The Future of South Asia


Future of South AsiaUnderstanding the Revivalist and Progressive forces of the Region, The Tussles of the Regional and Global Powers, and Smart Strategies to Cope with Change.

People, societies, and nations all over the world are attempting to cope with the fast moving reality of nature – change, and contemplating how one should respond to the complex realities being confronted. As is the rule of natural world, the most adaptable will survive by shaping visions, strategies, and reforms to manage and adjust to constant flux.

Any discussion of the current political environment in Southern Asia in particular and the Islamic world in general must take into account the ongoing struggle between the adherents of these two opposing ideologies: the revivalist and the progressive. Charting the future can be a stressful endeavor and lessons of history provide one important resource to navigate uncharted waters. In the process of studying the past to make sense of the present and defining the course of future, one becomes either a revivalist or a progressive, particularly in context of the history of Sub-Continent and Islamic regions of the world.


The revivalist has usually gone in the past with the aim to reenact it to tackle the future, which means bringing about fundamental change to the existing system. On the other hand, the progressive looks at the future and contemplates how it should be different from the past and the present condition, and usually employs incremental changes to the established order. The critical distinction between them, are the ways they adapt and the means they employ in order to bring about change. A progressive is future looking and works with in the system with the established to alter the system incrementally. The revivalist often tends to work out of the system against the established, using violence (extreme radical) and non-violence (moderate radical) to achieve its fundamental objective. A progressive wants to learn from the environment to adapt and bring reform, while the revivalists have generally blamed others for its grievances, and wants to impose.

Our purpose here is also to take a closer look at how the established and emerging powers deal with revivalists and progressives. To do this we must identify and explore the tensions reflecting changes in the global balance of power, the future of globalization and the need for natural resources. These factors all have the potential to determine the ability of nations to survive and prosper.

Lastly, based on POLITACT’s model we’ll explore other methods for dealing with the uncertain future. In doing this, we borrow lessons from the business world while pointing to strategies which are culturally attuned.

One of the most important economic tenants of the existing and future global systems is globalization, the process in which national boundaries become a nominal matter and trade takes priority. Each nation enters an international competition, drawing on its distinctive resources and skill sets to turn out products as cost-effectively as possible. (More recent patterns emerging in the backdrop of the global financial crisis suggest a shift toward increased protectionism.)

This pattern goes against the wishes of the revivalists, who want to undo the present system all together; to them the current system exploits and is historically unjust. They want to recreate the Caliphate which would be a contradiction of the existing nation-state system. The closest resemblance of an Islamic Caliphate in the modern day perhaps would be a free trade union type model, for example the European Union.

The borders and religion according to the progressive vision becomes a trivial matter because the future is a free trade zone and religion perhaps a personal choice. To the revivalists, border is equally less important but from the angle of returning Muslims to their lost glory in the Sub-Continent, Central Asia, and Middle East. One manifestation of this school of thought can be the example of the Kargil Conflict. Some scholars believe that Kargil and Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan prior to 911, was an extension of the revivalist thinking i.e., once the country attained a nuclear status, it wanted to settle long standing matters such as Kashmir through the barrel of the gun, and to extend its influence further in to Central Asia.

Existing International powers are cognizant of the fact that there are emerging powers (Brazil, Russia, China, and India) which now share greater wealth and power than before, and therefore they need to have a greater say in the system. As a general rule, Established and Emerging powers usually prefer incremental change and reform while the Islamic revivalists are hoping to redo the system all together, a fundamental change. During times of transition of power between emerging, existing, and declining powers, the world has usually witnessed tremendous pull and tug, chaos, and uncertainty. It’s like the tremors which are felt just before a major earthquake, as tectonic plates shit and crush against each other.

Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Kashmir

The above mentioned competing views and visions of the world interplay excessively when dealing with long standing conflicts, such as Kashmir and Afghanistan. Whether to attempt and what approach to take towards resolving these issues, have implications for the established, emerging, and declining powers. At the same time, this is exactly what makes these disputes so lethal.

