VIEW: Co-opted intellectuals — Dr Ayesha Siddiqa
Daily Times, June 11, 2007
One of the gripes of the Pakistani establishment is that it has to fight an uneven battle against India, especially when it comes to creating and projecting a positive image of the country. While the Indians, it is believed, dominate the think-tanks in the US and the West, there are very few Pakistani intellectuals who can counter the Indian thrust.
The problem with scholars, as far as the Pakistani state is concerned, is that there aren’t too many. Those who can write and have some credibility cannot be trusted or are not willing to play ball at the behest of the establishment. This situation is considered unpleasant. What the establishment would like to do instead is to create its own set of intellectuals or scholars who can then fight its battles in the academia or in the policy-making circle. The problem with this approach is that selling the Pakistani establishment’s perspective is such a costly affair that most scholars/intellectuals are likely to end up losing their credibility. It is not that they are less smart; just that the establishment habitually takes untenable positions, such that defending them is almost impossible.
The establishment’s point of view is easier to understand. Any government or regime would like to have people on its side irrespective of what position it takes. What is more difficult to understand is when people with credibility fall pray to the establishment’s advances.
A glance at Pakistani-based intelligentsia shows that some of the promising and brightest stars eventually fall prey to the state’s advances. The state had always controlled the hardcore university-based academia which has not really contributed star-quality people. A university environment, which does not allow free debate, does not have the capacity to generate great intellectuals. So, the star-value or more noticeable intellectuals were born outside the university system, which means among the journalists.
The past three decades have seen many such who rose high and then got co-opted. They began as champions of political liberalism, challenged the state power and became powerful commentators on the country’s politics and regional security before keeling over to the other side. The important question is: Why does this happen? Why do established names get attracted to the establishment they question so vociferously?
There are several explanations for this change of character of the bright Pakistani intellectuals. First, most of these people actually belong to the ruling elite; this means their fight is not so much for the sake of political liberalism but for their own power. The problem with the Pakistani political system is that since there is no method to negotiate power, new players tend to use different tools such as religion or political liberalism to create spaces for themselves. Once power is negotiated, these people fall in line with the establishment.
Second, most of these intellectuals have stakes in the establishment and its discourse. The intention is not to change the discourse but to divert the emphasis from the old actors to themselves. A lot of the big names are scions of the ruling elite who have greater access to the establishment’s discourse. The tendency is to deviate from the official line for a short period. Being radical in an authoritarian political system is highly fashionable and brings kudos and attention. It is almost like pot-smoking, not as a habit but to challenge the traditional norms and to establish one’s independence.
Third, being part of the ruling elite, the new stars of the intelligentsia are extremely comfortable with the state-oriented security discourse. In fact, these people challenge the security discourse to the degree and to the point where they can get public attention and attract the establishment with their seemingly radical ideas. The expression of radicalism is then used to negotiate an elevated space in the socio-political hierarchy. Once the target is achieved, the old stance is quickly abandoned. Hence, most of the stars are actually the children of the establishment, which is comfortable with them because the radicalism is temporary.
The establishment understands that it would not be difficult to eventually convince these intellectuals and bring them to its side. The security discourse cannot be challenged and it has to be kept away from the politics of the masses. Issues such as the threat to state security and power of the enemy state then become a rallying point. What happens in the process is that the fantastic reputation of these intellectuals is used to convince the common man of the fact that the security discourse is sacrosanct and must not be challenged.
Finally, most would give in to the power of the state due to its immense capacity to coerce an individual or a group of people. The state has greater resources to organise and kill dissent, especially in an environment like Pakistan’s where authoritarianism, military and civilian, has always been the case.
Sadly, the process of bright intellectuals collaborating with the state continues. New ones replace the old ones and the cycle goes on. In fact, in the mind of the state and its establishment there is no room for challenging the primary discourse beyond a certain point. As a bright and young intellectual one must be intelligent enough to determine which issues are non-negotiable and when to stop fighting. This is when the establishment would immediately reward the person with a higher position and a share in power. This has happened before and will happen again.
The problems with this approach are twofold. First, it reflects the insecurity and immaturity of the state. What the establishment must understand is that every state has a perspective on policy. Problems occur when policymaking becomes highly centralised and is carried out by a small cabal. Such a process does not include the perspective of numerous stakeholders and does not reflect pluralism. Selling policies to the world outside and domestically then becomes a huge problem. It is beneficial for policymaking to be less rigid and should have sufficient stakeholders on board; in other words, policymaking process should be sufficiently flexible.
Second, if people are brought on board to propagate a rigid policy, they lose their credibility the minute they become part of the establishment’s game. The collateral damage is not just the reputation of such people but the fact that they lose their credibility to argue the discourse within and outside the country. The onlookers sadly remember the days when the intellectuals had operated with greater liberty and had an independent opinion.
Credibility, it must be noted, is not just an issue of reputation. It is mainly about having the ability to appear convincing. Such a one is least likely to make an impression in the world of academia and intelligentsia. The world will listen to him and then ignore the argument or give it less credence. The state must understand that it is, in fact, counter-productive to turn intellectuals into collaborators.
The result of state’s manipulation and the willing co-option by the rising stars of the intelligentsia is that Pakistan suffers from a credibility deficit. This problem cannot be solved unless it is understood that allowing plurality of views is extremely beneficial in the long run. People with greater intellectual credibility have a greater chance of selling the establishment’s case than others.
The biggest damage, however, is at the level of the national discourse. Once these intellectuals become collaborators they have very little capacity to contribute to the academic or intellectual discourse.
The writer is an Islamabad-based independent defence analyst and author of the book, Military Inc, Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy