Contours of a mess

November 20, 2018


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

PREVIOUSLY, I had traced how our current mess piled up over the decades. The 1947-51 years gave us the Kashmir issue, the use of non-state actors in regional tussles, the geo-securitisation of state concerns, and a legacy of centralising power and undermining ethnic aspirations.

The 1951-58 years empowered bureaucrats over politicians and gave us palace intrigues. The Ayub-Yahya years glorified military rule and gave high-level sleaze, inequitable progress and military responses to crush ethnic gripes. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto gave a politicised bureaucracy, excessive control of the economy by the state, and political victimisation. Gen Zia gave us extremism, sectarianism, mass corruption, arms, drugs, ‘jihad love’ and abuse of faith. The 1990s saw much ineptitude and sleaze. The Musharraf years gave us terrorism. Post-2008 democracy gave more sleaze and ineptitude. So unlike Saddam Hussein in Iraq, no single villain created the bulk of our mess. But army dictators (Zia in particular) deserve more of the blame.

Today, the broad contours of the mess include terrorism, even if it is checked. Extremism is getting stronger via the politics of groups such as the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan. The quality of governance and democracy is poor. The role of agencies in politics has returned. The economy remains underdeveloped and is headed for a slowdown. Our social indicators remain abysmal and society is badly divided.

Can we get out of this mess? At the end of the first 90-100 days of the rule of the PTI (it had requested a reprieve from critique in this period), one can look at its potential to address the mess and deliver the promised change. Imran Khan markets himself as a transformational leader who can deliver tabdeeli. Unluckily, nearly a century of days into his rule, his idea of change seems to be endless policy change, U-turns and even W-turns. His rule seems more about populist ideas like donation and austerity drives and catching thieves than solid policy ideas for increasing taxes, exports and manufacturing bases.

Time is a remedy for inexperience, but not incompetence.

PTI fans may protest, but the glum verdict is not based on the failure to bring about major change, for that will take years. It is based on what the PTI has shown during these early days about its limited capacity to bring future change. This includes a lack of clear vision, policy ideas, political courage and managerial competence. Much of this was apparent earlier, based on how the party and KP were run. At the federal level, those issues have become more apparent.

Nor are these issues of inexperience that can be overcome with time. The main issue is incompetence, as is also true for the PPP and PML-N (unlike them, the PTI has an unstable majority too). Unluckily, time is a remedy for inexperience, but not incompetence. Nor can the ‘great leader’ easily fix his team’s incompetence issue. He seems unwilling or unable to recognise it given his support for the Punjab chief minister. His hands are tied by the pool of talent available and coalitional issues.

The issue of incompetence has more to do with Imran Khan himself, as his CV and show in office reveal. A World Cup win and a hospital are his loudly marketed skills. But these seem awfully thin compared with our current mess or those of successful developing world leaders such as Mahathir Mohamad, Xi Jinping, Thaksin Shinawatra, and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva etc, who presided over less complex states. All had much political management experience before reaching the top. They employed populism, but also exhibited serious policy and political management skills in office and had able deputies — all of which Imran largely lacks. Their states did not follow the fairy-tale path of first vanquishing corruption to ignite fast progress.

Thus, honesty, the deep desire of our middle clas­ses, is an irrelevant and uncommon trait among successful developing world leaders. Narendra Modi uncommonly combines loudly trumpeted honesty and bigoted populism with some competence, but has been less successful as prime minister. Competence (and not honesty) is the critical trait and both seem weakly, and dare one add, perhaps, inversely correlated in developing states. Competence in ­complex fields like business etc, let alone simple sports, doesn’t ensure competence in governance.

Pakistan is a more complex state in terms of internal and regional dynamics compared with most of the successful developing states. The deep horizontal and vertical cleavages in society make it far less easy to produce the competent (not necessarily scrupulously honest) leadership required to ensure progress. Thus, the chances of our mess getting resolved or major progress soon seem thin to me. But collapse is unlikely too with the most likely outcome being slow ­progress with many U-turns and W-turns.

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

Published in Dawn, November 20th, 2018