Kashmir issue can be viewed from either a revivalist or progressive perspective. Both these schools of thoughts existed at the time of the creation of the state of India and Pakistan. The progressives such as Jinnah had worked with the existing but weakened power of the time, Great Britain, to bring about change to the existing system. The revivalist had opposed the division of the Sub-Continent since that meant separating the Muslims of India and Pakistan, and thus undermining their united strength in the region.

In the present political atmosphere of the region, the same progressive and revivalist forces still exist. The Pakistan government is playing the role of a progressive, and is working with the established powers of the present times, to tame the revivalists. India, which is an emerging power, has championed the view that revivalists fighting NATO in Afghanistan are the same as the one involved in Kashmir, both previously known to be supported by the Pakistani state. This has created doubts about the intention of the Pakistani state, particularly when the fight in Afghanistan is not going well. Pakistani state had needed the support of the revivalists in the past to defend itself against the larger India and to keep Kashmir conflict alive.

A perspective friendlier to Pakistan security concern in the region, reinforces the point of view which considers resolution of Kashmir issue as essential first step towards obtaining complete cooperation from the Pakistani establishment regarding Afghanistan and Taliban. From the perspective of the emerging power (India) and established powers, it would be naive to assume that revivalists would settle after resolving Kashmir. Thus, a precondition to resolution of the dispute, under this scenario, should also include a preliminary step of taming the Jihadi groups and their support emanating from Pakistan, so as to weaken their position of strength in any subsequent negotiations. It is assumed that leaving the revivalist clans unchecked after resolution of Kashmir can brew further trouble for India. This logic is similar to what is being feared from the Swat Treaty and the Taliban in Pakistan, that they will grow in strength. For India the fear is another invasion from the Hindu Kush, in the form of modern day Ahmad Shah Abdali.

Alternatively, one can argue once Pakistan’s primary security concern in it’s rivalry with India (Kashmir) is dealt with, then that eliminates the need for any nuclear weapons and the expenses which go along with keeping a large army. Furthermore, with resolution of dispute with India, Pakistan would also not need strategic depth in Afghanistan. It can whole heartedly join the progressive forces and established powers. It is believed, without a solution to Kashmir, Pakistan cannot afford to abandon the revivalists. Particularly, in an environment where the public support for Islamic revivalists is increasing due to perceived biases and injustices committed by the established against Islam.

In addition to the difference in views of the progressive and revivalists on Kashmir, there are internal political pressures in both countries as well. There have been recent reports in the media that the talks between India and Pakistan regarding Kashmir were making progress during the last phase of Musharraf’s rule. One critical mistake was made: public support is needed for a successful peace treaty and politicians in both India and Pakistan have failed to obtain this, preferring to keep playing to their hard-line revivalist constituencies for political purposes. In fact, the political leaders of both countries feel the need to accommodate both progressives and revivalists in their respective countries in order to remain in power.

One must also take in to account the regional power dynamics, and the role of China. To China, the Kashmir situation weakens India, diminishing its potential challenge. This would help China balance India’s and Japan’s influence in the Pacific region. Moreover, China has already begun to build bridges with Sunni religious groups in Pakistan (notably the Jamatey Islami), while at the same time maintaining close relations with Iran. It should also be remembered that revivalist movements have often been useful to competing parties in global power struggles – and might be again.

As a general rule, international players have tended to use revivalists who they regarded as controllable; after all, out-of-control groups might do something dangerous, like getting hold of nuclear weapons. It is, however, possible to communicate with the more moderate elements; at the time of writing, this is now happening in Swat and in Afghanistan.

The future of the extreme radicals (specifically, the Pakistani Taliban and Kashmiri Jihadis) will perhaps be determined by what is done to address the perceived grievances of these groups. For example, Pakistani officials have described the Swat Treaty as a “local solution to a local problem,” but in reality it may have been more than that. The differentiation between revivalists with local agendas versus the ones with regional and global outlook makes a huge difference. In the end, if Swat Treaty pacifies the extremists and settles their immediate grievances, it might transform them into moderate radicals, thus bringing them more into the mainstream. From the standpoint of the established powers, an important objective will have been achieved.

Afghan Conflict

Another source of continuous stress for Pakistan is the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. India and Afghanistan maintain that the threat from revivalists originates in Pakistan; Pakistan’s position, however, is that the internal revivalist peril will last as long as Afghanistan remains volatile. According to this view, the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan energizes the extreme revivalists, who in turn threaten the progressive forces.

