Home/ Opinion / Views/  Pakistan’s crisis matters even if it’s not existential

Like the case of a night guard that raised no alarm, the term ‘existential crisis’ has gone missing in Indian analysis of Pakistan’s trajectory. This has been so for most of the past decade, partly because it had begun to exude the air of a dial-a-dilemma cliche, but more likely for its loss of applicability. The ‘crisis’ bit endures, or course, as seen in this week’s eruption of protests and clashes in Pakistan over the detention on possibly fake graft charges of Imran Khan, a cricket star and popular leader who was ousted from power last year, pushing him and legions of followers into a standoff with an army that has either puppet-played the country’s politics or directly governed it (if that’s the right term) for much of its 75-year history. With its long neglected but lately battered economy at an especially weak point, financial rescues proving as elusive as policy fixes and China’s shadow on its autonomy likely to lengthen even as climate change plays its own havoc, Pakistan clearly faces a ‘polycrisis’ of worrisome proportions. Whether ‘existential’ retains any relevance as a prefix for it, though, is not so clear.

At its most literal, the word suggests a crisis of existence, as if Pakistan could somehow cease to exist. This is a plausible anxiety for a nation that existed only as a theory till 1947, and a contested one at that. It is also cited to explain the extraordinary authority its army wields. The folly of staking all on security (vis-a-vis India) at the expense of its economic emergence, it was hoped, would guide its electoral outcomes and help rebalance its order of priorities. Its tryst with democracy, however, has been patchy. A revolving door between the military in Rawalpindi and leadership in Islamabad has made it hard to read the pulse of its people. While Imran Khan’s populist politics has had Islamist overtures rousing rowdy crowds, for example, his actual popularity will be tested only in general elections later this year (if free and fair). The existential bit that scholars have quit talking about, however, referred to a crisis of national purpose. A crisis of being bewildered by it, i.e., despite being an ideological state brought about by a campaign. As opponents of the ‘two-nation theory’ argued, if this premise were openly proven false, Jinnah’s partition plank would simply collapse; and since an existence left aimless could cause angst, Pakistani politics would be inclined to cast around for anything to justify its creation. If so, India’s Hindu rightist turn might have given the context of that search a new colour. Pakistan’s crisis today may or may not be traceable to its adversarial fixation with India, or even Muslim identity, no matter how Khan sought to stoke it with brazen religious rhetoric, but it’s no less crucial to watch.

For geo-strategists in New Delhi, what our neighbour’s establishment does matters much more than street brawls that rivet eyeballs but offer a low ratio of signal to noise. Pakistan’s tilt away from the US towards China could potentially cramp its autonomy, to avoid which its own strategy makers may veer round to the view it must revive talks with India. Ending up squarely on opposite sides of another cold war would serve neither’s interests, while keeping China’s sway at bay in our subcontinent is critical to us. Yet, although our diplomats may spot a chance to engage Islamabad anew, politics on either side of the border could play spoilsport. Unless, of course, peace is the earnest aim. As thinkers have long advised, if existence precedes purpose, people must take it upon themselves to forge one—for the better.

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Updated: 12 May 2023, 12:06 AM IST
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