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Just like cricket?

July 04, 2017

OUR mercurial cricketers achieved a quick and miraculous turnaround in the UK, evidently by having a few sessions of honest talk. This raises the intriguing issue whether this equally mercurial nation can achieve a similar turnaround.

A narrow focus on surface issues makes this falsely look easy. If they want, politicians can clearly pass every long overdue reform, eg, judicial, police and tax, within weeks.

A narrow, moralistic view of free will sends the national adrenalin pumping faster. In this view, people are free agents who can rapidly change their actions at will. What stops politicians from doing the right thing, many ask moralistically. For them, politicians too should be given a few sessions of honest talk to move them from their petty to the public interest. And heck, if politicians dither, we can just invite the Pindi boys for a ‘short’ stint, some say. Surely, they, with their no-nonsense, can-do and patriotic outlooks and stern looks, will quickly fix things!

But this view of free will is bookish. Politicians are members of powerful elite groups, eg, industrialists and landed elites. Their free-will choices are influenced by group norms and interests due to heavy indoctrination. Group norms may not dictate member actions down to the last act but strongly steer their major actions in line with group and not public interests. The same is true for the Pindi boys. They are creatures of their institutional interests which usually conflict with the public interest. Reform may clip their wings and expose their vast budget and economic empire to scrutiny. So they too support the status quo.

It is not a matter of removing a few corrupt politicians.

The chances of most politicians and generals suddenly breaking their free will free from the shackles of group interests are not zero but close to it. Making national strategies on the basis of such minuscule chances is insensible. Thus, what looks like the easy task of changing certain policies by rulers exercising their individual free wills, viewed through narrow moralistic lenses, suddenly becomes the difficult task of confronting the vested interests of powerful national groups, viewed from broader political economy lenses.

At some level, all this is well known, but is ignored when national adrenalin starts pumping due to the false allure of supposedly easy short cuts to entrenched problems. But if we look at things deeply, the true scale of the problems becomes evident. It is not a matter of removing a few corrupt politicians or even changing politics radically. The root cause is the low-end nature of our economy which produces corrupt politics. So, a change agenda should cover not just politics but also economics.

Who will lead the change agenda? After landed elites, industrialists and generals, the next powerful group is the middle class. But it is not as organised as them. An even more immediate problem is that large sections of it have woolly ideas about change and usually look for spurious short cuts.

Ask middle-class people, especially techno-managerial types, about change ideas and they will likely suggest military coups, technocracies, or even Islamist or other revolutions. Very few will suggest civil society struggle — the most sensible course. Political parties have made things worse by shunning ideology which could teach people about such issues. So, even the PTI, the party which emphasises reform the most, is an apt reflection of many in its middle-class constituency: shrill, impatient and superficial.

Thus, change will be slow. This may demotivate some, but hopefully it may also encourage some to adopt a broader, longer-term vision. It may help motivation to look at the case of India, whom we defeated at the Oval. It clearly is now on a stronger growth path than ours, perhaps permanently. Even so, after 70 years of democracy and 25 years of fast growth, its per capita income, corruption levels and quality of lower bureaucracy, police and courts are similar to ours.

Its case also shows the perils of expecting too much from a few policy changes. So, for many, ending ‘feudalism’ will end all our problems. I support land reforms fully, but not the view that they will make dramatic changes at the national level. India made land reforms around 1950, which helped millions locally. But nationally, ‘feudal’ Pakistan kept doing better economically for 40 years. Even today, India’s rural poverty rate is higher than ours.

If we are all honest, we can grow fast like the Asian Tigers, many say. This is like elephants thinking they can run fast like tigers by being honest. Complex societies like India and Pakistan have their own pace of progress. Those who like cricket-type quick turnarounds are advised to keep watching cricket!

The writer heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a liberal policy unit and is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley.

Published in Dawn, July 4th, 2017