Nov 19, 2009

No alternatives

By Dr Masooda Bano

The current political environment in Pakistan is offering more of the same. Arguably, it is good to have the political alliance among major parties continue in some form or the other as it helps sustain the democratic system. However, the failure of the PPP government to initiate any real process of reform is making the continuation of the same system not necessarily good news.

The problem is that while PPP is failing to initiate new policies and development programmes, the opposition, the PML-N included, is also failing to provide an alternative perspective or a way forward. It is true that things in Pakistan are challenging from any perspective. It is not easy for a government to move on day-to-day reforms when it is so bogged down in responding to acts of militancy. However, when the government starts to use the threat of the militancy as an excuse not to deliver on the other fronts, then things get particularly hopeless for the country.

The recent meeting of the PPP senior leadership has reportedly recorded some positive developments. The senior party leaders reportedly were self-reflective and critical of the performance of the party. It has been reported that President Zardari recorded a definite change in style, and unlike the past was allowing all members to have their say. Some party members also argued that they should not be scared of being in the opposition if undertaking some reforms leads to such threats.

There was also a call by some members to reinstate Aitzaz Ahsan’s membership in the party’s senior committee. These are positive developments. If Mr Zardari feels enough pressure now to listen to the voices of concern within his own party, that is good news. However, the problem is that despite these self-reflections, the PPP is still failing to establish a government, which is committed to ground-level reforms.

In this context, apart from the glaring problems of electricity and gas supplies, inflation, inaccessibility of basic food items, what is most worrying is the continued neglect of the education sector. A democratic government, which is actually committed to reforms, cannot ignore the education sector because of the political and economic benefits associated with it. Education is critical for economic growth, but it is also important for building a civic culture, which is resistant to military interventions. The military governments have deliberately neglected the education sector because an educated public aware of its rights is less likely to support military regimes.

However, the tragedy in case of Pakistan is that due to the continued hold of the feudal families on the political system, the elected governments are even less committed to education. Thus, the Pakistani state education sector today is in a state of chaos. Things are getting worse than better, both in terms of ensuring access to education and delivering quality education. A real test of a government’s commitment to reform in Pakistan is its approach to the education sector. Sadly, the PPP government is showing utter neglect of this sector. There is not even much serious talk of investment in the sector, forget actual implementation of dynamic reform programmes.

In all this, the further disturbing aspect is that it is not just the PPP but the whole political elite which seems to lacking a vision for the future. The PML-N took some very commendable stances before and after the elections last year. The party’s commitment to reinstatement of the judge and independence of the judiciary is indeed appreciated. However, Nawaz Sharif has also disappointed the public by having gone very quiet after that.

He and his party have failed to provide an alternative vision of what the government should be doing right now. To keep supporting the PPP government when it is failing to deliver much is not too significant in itself unless the public can see that the PML-N is using its power as an opposition party to influence the existing system to undertake the right reforms. It is not just the PPP but even the PML-N leadership and those of other parties that are failing to show a commitment to reforms of fundamental sectors such as education. Pakistan is desperate for a visionary and committed leadership. The sad news is that no one is coming forward to provide that.

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