As alluded to earlier, the efforts of the progressives and the revivalists clash and get entangled with the tussles of the emerging, established, and declining regional and global powers. This is what makes the Afghan conflict extremely complicated. At the present time, one cannot identify with confidence the succeeding and losing parties in this ever expanding conflict. The last two global powers that were in Afghanistan lost the status by the time they left

The Islamic revivalists, particularly the more extreme ones, have never accepted the modern day nation-state organization of the world. To them, Muslims all over the world belong to one brotherhood and nation. The current boundaries according to the revivalists were constructed to divide Muslims and exploit their resources.

Tussles of the Emerging and Established Powers

Once again, a significant factor which could decide the prospect for revivalists is the nature of rivalries and alliances between the established and the emerging powers and their positions on conflicts which can alter the global balance of power. Some examples: recent events in Kashmir, Georgia (South Ossetia and Abkhazaia), Taiwan, North Korea, Horn of Africa, Iran, Lebanon, Palestine and perhaps most interestingly, in Afghanistan.

The diversification of the supply routes to Afghanistan could possibly widen the theater of war to embrace Central and Western Asia, specifically, Baluchistan and Iran. This would complicate China’s String of Pearls strategy, the country wants to use deep sea Gawadar Port as one of the short cuts for the supply of its energy resources from Middle East, as it fears that any hindrance in the Straits of Malacca, possibly from India, can impact its shipping routes. China and India as emerging powers are increasingly competing for energy resources, including in Africa.

If the war theater spreads, it will serve the aims of revivalists, particularly in relation to the Shiite-Sunni dynamic of the Islamic world, thus complicating matters further. This is particularly true if the Kashmir issue remains unresolved and Iran and India become more involved in the Afghanistan solution. In such a scenario, we could expect Western relations with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to further deteriorate, with unprecedented ramifications for the regional ethnic balance of power.

Global and regional powers are thus being forced to play a complicated balancing act between Shitte Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. Historically, this means choosing one or the other. Like China, Russia has cordial relations with Iran, but has failed thus far to build a good rapport with Sunni groups, which it is trying to remedy by engaging more actively in the Palestinian conflict and re-engaging with its cold war client states, such as Syria. As mentioned earlier China has good relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia. United Sates on the other hand is also attempting to build bridges with Iran.

Central Asia has significant energy reserves and is also considered to be in the traditional Russian sphere of influence, it’s “Near Abroad.” The presence of the Unites States in Central Asia is a big headache for resurgent Russia. Furthermore, any future deployment of the NATO missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic is also considered by Russia to be an infringement of its “Near Abroad” and even as encirclement; especially when there is talk of giving Ukraine and Georgia full NATO membership status

Russia is one of Europe’s major energy suppliers and Germany in particular gets up to 80% of its gas supplies from Russia. This has put European countries in a considerable bind when it comes to maintaining a balanced relationship with the U.S. and Russia. The U.S. itself dreads encroachment from Iran, Russia and China in the Western Hemisphere and Latin America, which many observers believe implies the death, for all practical purposes, of the Monroe Doctrine and its Roosevelt Corollary. These infringements in it’s traditional sphere of influence has compelled United States to improve relations with Cuba and Venezuela. The escalating drug wars on the US-Mexican border with worsening economic situation in the region, is a dangerous combination. In short, China, Russia and India all fear encirclement at the hand of adversaries and are taking counter measures.

China’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Russian-based Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) increasingly view the Afghanistan conflict differently than the US and Europe and question NATO’s hold on the agenda of the Afghan conflict. There is a possibility that these organizations, SCO and CSTO, will evolve in to security alliances. Pakistan, India, and Iran have an observer status on SCO. As the world and its alliances go through evolution, Pakistan’s policies are premised on patience and hedging its bets, giving it the time to see clearly the shape of future alliances while that of NATO’s are based on urgency i.e., doing away with potential future adversaries.

