There comes a time in the career of even “the world’s most respected, prolific and authoritative historian of Pakistan” (in the breathless prose of a blurb accompanying this book) when work proffered as “new” and “definitive”, if not carefully judged, can end up with a faint odour of the proverbial plat rechauffé. The staleness is compounded if what is said has already been widely rehearsed by the author or if what the author hopes to pass off as fresh has been more innovatively treated by others.
Much of this applies to The Struggle for Pakistan by Ayesha Jalal. It displays the waning talents of a historian whose erstwhile skill in breaking new ground in our understanding of Pakistan now seems reduced to an ill-conceived move to cash in on a thriving cottage industry built on the “problem” of Pakistan. Almost two-thirds of Jalal’s new book replicates arguments that have already received her close attention in three earlier works on Pakistan: The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan (1985); The State of Martial Rule: The Origins of Pakistan’s Political Economy of Defence (1990) and Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia: A Comparative and Historical Perspective (1995). While there may be a case for condensing these books’ material into a single volume with a clear explanatory focus, this rambling “biography” of Pakistan falls conspicuously short of that objective.
Jalal resurrects three well-worn themes. First, that the creation of Pakistan in 1947 was a travesty of the “real” intentions of its founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. He is claimed to have “inwardly” worked for the unity of India only to have his lofty goal defeated by a combination of narrow regional interests, the arrogance of the Indian National Congress and the machinations of perfidious Albion. Jalal also seeks to disabuse us of the notion that Pakistan had anything to do with Islam. Jinnah’s recourse to religion, she concludes, “was a product of political necessity”, although how this differed from the compulsions of Pakistan’s subsequent leaders is not spelled out.
Second, she reminds us of the damaging consequences of Pakistan’s Cold War alliances in tipping the balance in favour of Pakistan’s unelected institutions, notably the military. Fear of India she argues, rightly, was a key consideration driving this development. But the influence of other factors in these crucial early years, which have left a lasting imprint on Pakistan’s political system, such as the preference for a “vice-regal” style of politics much favoured by Jinnah, his legacy of intolerance towards all forms of political dissent and his palpable lack of interest in nurturing a tradition of popular politics, are given short shrift.
The struggle between the centralised Pakistani state and its headstrong provinces constitutes the third of Jalal’s major themes. The assertion of Bengali regionalism and the secession of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) are revisited at length without shedding any new light on the crisis. The resentment of Pakistan’s smaller provinces at so-called “Punjabi domination” is restated and the failure of recently elected governments to address their grievances is reviewed in familiar and, at times, long-winded detail – a hazard that also afflicts Jalal’s attempt at geo-strategic analysis in the final section of the book.
Ultimately, however, Jalal fails to offer a convincing explanation for Pakistan’s chronic malaise. Mere paeans to its “spirit of democracy” and dedication to its “cosmopolitan humanism” are not enough to account for a country still at war over its identity.
The Struggle for Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics
By Ayesha Jalal
Harvard University Press, 448pp, £25.00
Published 25 September 2014