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Of intentions and compulsions

August 27, 2018


SINCE its victory in July’s general elections, advice for the PTI’s upcoming five years in government has been in abundant supply. It is apparent that advice-givers, many of whom are policy professionals, academics, or experts in their respective fields, feel that this particular government is more amenable to wide-ranging reform than the previous one. The new prime minister’s public rhetoric confirms this last bit, given how his two speeches so far have mentioned fairly drastic changes in a number of areas.

As one would expect, a few segments of the population aren’t fully sold on the ability to deliver. Some of this scepticism is purely partisan, reflecting the resentment carried forward from a bitter decade of politics and the continuing cloud cast by engineering events in the pre-election phase. Some of it, though, is a bit more analytical and attempts to inject a dose of political reality into both the nature of advice that’s being handed out and the rhetoric of the government itself.

Political reality (or interpretations of it) as a source of scepticism manifest themselves in two ways. The first is through the simple notion of jurisdiction — what can be done given the way the legal/constitutional and fiscal architecture is currently set up. One set of immediate hindrances going forward is a thin majority in the National Assembly, along with an opposition-controlled Senate; the control of Sindh by the PPP, and the exigencies of coalition politics with the PML-Q, that will restrict political space in Punjab.

Is this particular government more amenable to wide-ranging reform than the previous one?

A second driver of caution is what one can call structural and institutional compulsions. Understanding them first requires summarising PTI’s — and particularly, Imran Khan’s — diagnosis of what ails Pakistan: for the last decade or more, the party has put forward an explanation for bad governance that rests on the characteristics of individuals. Simply put, a corrupt PM or CM is responsible for economic and social distress. From the highest civilian office, the rot flows down, poisoning the system through self-serving policy, kickbacks, and nepotism. In turn, reversing the rot would require a change at the top. An honest leader with the requisite amount of charisma, a small capable team, and a quiver full of good intentions can push through what’s needed, set an example for everyone below, and ensure that a policy vision for progress and development is implemented.

This diagnosis lends itself to critiques from those who look beyond personal moral attributes and the agency of a particular person. Yes, individuals can be corrupt or champions of reform. And yes, both will have some implications for large-scale development processes. But to what extent? When we zoom out from the individual to other categories (like organisations/institutions or even social class), we start seeing the world through the prism of compulsions that lie beyond the conscious goodwill or mal-intent of an individual.

Take the example of constituency-level politicians, who were the central pillar of PTI’s victory in July. With rural or peri-urban party vote-banks still in their infancy, the logic of politics remains wedded to patronage, personal appeal, and the ability to ‘get things done’. This cost of politics, which involves providing preferential thana-katcheri access and delivering services through targeted development schemes, runs counter to lofty ambitions of depoliticising local administration and doing away with discretionary funding. While maybe a handful of MNA and MPAs (particularly from Punjab) joined the PTI because of its zeal for reform, a much bigger segment joined in simply because they’re elites, who took up careers as politicians and want to stay in or around the treasury benches to protect their privilege. The cost of patronage politics described above is a direct result of their occupational and their social class compulsions.

Similar compulsions can be identified in other areas of proposed reform. Eminent economists have laid out a blueprint for growth that requires rationalising tax structures, increasing revenues, making Pakistan more competitive by focusing on export sectors etc. This will likely run into conflict with the nature of capitalism (and capitalists) in Pakistan who thrive on rent-seeking, have long benefitted from selective protectionism, lax implementation of tax and labour legislation, and a range of government handouts. Many such businessmen are now in the government’s camp as financiers or advisers, and it remains to be seen whether they act as enablers or hindrances in the way of good intentions.

Finally, reform or change will inevitably be managed and implemented by the bureaucracy, which faces its own set of compulsions. The PTI diagnosis sees bureaucrats as pawns in the hands of politicians, who’ve contributed to a hollowing out of the country’s governing system. The underlying assumption is that in their absence, both the elite and lower-tier bureaucracy are pro-social, pro-people, delivery-oriented institutions. The evidence on this is unsurprisingly short.

Like all other actors, the baseline interests of any bureaucracy lies in the realm of career-advancement, prestige accumulation, and improving their own financial position in life. Politicisation has not solely been imposed on it from above, it has been welcomed and enabled because it allows bureaucrats to protect their interests and retain their access to privileges such as prime real estate and social influence. Changing these compulsions would imply not just doing away with political interference, but also changing the incentives and accountability mechanisms currently embedded in the design of such institutions. And with any such change that redistributes privilege, there will be pushback.

The next five years will provide an empirical demonstration of whether the agency of one party leader exercised from the top can drastically overcome structural compulsions built into the alliances formed by the party, the social class it is populated by, and the way it does politics. If it can, Pakistan’s example will run counter to evidence from across much of recent political history that suggests this is unlikely to happen in any meaningful way.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, August 27th, 2018