Pressures on Domestic Politics of Pakistan

These high stake global and regional struggles for resources put enormous negative pressure on Pakistan’s internal political dynamics. The fate of any political party in Pakistan will be determined by how they adapt to change in the global and regional environment, as well as by their success at handling domestic forces like the revivalists, who want to bring back the old order and the progressives who welcome the future, with all its possibilities.

These pressures are of course not new and the global players have been active in the region before, for example, as participants in the so-called “Great Game.” How did leaders in the past deal with such pressures? Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s stance regarding the Khilafat Movement is one very instructive example. Jinnah separated himself clearly from the Pan-Islamists and revivalists and placed himself squarely in the camp of the progressive school, who were working for a free, democratic India and Pakistan. In contrast, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto seems like a hybrid, a blend of revivalist and progressive, attempting to mollify both sides. The approach of Imran Khan, an emerging star, resembles Bhutto’s: he appeals to both those driven by “religious frenzy,” the revivalists and the progressives as well. In this Bhutto and Imran are no different from any other Indian or Pakistani politician, who believe that if they are going to get things done, they must appeal to both factions.

At the same time, one cannot ignore fact that this complicates the position of any such politician. When coping with change, either one is primarily a revivalist or a progressive; one cannot be both at the same time. The critical distinction between them, are the ways they adapt and the means they employ in order to bring about change. A progressive is future looking and works with in the system with the established to alter the system incrementally. The revivalist often tends to work out of the system against the established, using violence (extreme radical) and non-violence (moderate radical) to achieve its fundamental objective. A progressive wants to learn from the environment to adapt and bring reform, while the revivalists have generally blamed others for its grievances, and wants to impose.

Lessons of History

The lessons of history demonstrate that movements for change in the system often get mixed up with the interests and struggles of the emerging and established global players. Established and emerging powers rarely allow for a fundamental change to the system from which they benefit. Invariably, great powers achieve the status by managing and leading change better than others, and ultimately decay striving for status-quo.

The classification of progressive and revivalist discussed in this essay only holds true for the history and circumstances of South Asia in particular and other Islamic regions in general. By the definition of this essay, Maoists and Bolsheviks would perhaps be classified as extreme radicals; but they were progressives of their times and in their objectives. They were responding against feudalism, imperialism, and industrialization, yet employing violent and non-violent means to achieve their fundamental objectives against the established system. Same holds true for the American Revolution, a progressive movement though requiring fundamental change, and application of violent and non-violent means.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan wrote to the causes of the Indian Revolt of 1857:

“The primary causes of rebellion are, I fancy, everywhere the same. It invariably results from the existence of a policy obnoxious to the dispositions, aims, habits, and views, of those by whom the rebellion is brought about. From this it follows that widely-spread disaffection cannot spring from any solitary, or local cause. Universal rebellion must arise from universal grounds for discontent or from streams deriving from many different sources, but finally merging into one wide-spreading, turbulent water.”

So again, it is anybodies guess that if these incremental and progressive changes in the context of South Asia and other Islamic regions, will harmonize the system to the level that in reality is required to cool off the extreme radicals. In the recent past the voices of those requiring fundamental change have grown. The pressure is building to let some steam out of the system and transform the revivalists of the type of extreme radical, in to becoming moderate radicals, by accepting some change (Swat Treaty).

The most important determinant of who will carry the day though, according to history and as demonstrated by the example of Khilafat Movement, is how the global tussles amongst the established, emerging, and declining powers will shape the ecosystem. In the present political context of the region, the odds are stacked up more against the progressive forces.

Strategies to Deal with Future

What are other strategies which can help coup with the world of constant change? The business world, driven by the profit motive, deals with change all the time as well. Conventional wisdom holds that in the absence of equilibrium in the ecosystem, adaption is the best way i.e., the ones who sense what is changing around them and respond quickly will succeed. According to an article published in October 2008 Harvard Business Review by John Hagel III, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davision, titled ‘Shaping Strategy in a World of Constant Disruption,’ changing times present an opportunity to shape the environment. This in business terminology requires learning to shape the instability in the environment by effective management and steering it beyond adaptation to shaping aspiration, and more rewarding future. In short, this means moving from a reactionary mode of being adaptive to a proactive mode of being a shaper.

