(This is Part Seven of a series that analyses the results of an ambitious survey conducted across India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh to try and find out what citizens of the three independent sovereign republics think about each other, about the state of democracy in their country; about gender, religious and ethnic freedom; achievements and failures and about institutions among others.)
Going by conventional wisdom, Pakistan is yet neither a “basket case” of economically bankrupt, nor politically a “failed state”. Countries with worse economic crises than Pakistan have staged remarkable turnarounds. And similarly, with functional institutions still intact, Pakistan is not remotely in a situation that confronts countries like Syria, Yemen, or even Venezuela.
Yet, it is tottering at the edge of the precipice. This was evident from responses of Pakistanis during an exclusive survey conducted by CVoter in collaboration with the Centre for Policy Research (CPR). The ambitious survey was planned and executed in the latter half of 2022 to mark 75 years of independence and the partition of India into two nation-states (Bangladesh becoming the third one officially in 1972). The results of the survey have provided a wealth of data and insights for analysts, scholars, and policymakers to use.)
Will Pakistan’s Economic Crisis Plummet Further?
In the CVoter-CPR survey, a significant proportion of Pakistanis think their country could be the next Sri Lanka when it comes to dire economic straits. As the chart below shows, close to three out of every five Pakistani citizens think that their country is heading toward a Sri Lanka kind of economic crisis. That is hardly surprising as most independent economic analysts in Pakistan and beyond are convinced that while the “State” is still functional, the economy is bankrupt.
A few months back, the central bank of Pakistan raised interest rates to a jaw-dropping 21 per cent. But that would be of no use to a citizen fortunate enough to save some money and put it in the bank. That is because the rate of inflation is hovering around 35 per cent.
Credible news outlets from the country now routinely report how several people have lost their lives during stampedes while getting wheat or flour. The basic staple food can be bought at upwards of Rs 200 per kilogram in most places there. The value of the Pakistani Rupee is sliding inexorably towards Rs 300 against the US dollar. Foreign exchange reserves range between USD 4 billion to USD 6 billion. That figure too is illusory as benefactors like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and China have been “rolling over” past debts.
Will India Play a Friend or Foe in Pak Crisis?
Alongside, two other South Asian nations, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have gone through troubled economic times in the recent past. In both cases, India has lent a crucial helping hand by way of assistance in cash and kind. But in the case of Pakistan, attitudes are a little different.
It is not just because Indians and Indian policymakers are hostile to the country. Even Pakistanis seem to have no love lost for India. During the CVoter-CPR survey, citizens of Pakistan were asked about their views on whether India can be trusted or not. Only one in ten respondents stated that they do trust India a lot while 60 per cent were of the opinion that they do not trust India at all.
The mistrust is mutual as pointed out in a previous column in this series, close to three-fourths of Indians do not trust Pakistan at all. Interestingly, while more than 45 per cent of Pakistanis have a lot of trust in China, three in every four Indians have no trust at all in the second-largest economy of the world. There doesn’t seem to be much hope for the two nation-states separated at birth forging close relations in the near future unless something dramatic changes.
This becomes further evident from the responses to a question on the possibility of more friendly relations between India and Pakistan. The unexpectedly high proportion of somewhat likely comes from those below the age of 25, Hindus, people from Baluchistan, and supporters of the Pakistan People’s Party that was formed by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto after Bangladesh separated from Pakistan and became an independent country.
When it comes to what issues engage and worry Pakistanis the most, the country resembles India a lot; though the magnitude of worry expressed by the Pakistanis seems to be much more intense.
In the previous column in this series, we analysed the issues that concern Indians the most. Close to three out of every five Indians had singled out corruption as a very serious issue. That should not be surprising since public discourse in India, for now, more than a decade (especially around the anti-corruption movement) has revolved around this issue. Poverty too, was highlighted as a major issue in India, followed by dynasty politics, religion, and the military in descending order. In the case of Pakistan, as the chart below reveals, poverty, corruption, and dynasty politics get more than 50 per cent while religious intolerance comes far behind as a serious issue with 38 per cent of respondents highlighting it.
What Tipped the Balance for Pakistan?
It may be worth noting here that till the late 1980s, Pakistan had a better track record than India in reducing poverty. As a matter of fact, the per capita income of Pakistan was about 40 per cent higher than India. Today, it is the exact reverse.
It was a net exporter of food grains, thanks to the fertile plain of the Punjab that is part of Pakistan. Currently, Pakistan has to import food grains. Besides, the value of the Pakistani currency back then was stronger than the Indian Rupee. Today, the Indian Rupee is worth Rs 82 to a dollar while the Pakistani Rupee trades at Rs 275 to a dollar. The rate of inflation in the country has surpassed 35 per cent with food inflation at astronomical levels. In such a scenario, it is natural for poverty to be a very important problem that worries the average Pakistani more than anything. Corruption and dynastic politics, of course, are very big issues in Pakistan as they are in all countries in South Asia. A significant proportion of Indians too have identified dynasty politics as a serious problem, as highlighted in the previous column in this series.
