The problem

 

THE study of Pakistani politics is not only captivating in its sheer dynamism but also imposing in the task of decoding its manifold complexities, hidden forces and intricate nuances. Scholars and commentators grappling with domestic political developments in Pakistan are required often to contend with the blinding pace of political change, the fluid shifting nature of political alliances and the kaleidoscopic blur of new and evolving configurations of political actors.

Moreover, Pakistan is situated in a sensitive regional context marked often by instability, suspicion and competition rather than cooperation, collaboration and trust. The countrys internal make-up consists of a mosaic of cultures, languages, religions and religious sects, and a layered, often hierarchical, social strata.

This tense regional setting and complex internal sociology is embroiled in the makings of and contestation over local and national identities, as well as political struggles over issues of recognition, resource allocation and representation. Home to recurring ethnic as well as sectarian nationalisms and disputed borders with neighbouring nations, an encompassing, stable and inclusive sense of Islamic nationhood has been difficult to define in Pakistan. The religious other occupies a contested space in the Pakistani national imagination.

What it means to be Pakistani is an ongoing source of intense social, political, and often violent conflict since the founding of the state in August 1947. This tension bears heavily over the design of laws, socio-cultural policies and the constitutional set up within Pakistan, and foreign engagement and international activism abroad.

That Pakistan sits at the intersection of major global trade routes renders the country crucial to the imperial ambitions of global superpowers. Not surprisingly, Pakistan has often been wound up in global political and ideological struggles. Whether it is the Afghan jihad of the 1980s, or the War on Terror following the tragic events of September 11, or the Belt and Road Initiative in recent years, Pakistan is often central to the imperial designs of world powers. Its involvement in these grand military, ideological or economic projects continues to shape and transform its domestic politics and economic inner workings to the present day. History, in other words, both recent and the past, is indispensable to the observer and analyst in coming to terms with the broader trajectories of Pakistans internal flux and its place in the world.

Pakistans declining economic fortune adds new layers of instability as it struggles to grapple, negotiate, and manoeuvre between the whims and limits imposed between donors and lenders. There is also the factor and influence of the establishment, a euphemism for Pakistans powerful and seemingly omnipresent armed forces and intelligence agencies. The influence of these institutions on political developments is often difficult to underestimate and harder still to determine, making the puzzle of Pakistani politics even more perplexing. Unravelling the hidden machinations of inimical foreign powers and the influence of powerful internal forces remains a fixture of Pakistans public and political discourse, fuelling conspiracies and raising questions over the loyalties of Pakistans political class and the legitimacy of its formal democratic, electoral, and constitutional processes.

This issue of Seminar aspires to place recent developments in Pakistan in a broader perspective and identify the key tensions driving political contestations in the country. It presents short, accessible but comprehensive and provocative essays which take stock of the complex interactions between the historical and the contemporary, state and society, between the local, the regional and the global, and between the structural or institutional, with the evolving social, political. It asks the following questions: what are the foremost domestic political and economic issues facing Pakistan? What are their origins, causes and impacts? How have the various recent political dispensations in Pakistan sought to mitigate, navigate and respond to these challenges? How have these challenges evolved in response to ongoing political developments in the country? And how have they reshaped domestic civil-military, centre-periphery, and majority-minority relations within and Pakistans relations with its neighbours, other Muslim majority states and global powers?

What happens in Pakistan is of profound global significance. Domestic developments have extra-regional repercussions, rendering the need to understand Pakistan an ongoing imperative within and beyond the country. Moreover, Pakistans nuclear capabilities, its geography as nexuses between South and Central Asia, and South Asia and the Middle East, its emergence as a Muslim middle power on the world stage, its close relationships with the major world players, its potential to spread Islamist radicalism or its capacity to compound regional instability, are factors often cited as reasons for taking Pakistan seriously.

But recognition of Pakistans global geopolitical significance poses challenges for scholarly inquiry. The urge to box Pakistan into taxonomic political science categorisations such as failed state or terrorism ground zero is an inviting, easy but misguided temptation. A burgeoning genre of analytical and policy writing has emerged, especially in the aftermath of September 11, which frames Pakistan as a geopolitical problem requiring bold and calculated solutions. However, this literature is often reductive and fails to recognise Pakistans unique historical, sociological and economic circumstances and its almost unwavering resilience in enduring frequent cycles of crisis, political deadlocks and social conflict. It is also often remiss of the fact that Pakistan itself is often the nearest and most affected casualty of the instability it experiences.

The contributions in this collection elucidate aspects of Pakistans inner workings and the multifaceted dimensions of the political and economic challenges the country faces.

 

IMRAN AHMED