Bilawal Bhutto Zardari became Pakistan's minister of foreign affairs in April 2022. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

Politics in the name of the Covid-19 pandemic has almost overshadowed the impact of the disease itself on human lives and the economy in Pakistan. While the rest of the world is busy not only trying to develop a vaccine but is also devising plans regarding how to move forward in the post-Covid era, the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) government is busy playing its favorite blame games.

Currently the number of Pakistanis infected by the virus is in the thousands, but the government after easing the lockdown has completely forgotten the plight of the masses.

On Monday a session of the National Assembly was called, but instead of hearing opinions from opposition members in order to develop a cohesive plan, the PTI government kept criticizing the rival parties, while both Prime Minister Imran Khan and opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif did not even bother to attend this very important session of parliament.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), on the floor of the house asked the government not to fight with the opposition, but his plea went unheard. He also accused the government of not cooperating with the provinces and in return, government members trotted out the same old mantra of corruption and held the PPP and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) responsible for the country’s poor health-care infrastructure.

While the government is concentrating on pinning its failures on the opposition, the military establishment is more concerned about making sure its defense budget does not get cut and that its officers get a raise in their salaries.

On Monday a letter dated May 8 appeared on digital media in which the Ministry of Defense asked the Finance Ministry to increase the salaries of the officers of the armed forces by up to 20%, citing inflation and tax increases as the reasons.

Though normally the salaries of government employees are raised every year, this development came at a time when the country is facing a major economic slump. People are losing their jobs and small and medium-sized enterprises are going out of business, while the downtrodden section of society helplessly watches the power elite fighting for their piece of the pie at a time when not even developed countries are sure about their future.

Meanwhile the opposition appears to lack the courage to ask why in the middle of a pandemic the salaries of armed-forces officers should be raised, especially given the fact that the doctors who are the frontline soldiers against Covid-19 are not even provided with personal protection equipment.

Then the question arises as to why at this time when there is a no bigger threat than Covid-19, the salaries of medical staff should not be increased and why non-productive expenditures like purchasing weapons and building tanks and missiles should not be diverted to the fragile health-care system.

The problem remains that the current PTI government is the product of a rigged political discourse, so it lacks the ability to say no to its backers, whereas the opposition knows that raising such questions would mean more allegations of corruption and many of its members being sent behind bars. Even a large section of the press and electronic media has no courage to host a debate on this critical issue.

If there is a lesson to be learned from this pandemic for the developing countries, it surely is that wasting money on weapons and a big military is of no use, as the modern world has different challenges. Even the military might of the US is of no use right now as it is at the mercy of this pandemic.

If Pakistan and India, instead of spending heavily on defense, had allocated that money to education, research and health care, today these countries would not be looking helplessly to the rest of the world to develop a vaccine and bail them out of this situation where both human lives and economies are at stake.

In Pakistan long before this pandemic, the economy was struggling as the establishment’s Naya Pakistan project in the form of Imran Khan failed miserably. So it is time that it realized that carrying on with this failed project will only lead to more misery.

There is no point in asking for higher salaries for military brass or for increases in the defense budget, as conventional wars are old tactics. The countries with the most laboratories, the most hospitals the most information-technology and research centers eventually will prevail, while the countries that rely solely on their big armies will only act as the warriors for the developed countries, as Pakistan has been serving this role for the US since the 1970s.

If instead Pakistan had tried becoming a hub of IT or research and education it would have a say in geopolitical issues, and New Delhi would have never have annexed Jammu and Kashmir with the tacit approval of the US and its allies, nor would the world have been a silent spectator of the atrocities against Kashmiris.

The US after being hit badly by the pandemic will not be able to provide a free lunch in the form of aid to Pakistan in return for a proxy battle in Afghanistan or somewhere else. Likewise, Riyadh will be more concerned about saving its oil-oriented economy after losing the oil war to Russia, and no aid or loans can be expected from the Saudis in the near future.

Challenges always offer opportunities, and perhaps this is the opportunity for the establishment to revisit its policy of creating defense-centric narratives. This pandemic is just the beginning of a new world order where arms and conventional armies will be of no use and where science, technology, health, and education systems along with corporations will play decisive roles.

In fact, soon the US and European countries like Britain and France will need to revisit their policies of waging proxy wars in different regions of the world, as spending heavily on these wars denies their masses health care and other basic facilities. So in Pakistan, the only choice for the establishment is to return to its constitutional role of protecting the geographical borders of the country and leave the protection of ideological borders and devising national narratives to elected representatives.

It is also in the best interest of the powers that be and the country that political discourse should not be manipulated and indirect military rule through hybrid regimes should be stopped. If dictators like Generals Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf were not able to keep their reigns intact, no one in the future will be able to do so either.

Enough time has been wasted in this game of thrones where every now and then elected governments are destabilized and sent packing, and then the establishment rules through direct martial law or hybrid regimes. The past 71 years are enough to tell that every institution has to remain within its constitutional limits, and the national narratives need to be reinvented according to the requirements of the modern era for the better future of the country.

Covid-19 has changed the entire globe and its thinking; now the question is, will it also change the thinking of the Pakistani establishment? 

History tells us that change is the only constant in the world, and as the late Louisiana State University professor Leon C Megginson said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

So perhaps it is time to take advantage of this pandemic by relinquishing rotten narratives and authoritarian mindsets and let the wisdom of the masses prevail though the ballot, after which new narratives are built by the representatives they elect. 

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.