This has direct implication on the kind of leadership and associated strategy, which is required to be a shaper of the ecosystem. One example quoted of this in the technology world is how, for example, Bill Gates revolutionized the computer industry in times of great uncertainty, by having a clear perspective on the direction of its future, which Microsoft was itself helping frame. In doing so, Bill Gates not only changed the behaviors of the users (personal computers) but also the landscape of the whole computer industry. The most important element of being a shaper is to envision in times of great turmoil, on how the future might look like, and challenge the conventional assumptions about what is required for success.

Converting this business jargon in to the realm of politics means that a shaping leader has to provide clear direction and focus based on deep insight of the ecosystem. Furthermore, it requires altering the risk-reward calculus of the followers. This is done by connecting better to the aspirations of the masses via a platform and making it easier and rewarding for them to contribute towards the vision of the shaper. Similarly, a shaper has to convey to the masses a potential benefit in the future for their contributions, as comparison to the risks if they do not join in. The risks for the contributors are not threats, but a feeling of missing the boat. Lastly, a shaper has to demonstrate seriousness and commitment that shaper can reshape the ecosystem, in a way that others will find themselves in a reactive-adaptive mode.

These concepts also apply to how the war against extreme radicals is being conducted. Gaining local support is an essential element for countering insurgencies. The extremists have effectively applied these tactics all along. The radicals connect and exploit the grievances of local population, in combination with using intimidation, coercion, and spreading fear. Countering these strategies requires connecting with the disgruntled masses in a better way.

Another way of being a shaper is to view a given environment via the lenses of the Blue Ocean Strategy of W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, which is in contrast to the traditional way of developing a strategy and evaluating a competitive business environment i.e., based on strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) or Porter’s Five Forces Analysis. Blue Ocean theory alters the landscape based on the discovery of new oceans that the competitors fail to perceive, and thus are compelled to continue challenging each other in the red oceans, while improving only marginally. The basic tenant of what is required for discovery of blue oceans is structured visualization, and reordering of the existing realities in a fundamental new way. And not by, attempting to predict or preempt existing trends and patterns.

Again, let’s translate the above business concepts to the dominion of politics. If political parties of Pakistan such as PPP, PML (N), PTI, PML (Q), MQM, JI, JUI, etc., keep debating each other and contesting on limited sets of points, their positions at best only marginally improves. This would be called contesting in Red Oceans. None of the above listed parties are looking to alter the order of the existing realities and look at them in a fundamental new way, and thus creating a real opportunity, a key differentiator, and a Blue Ocean. Any political party which successfully accomplishes this will create an unbeatable value in the eyes of the masses. The importance of alliances (mergers) cannot be underestimated in a multi-ethnic society such as Pakistan. This is what multi-national businesses do all the time, serving the needs of a variety of clients, while acquiring capability and resources through mergers, if need be, to accomplish its vision.

To be a shaper based on the above concepts can also be understood by the following excerpt from Iqbal’s Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam:

“The past, no doubt, abides and operates in the present; but this operation of the past in the present is not the whole of consciousness. The element of purpose discloses a kind of forward look in consciousness. Purposes not only color our present states of consciousness, but also reveal its future direction. In fact, they constitute the forward push of our life, and thus in a way anticipate and influence the states that are yet to be. To be determined by an end is to be determined by what ought to be. Thus past and future both operate in the present state of consciousness, and the future is not wholly undetermined as Bergson’s analysis of our conscious experience shows. A state of attentive consciousness involves both memory and imagination as operating factors. On the analogy of our conscious experience, therefore, Reality is not a blind vital impulse wholly un- illuminated by idea. Its nature is through and through teleological.”

Applying Iqbal’s quote to the revivalist and progressive thinking of the Islamic world interprets as requiring awareness of both the past and the possibilities of future. Meaning, in order to deal with the uncertain present, awareness of the past and vision of the future, both are essential. While the future orientation and vision cannot be arrived at without a sense of purpose and creativity.

So adapting and figuring out the trends and patterns to forecast , though very useful techniques, are not sufficient according to the above mentioned concepts of the business world. The requirement of taking an initiative and becoming a shaper craves a different out look. Adapting means reacting to the changing environment while the shaper alters the ecosystem itself and requires others to adapt, while the ecosystem cannot remain a constant.

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