Inanity at the top

Published August 29, 2020
Irfan Husain
Irfan Husain

CAN anybody make Sheikh Rashid keep quiet? I doubt it, as he has made a career of sounding off on every topic and before any audience.

A contribution to the unending Pakistan-India stand-off was a view expressed on a private TV channel that Pakistan possessed “small” and “perfect” nuclear weapons. He proceeded to boast that the weapons were capable of targeted strikes and that Muslims would remain safe.

I am sure Indian Muslims will be reassured by this claim, but does he realise that words can have consequences, especially when they are uttered by a federal minister, even if he has presided over a terrible accident record?

Fortunately, most people even remotely interested in Pakistan don’t take our railway minister very seriously, though others in India might think differently.

Many colourful characters sit around the cabinet table.

Most of us recall when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was president of Iran, and threatened to “wipe Israel off the face of the earth”. Although some Iranians tried to reinterpret these words subsequently, the damage had been done. Since then, Israel has justified its aggressive overt and covert actions against Iran on the basis of this perceived threat, with the full backing of the United States. Words, remember, have consequences.

Fawad Chaudhry is also very fond of the sound of his own voice. I still recall his wonderfully creative calculus in assessing the cost of the prime minister’s helicopter commute from his Banigala mansion to his Islamabad office. But in this case, the reaction was one of hilarity rather than anger.

Other colourful characters sit around the cabinet table as federal ministers, advisers and special assistants to the prime minister. How much work they actually do remains a mystery as there are around 50 of them, and there is little on the ground to demonstrate their productivity. In fact, there is no ground in Karachi currently to speak of as it has mostly been covered by the monsoon floods.

This is not to say that Pakistan has a monopoly on ineffective cabinet ministers. The British government can boast of Chris Grayling, a member of cabinet so disaster-prone that he is universally known as ‘Failing Grayling’. The Economist has estimated that his poor decisions have resulted in losses to taxpayers of £2.7 billion. One of these was to sign deals with several transport companies in case there was no Brexit deal, and goods piled up at British harbours. The problem was that none of these companies owned any ferries, or had any on lease.

One drawback in the British model of cabinet responsibility is that it presupposes the induction of a fairly large number of competent individuals through periodic elections. But as the private sector has grown more attractive, the brightest and the best no longer consider a parliamentary seat a good career option.

True, the children — mostly sons — of Pakistani feudal families are sent off to grace parliament in order to protect their class interest. But we all know that without their family connections, most of them would struggle to get jobs as tea-boys in the ministries they are supposed to run.

Although the Islamabad High Court has ruled that non-elected advisers cannot issue orders to civil servants, or speak on behalf of the government, they can be appointed by the prime minister to advise him. Perhaps when Imran Khan saw the calibre of his cabinet colleagues, he decided he needed more professionals to help him. It’s one thing to charge police barricades; quite another to put in the hard, daily slog required to master your brief.

A traditional administrative prop we have lost is the independence of the civil service. This ill-judged ‘reform’ was begun by Z.A. Bhutto through a constitutional amendment, and the concept was completely demolished by elected and unelected rulers who followed him. Now, hardly any civil servant would consider giving a minister his honest advice if it went against the official line. Nor would he stand up to a poor ministerial decision. His career prospects are far more important to him than his personal integrity, or his loyalty to the state.

Given the uncertainty of serving in senior positions, civil servants are abnegating their responsibility in large numbers. NAB, the anti-corruption outfit, widely seen as the ill-trained mastiff in the government’s control, has humiliated and arrested so many public servants on the flimsiest of allegtions that few are now willing to take any decisions lest they be hauled in to face charges in manacles.

As a result, I am informed that corruption at the lower level has exploded exponentially. Despite Imran Khan’s claim of his government’s achievements over its first two years, many questions remain unanswered. True, the Covid-19 wasn’t this government’s fault, but much of what else has happened is.

Published in Dawn, August 29th, 2020



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