A technocratic heaven?

Published June 22, 2019
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

AN influential part of the country’s ruling elite has preferred for obvious reasons governing via so-called technocrats rather than members of the elected parliament who are answerable to the people.

There is more than one example of this rule-by-technocrat era; however, there is little conclusive evidence that this delivered better results when compared to how policy is evolved and implemented in a parliamentary democracy.

Often in our case, civil servants are mistaken for technocrats. You need only look at the Ayub Khan’s decade in power to understand what I am driving at as the economy was run by them. They were not answerable to any parliament.

This is the period when Pakistan is said to have missed the bus in not following an economic model proposed by the Harvard advisory group (of economists) headed by Dr Gustav G. Papanek. It has often been said the embrace of this model’s recommendations transformed South Korea.

The consumerism that easy cash fuelled in society can be blamed for many of our problems after Musharraf stepped down.

To examine whether this is one our favourite myths or South Korea’s growth can actually be attributed to it would require a separate column. Even assuming we did indeed miss the bus, many Pakistanis I have talked to don’t seem to agree.

They have an extremely romantic notion of the Ayub Khan era as a period of high economic growth. They completely ignore the fact that it was during this time that the nation’s wealth came to be concentrated in the hands of the so-called 22 families; their wealth and power grew to the exclusion and alienation of a large segment of the country and the population.

One famous economist who had taken a complete U-turn by the late 1970s/early 1980s in calling for striking poverty at the grass-roots level, used to be an advocate in the Ayub era of first making the size of the cake so big that everybody got a slice in the end.

The seeds for the separation of East Pakistan can mainly be traced to this period. Denial of political rights to the people meant they had no avenue to peacefully agitate for their economic rights and, therefore, a pressure cooker-type situation developed.

The lid blew off in the aftermath of the 1970 election in which Shaikh Mujibur Rehman’s Awami League won decisively in the then eastern wing on a platform of six points that called for autonomy for the province to an extent that bordered on independence.

The vote in West Pakistan was no different as it was also a manifestation of deep discontentment with the status quo, coming on the heels of Ayub’s much-touted ‘decade of development’, because a vast majority had never tasted the fruits of that development.

Perhaps, the only difference was that people in erstwhile East Pakistan blamed their West Pakistani rulers for their deprivations and, hence, eventually fought for separation; the western wing masses voted en masse for the ‘roti, kapra aur makan’ (bread, clothing, shelter) slogan as a manifestation of utter discontent with the status quo.

There can be no denying that a degree of industrial and agricultural growth did happen under Ayub Khan even if redistributive justice was conspicuous by its absence and the workers were granted zero rights.

Whether this growth owed itself to the brilliance of the ‘technocrat’ or was merely a payoff for Pakistan’s willing participation in the US camp during the peak of the Cold War is another matter. Two other periods of the technocrat-led ‘growth’ proved no better than mere fluff in the long-run.

These periods were witnessed during the times we had access to generous disbursements from the US. During the first, we played a role in undermining the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan. The second period must rank as one of the great ironies of our times. This was when we firmly threw ourselves in the US camp when the decade and a half of religious indoctrination and militant training of zealots from around the world by the US-Saudi-Pakistan alliance to battle Soviet Union in Afghanistan blew up in our faces with 9/11.

Who doesn’t remember that President Bill Clinton came to Pakistan in the spring of 2000 after the military takeover of October 1999 and would not be seen shaking hands in public with military ruler Gen Musharraf or being photographed with him?

Post-9/11 leaders of the ‘free world’ were in a holding pattern over Islamabad waiting for their turn to land and extend all kinds of support, virtually with cheque books in hand, to the great leader who was helping them fight Al Qaeda which had taken responsibility for the attacks on the US.

The consumerism that easy cash fuelled in Pakistani society can be blamed for many of our problems after Musharraf relinquished power; the foremost being the power crisis because domestic consumption spiked thanks to availability of cheap air conditioners, for example. The less said about the CNG disaster the better.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has now appointed an inquiry commission comprising mostly law-enforcement officials rather than economists to ascertain how Pakistan’s foreign debt went up dramatically over the tenures of the past two civilian governments.

All he needed to do was to ask his own ‘technocrat’ finance adviser who served in not dissimilar roles in both the Musharraf and PPP setups that followed. The prime minister would be well advised to also examine the debt of even developed nations following the global banking crisis of 2008.

Perhaps, the PML-N’s contribution to adding to the foreign debt figure could be traced to the dramatic increase in the power generation capacity which required huge capital commitment. He may learn that the explanation does not necessarily lie only in the loot and plunder.

Most of all he should concentrate on economic policy and ensure that his team of technocrats delivers now that we are not in bed with the US and being paid handsomely for our services. At some point, he will have to answer to parliament and the people.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, June 22nd, 2019

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