Points to ponder before returning to a ‘New Pakistan’

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Points to ponder before returning to a ‘New Pakistan’

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Dr. Imran Malik, a neonatologist working and living in Chicago, Illinois, no doubt had little idea that his video would go viral. Inspired by Prime Minister Imran Khan’s address to the nation, Malik, still wearing the scrubs from the hospital where he worked, turned on his camera and gave an impassioned account of how he was giving up his life in the United States and returning to Pakistan.

The promised “Naya Pakistan” that the new Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf-led government has committed to realizing was reason enough for him to make his decision, and he said he was taking up the new government on its invitation. He would sell his house and bring his entire family, including his physician wife, home to Pakistan, back to the place that needed him most.

Malik did all this mere minutes after Khan issued an open call to overseas Pakistanis to return. Hundreds of thousands watched his video and many were inspired by his faith in the new government. While most did not immediately decide to quit their jobs and return, a huge number did feel like there is truly a new era on the horizon.

Ayesha Jamil, a banker living and working in London, said that she was “truly impressed and moved by Imran Khan’s speech to the nation,” despite having been very skeptical and suspicious of Pakistani politicians over the years.  Salman Akhtar, a cardiologist in Las Vegas, Nevada, declared that with the election of Khan, Pakistan now had a “humanitarian at the helm of the nation” and that “the time is ripe for all of us to pay back to the motherland what is due.”  Scores of others, from teachers in Houston, Texas, to lawyers and business owners in Hong Kong and Singapore, expressed similar hopes, a feeling they declared they had not attached to Pakistani politicians in their lifetimes.

Their sentiments are not entirely surprising. Many overseas Pakistanis come from families that prioritized their education, and see themselves as having been forced to move abroad because of a dearth of opportunities in Pakistan itself. Many believe that the lack of careers in their own country has been caused by a corrupt system that ignores merit and rewards the rapacious feudal and industrialist families who install their lackeys in crucial positions. Those with brains and degrees are thus pushed out — or perhaps were pushed out, in the old Pakistan.

In the eyes of many such overseas Pakistanis, the election of a prime minister who does not belong to the feudal classes and who has promised a revolt against the corrupt and nepotistic ways of the past means that their talents will now be respected and valued.

In the eyes of many such overseas Pakistanis, the election of a prime minister who does not belong to the feudal classes and who has promised a revolt against the corrupt and nepotistic ways of the past means that their talents will now be respected and valued.

Rafia Zakaria

Pakistanis who did not leave the country are a bit less optimistic about an en masse return of overseas Pakistanis. In the comments section of Malik’s video, some expressed their concerns. Some recommended that the good doctor remain in the United States and send dollars back instead. The country, many noted, is in dire need of foreign exchange, not more doctors. There is some truth to this. Overseas Pakistanis send more than $20 million in remittances every year, money that is indeed crucial to running a debt-ridden country strapped for foreign exchange.

There are other reasons for skepticism. While promises to transform the country and root out corruption are welcome and hopeful, the decades of graft and abuse that have been the norm in Pakistani institutions have exacted a heavy price. Deep-rooted habits and patterns cannot be eliminated with simplistic promises, and the Khan government has yet to produce the concrete and nuanced plans that are required to make such transformative changes. Before they sell everything and wrap up their lives abroad, overseas Pakistanis might do well to wait a bit until these are articulated and put in place.

Then there are the unsaid exclusions, the Pakistanis that Pakistan does not want back. While no such exceptions were stated by Khan in his speech, they have already been put into practice. Princeton economist Atif Mian was initially invited to be a part of Khan’s Economic Advisory Council but the invitation was rescinded after an extremist cleric who has supported Khan declared his opposition to the appointment. The entire debacle was just the sort of incident that was prevalent in the old Pakistan, where eminent qualifications fall prey to political maneuvering and end up labeling some Pakistanis as being less equal than others. After Mian’s invitation was rescinded, several other people resigned from the Economic Advisory Council. One of them noted the particular irony that Mian, with his world-renowned expertise in debt management, was perhaps the one man whose return would have been most useful to Pakistan. The old Pakistan, it seemed, continues to hold sway.

Asking those who have left to return is a noble proposition. Pakistan sends thousands abroad each year, the export of labor and human capital being one of the country’s most lucrative exports. All of these economic migrants nourish hopes of return, with the familiar, the native holding sway over the hardest of hearts. But if the pain of migration is great, so too might be the crude realities of a return that fails to live up to the expectations attached to it. If the new Pakistan is difficult to realize so, too, is the home of migrant imaginings. Together these castles built on hope can present unintended risks, their collapse worse than their absence.

But these are the views of a skeptic, and the new Pakistan, along with the returning Pakistanis eager to get back to it, has no patience for such old worries.

– Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon 2015) and Veil (Bloomsbury 2017). She writes regularly for The Guardian, Boston Review, The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review and many other publications. Twitter: @rafiazakaria

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