As the mainstream parties position themselves for the national elections next year they would do well to ponder on the four principal challenges that confront Pakistan: (1) The armed extremist coalition that aims to take over the Pakistani State or as much of it as they can, to establish their notion of an Islamic caliphate and then impose it on a global scale. What makes this challenge rather complex is that their extremist ideology has penetrated significant sections of society, as well as some elements of the state apparatus. At the same time the demonstrated capacity of some of these groups which were earlier nurtured by the state, to mount terrorist operations against some of our neighbouring countries, complicates Pakistan's relations with them. (2) An economy beset with a structural incapacity to overcome mass poverty and sustain economic growth. This is combined with a fiscal edifice buckling under an unsustainable budget deficit. Consequently the fiscal space of the government is so constricted that it is unable to mount a social protection program for the destitute at the requisite scale, much less stimulate growth through a major development expenditure program. If Pakistan's economy is to be placed on a new trajectory of sustainability through inclusive growth, if poverty is to be overcome, if financial stability is to be achieved, then a systemic change is required in the institutional structure of the entire social order. This would involve an institutional change in the economy, the ideological and security apparatus of the state, and a balance between the executive, the judiciary and the parliament. (3) The imperative of changing the demonstrably flawed ‘national security’ paradigm of using selected militant groups for achieving strategic depth in Afghanistan and for low intensity warfare to bring India to its knees: death by a thousand cuts. This has to be replaced by a new paradigm of peace whereby Pakistan can transform its economic fortunes by integrating economically with the South and Central Asian region which is currently driving the world economy and is emerging as the greatest economic powerhouse in human history. In this context, achieving peace with India and Afghanistan is now crucial for Pakistan's national security, economic well being of the people, hence internal security and indeed the very integrity of the state. (4) Establishing the supremacy of the Constitution by an irreversible subordination of the military to elected civil authority and the independence of the judiciary.
As Toynbee in his monumental study of world history has argued, nations rise when they identify the challenges they face and bring their collective creativity and energy to bear in overcoming them. They fall if they fail to do so. Pakistan today is at a watershed moment in its history. The crisis of economy, security and institutional instability is grave. Yet precisely because of this an opportunity exists to unite all citizens behind the great endeavour of building a better future.
It is the task of national political parties to devise concrete programs of public action and policy strategies to address these challenges, to specify credible mechanisms for their implementation and mobilize the people to rise to the occasion. The legitimate contention for political power must be conducted within a broad consensus for saving the state through strengthening democracy, achieving internal and external peace and giving an economic stake in citizenship to all of the people rather than a few.
The electorate has had enough of the misery of economic deprivation, of power outages, of the insecurity of life and livelihood, of the use of public office for private gain, of political manipulation, of empty rhetoric. They will no longer fall prey to the “tyranny of the glamorous phrase”. They will scrutinize party programs with the clarity that constrained circumstances inculcate. The political parties better be prepared to face the unsettling gaze of the voter. The people may well give a verdict that could surprise parties that are smug in their illusion of 'vote banks.'