One big difference that stands out is the absence of “military” as an area of concern in Pakistan, especially given the history of military coups in the country. Only one-third of respondents in the CVoter-CPR survey had identified the military as a problem area. The relative health of a society and a country depends to a large extent on the levels of trust ordinary citizens have in various institutions of the country. In the recent past, countries across the world are facing a crisis irrespective of the system because of ideological polarisation triggering a loss of faith in institutions. Perhaps the most telling example comes from the United States of America, with recent episodes involving Former President Donald Trump, but the fault lines run much deeper. Even in South Asia, one sees an erosion of faith in institutions. As pointed out in the previous column in this series, Indian institutions have been given a wake-up call by respondents in the CVoter-CPR survey. But a significantly higher number of Pakistanis seem to have lost faith in institutions.
As the chart above indicates, more Pakistanis display a complete lack of trust in most institutions. This doesn’t augur well for the country even as it is going through a series of existential crises. Many “pundits” had assumed that the return of Taliban rule in Afghanistan will once again provide the “strategic depth” that the armed forces of Pakistan covet so eagerly.
Far from that happening, ambushes and suicide bombings targeting Pakistani security forces have become routine. Things have soured to such an extent that even the “all-weather” ally China has issued an advisory to its citizens to avoid staying in Pakistan to the extent possible. A majority of the infrastructure work under the Belt & Road Initiative had already been stalled. This move from China is likely to further dent Pakistan’s image on the global stage.
Pakistan’s Institutional Lapses
Public institutions normally offer hope and succor to societies in such times of trouble. But that is not happening in Pakistan. As the chart above indicates, barring the military, no trust at all trumps a lot of trust in all other institutions. The responses are dramatically different from India, and even in Bangladesh which we will explore in the next column. Just imagine: way less than 20 per cent of the citizens have a lot of trust in the judiciary while about 14 per cent have no trust at all.
While there is much debate about the role and independence of the judiciary in India in recent times, close to 45 per cent of respondents in India have expressed a lot of trust in the judiciary. Even the Election Commission gets a thumbs down from folks in Pakistan with about 16 per cent saying they have a lot of trust in it. The figure in India is close to 45 per cent. Most surprising are responses to the military. About 57 per cent of the citizens of Pakistan have a lot of trust in the military; the corresponding figure in India is a whopping 87 per cent.
While the data does not allow us to make any conclusions on such low levels of institutional trust, many independent analysts based in Pakistan and elsewhere are of the opinion that injecting religion into statecraft has been a fatal weakness in the country since the 1970s.
Especially during the tenure of Army Chief Zia Ul Haq who ousted prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in a coup, hanged him, and then became president for life till he himself was killed in a mysterious air crash in 1988. It is now widely acknowledged that Zia, whatever his motives, brought religion not just into public discourse, but tacitly encouraged the extremist version of political Islam.
On Religious Extremism & Security Issues
There is no need really to recount the number of terror attacks in India since the Bombay blasts of 1993 in which “non-state” actors of Pakistan have had a clear role to play. The fact is that Pakistan has just barely managed to get out of the “Grey List” of the FATF and is in danger of being marked yet again as a state that doesn’t do enough to control financial sources and routes that promote terrorism.
When a country is saddled with terrorism, it is inevitable that the country’s economy may also suffer. Till a few decades ago, Bangladesh was considered to be an economic “basket case”. Today, readymade garment exports from Bangladesh at more than USD 40 billion a year are higher than that of India while Pakistan figures nowhere. A credible media outlet in the country reported that entrepreneurs in Pakistan have hinted their textiles and readymade garments factories lock stock and barrel to Bangladesh.
It is not just the economy, but society too has paid a heavy price in Pakistan because of religious extremism. There is much debate revolving around India when it comes to the issue of the rights of religious minorities. For reasons that may or may not be justified, the global media narrative is about the declining status of religious minorities in India.
As pointed out in the previous column in this series, the proportion of religious minorities in India who feel less safe today is high, but as the chart below reveals, things in Pakistan are a lot worse and citizens are aware of the gravity of this problem.
Pakistan’s High Stakes on Imran Khan
The message is stark and clear. And the process began nearly five decades ago when the Parliament of Pakistan passed a law that declared Ahmediyas to be non-Muslims. At that time Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was the prime minister of Pakistan. The irony is that a large proportion of Ahmediyas had supported the idea of a separate nation for Muslims when the British decided to leave India. The cruelty of this irony can be seen in the case of Mohammed Abdus Salam, the only Pakistani to win a Nobel Prize for scientific achievements. He won the Nobel Prize in 1979. But he had left Pakistan in 1974 to protest the law that declared that Salam and millions like him could not call themselves Muslims.
Since then, his grave has been desecrated by extremists. Not every Ahmediya in Pakistan can leave the country at will like Salam. It is not surprising that about a third of Ahemdiyas feel they are safer in Pakistan compared to almost 60% of Sunni Muslims.
When societies face such a prolonged crisis as Pakistan is undergoing now, citizens start looking for "saviours”. That brings us to the most astonishing result of the survey. People tracking Pakistan are aware of the manner in which Imran Khan was thrown out as prime minister and replaced by Shahbaz Sharif who leads an unlikely coalition of parties. But a significant proportion of citizens in Pakistan seem to think Imran Khan is a saviour.
Khan who served as Pakistan PM’s for less than four years between 2018 and 2022, is rated as the best prime minister the country had by almost half of the respondents.
At the moment, there is an almost daily circus revolving around Imran Khan. But it is clear that the ordinary voter of Pakistan wants Imran Khan to lead them out of this economic and political crisis. Can he? Will institutions in Pakistan, particularly the armed forces allow that. All bets are off.
(Yashwant Deshmukh & Sutanu Guru work with CVoter Foundation and Rahul Verma is Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)