Pakistan has suffered from a debilitating crisis of identity ever since independence. This has prevented it from charting out a definitive strategic direction for itself. All its rulers, civilians and military dictators alike, have made flamboyant power grabs and unabashedly tried to define/re-define its raison d’etre. The religious right has also made its bid to give an overwhelmingly Islamic tinge to the nation’s outlook and demeanour. Non-State Actors/terrorists too have staked their claims to establish an Islamic Caliphate in its territories. The cross-currents of these clashing ideologies have left the nation thoroughly confused. It remains directionless, undecided, and unsure of where to seek its destiny; in nationalism or pan-Islamism, in extreme-moderate conservatism or rank secularism. Thus, this battle for the soul of Pakistan continues unabated.

The 1950s saw Pakistan being governed without its own Constitution till 1956 (when it became an Islamic Republic). This created space for the bureaucracy and the military to move in, sideline the politicians and take on the mantle of governance for themselves. It was a democratic rule for the better part of this decade till a military takeover in 1958. Pakistan remained moderately conservative with a splash of secularism. The 1960s saw the perpetuation of military dictatorship. Although Pakistan saw good economic prosperity and industrialization, yet the economic and political disparity and ethnic, social, and linguistic divides between its two wings laid the foundations for its eventual breakup. The nation remained moderately conservative and adhered to secular values where necessary but failed miserably to create and maintain unity and territorial integrity.

The 1970s, arguably the most brutal decade of Pakistan’s existence, saw the break up of the country and a mixture of civilian and military rule. The earlier part of the decade saw Pakistan flirt with a strange political concoction—Islamic Socialism. It did not find favour with the public at large, which remained moderately conservative and shunned its rather secular outlook. The latter part of the decade saw a military dictator take over with a renewed emphasis on conservative Islam, Islamic values, and the exacting imposition of a rather harsh version of the Islamic Shariah. So, within the space of a decade, Pakistan swung from moderate conservatism to Islamic Socialism and on to a severe version of Islamic Shariah. The nation remained largely flabbergasted, confused about its true identity and the direction it needed to take to prosperity. Meanwhile, the USSR invaded Afghanistan and a US-sponsored Jihad ensued.

The 1980s saw a continuation of military rule, party-less elections, and eventually civilian rule. The party-less elections did temporarily provide a civilian façade to the military dictatorship. Pakistan’s role in resisting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan endeared it to the US and thus it benefitted in economic and military terms. Civilian rule was restored towards the end of the decade as the military rule came to an end in a fiery air crash. Pakistan remained largely conservative in outlook. The 1990s saw a flurry of civilian governments come and go as if through a revolving door. The two main parties relentlessly pulled one another down and neither completed any of its tenures. Political instability resulted. This decade was epitomized by allegations of large-scale corruption, misuse of authority, and a general loss of public trust in the then-prevailing political system. A sense of nationalism did spread nationwide when Pakistan became a declared nuclear weapons state. Towards the end, yet another military dictator took over. The decade saw a mixture of civil and military rule however a moderately conservative outlook remained dominant.

The first decade of the 21st century was dominated by military rule, the spread of so-called Islamic terrorism across the globe, the US invasion of Afghanistan, and its engagement with Pakistan yet again. The military dictator introduced enlightened moderation, a form of secularism, though it found few adherents if any. Currently, Pakistan finds itself at a tri-junction.

A complex, heterogenous coalition of more than a dozen political parties wants the status quo to persist. Though largely conservative it has members with secular leanings too. The major parties in the coalition show dynastic aspirations much to public disapproval. It represents what we may call the old political order. Its political opponent(s) is essentially anti-status quo and proposes a paradigm shift in the manner of governance of the country. It promises a people-friendly welfare state. Its nationalistic and populist narrative is resonating with the public at large. It has ostensibly acquired a higher moral ground and is drawing massive support from across the political spectrum, in particular the youth, the educated middle class, etc. Terrorism Central though distant yet still aspires for an Islamic Caliphate with its own version of the Shariah. Pakistan has been oscillating, rather uncertainly, between these conflicting, incompatible political and religio-political ideologies, persuasions, and foreign diktat. It needs to bring clarity, balance, and stability in its approach and outlook. It must reinvent itself. It must become a modern, balanced, tolerant, and moderate country. The people, as opposed to the leadership, must now be empowered to finally decide the direction and the avatar that this nation must eventually adopt.