unscrupulous. In Pakistan this opened doors for military intervention.

Pakistan has reached a stage where it needs a revolutionary approach to resolve its problems of governance. Unorthodox and creative solutions that suit the genius and aspirations of the people and that can root out inefficiency and corruption are urgently needed. Time is of the essence.

Pakistan cannot survive on life support for long. If this is not done now, either Pakistan will disintegrate or a bloody revolution will engulf it. If the people cannot keep their body and soul together, they have nothing else to lose except their patience. Realization about the criticality of reform in the way this country is governed is growing, but people are unsure of how this could be addressed.

Although a matter of debate, one option is to install a government of civilian technocrats with the backing of the military for a defined period and a pre-defined purpose, during which time the military can lend its organizational support. Some major tasks for this interim government should be: determine the form of government most suited to Pakistan’s situation (the intelligentsia seems to believe that a combination of presidential and parliamentary form would be a better choice); enforce the rule of law; clean up the judiciary; disqualify politicians found guilty of misuse of power; democratize political parties; allow only those which can prove legitimate source of funding; outlaw parties and outfits that preach ethnic and sectarian violence and religious extremism; break up the current four provinces into several smaller provinces, preferably by grouping the current administrative divisions together; devolve power to these provinces keeping only essential subjects with the center; reform civil service; overhaul and universalize education; bring madrasas under provincial oversight; and make pre-approval mandatory for appointment of federal cabinet members, judges of the supreme court, and other important appointees by a Senate committee.

This might even call for amending the 1973 Constitution. But then why not? This constitution has been amended for more flimsy reasons. This will hopefully bring the country back from the brink and could prove to be the last chance of preventing a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions.