Can Pakistan reimagine itself as Belgium? What about Japan or Germany? Or Deng Xiaoping’s China? In his important new book, Reimagining Pakistan: Transforming a Dysfunctional Nuclear State, Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s leading dissident public intellectual, former diplomat, and adviser to three prime ministers including Nawaz Sharif and the late Benazir Bhutto, explains why these aren’t crazy thoughts. The book’s key argument: such rebranding is not only desirable but also feasible if Pakistan’s leadership takes the long view.

Multi-ethnic Pakistan could learn, for example, from Belgium, which has a relatively brief history as a nation, and comprises of three ethnic groups – Flemish, Walloons and Germans. It has countries with overlapping ethnolinguistic groups as neighbours. “Just as there had been no Pakistan before 1947, there was no state called Belgium until 1830,” Haqqani writes.

The territory that now makes up Belgium, Haqqani points out, was previously Southern Netherlands, and had been a battlefield involving France, Germany and the Netherlands. And though Belgium was born out of revolt against a Dutch king, Belgians were pragmatic enough not to embrace a nationalism marked by animosity towards the Dutch.

Haqqani, who currently lives in exile in the United States, says Pakistan’s national ego may baulk at being compared with Belgium, a much smaller country. But everything is relative. ‘In some ways, Pakistan’s desire to compete militarily and otherwise with India is like Belgium deciding to become France’s permanent rival,’ Haqqani writes, tongue firmly in cheek.

Pakistan could wisely eschew the narrative of hatred and fear and be like Belgium but there is a big ‘if’.

It can work only if Pakistan’s leaders decide that they want to change the country’s trajectory permanently. If they do, there are plenty of examples – Belgium; Germany and Japan after the Second World War; China moving from Mao Zedong’s hard-line communism towards Deng Xiaoping’s economic modernisation.

There was nothing inevitable about any of these national narratives. They worked because the leadership in these countries chose the pragmatic path. Pakistan could do the same. But will it?

An image problem

Those who are familiar with Haqqani’s earlier works know his take on the mullah and the military in Pakistan, and their pre-eminent roles in shaping that country’s politics. His latest book delves deeper into these relationships, and their footprint on the nation’s quest for identity and security.

Pakistan has meant different things to different people since its birth some seventy years ago. Most Indians see Pakistan through the prism of Kashmir, terrorism and conflicts. In the global imagination, Pakistan is associated with Osama Bin Laden, military coups, blasphemy laws and such like.

Much of Pakistan’s poor image and dysfunction are due to an ideology tied to religion and to hostility with India, the country from which it was carved out. However, the vast majority of the 210 million people who live in Pakistan today were born after Partition and have known no other homeland, as Haqqani reminds the reader. There is nothing inevitable about them seeing their country through the same ideological lens as their parents or grandparents. A change is possible.

What would it be like if Pakistan reimagined itself? Haqqani argues for a shift away from ideological to functional nationalism: “We are Pakistanis because we were born in Pakistan”, as opposed to “We are Pakistanis because our forebears resolved to create an Islamic state”. That, he writes, will help change the milieu in which assorted Islamist and jihadi groups recruit and operate in Pakistan.

But for this to happen, the State in Pakistan must resolve to end support to all jihadis and reconcile itself to a truly pluralist Pakistan embracing multiple visions for the country’s future. Plus, it must also overcome archaic notions of national security, Haqqani points out.

In his envisioning exercise, Pakistan could choose to leverage its location and see itself as a trading nation instead of a warrior nation. If Pakistan chose to reimagine and rebrand itself, India and Afghanistan would be major trading partners instead of being viewed as hostile countries and strategic rivals.

As a start, Pakistan would need to invest significantly in raising literacy, connectivity, agricultural and industrial productivity. If it concentrated on basics, it could find peace with its neighbours and cease to be the perceived as a troubled state, a failing state or a crisis-ridden state.

The role of the army

The book, which marshals historical facts, political realities, economic factoids and personal insights, is simultaneously a searing indictment of Pakistan’s status as an Islamic ideological state, marked by religious nationalism and the dominant position of the army and Haqqani’s wish list for a better-imagined Pakistan.

To a lay person in India, reading Haqqani for the first time, one of the most fascinating parts of the book are the bits that make the case that the military’s dominance over Pakistan’s policy direction is structural. Its roots go back to the circumstances of Pakistan’s birth.

“Most nations raise an army proportionate to the size of the threats to their security. In Pakistan’s case, the magnitude of security threats has been expanded to match the size of the army inherited from the colonial era,” Haqqani observes acerbically.

The concluding chapter, “Avoiding the March of Folly” synthesises the compelling reasons why Pakistan should reimagine itself. Others in this region, including India, should pay attention to this alternative narrative too. The discord between India and Pakistan holds back all of South Asia, home to around 1.7 billion people living in eight countries.

At a recent function in New Delhi’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club, I asked Haqqani what led him to reimagine Pakistan and question the official narratives. He put it down to being a precocious child, with an upbringing that allowed him to question everything, his stints in the Pakistani government as well as several months in prison. All of that gave him the opportunity to go through all the knowledge he had processed over the years and review it.

What India can do

The message of the book? Haqqani’s answer: for Pakistanis, it is about the need to think of their country differently so that the reality changes. For others, it is that Pakistan can be different if it makes different policy choices; don’t assume what you have is what you will always have; other nations have changed.

The book leaves you with an inevitable thought. At a time when leaders of North and South Korea have held a historic meeting, paving the way for what could be the start of a new era, does the idea of normalising India-Pakistan relations seem less of a pipe dream? Who dares to definitively forecast what is in the realms of the possible and the impossible?

The rise of Hindutva as a political force in India in recent years, Haqqani writes, will probably feed the “ideology of Pakistan” for a few more years by setting an oppositional idea to confront. But imagine what could happen if Pakistan reimagined itself and India lived up to the ideas of its founding fathers?

Reimagining Pakistan: Transforming a Dysfunctional Nuclear State, Husain Haqqani, HarperCollins India