Getting out of the mess

Published November 20, 2022
<p>The writer is the author of Thinking with Ghalib (Folio Books 2021) and Pakistan ka matlab kya (Aks Publications 2022).</p>

The writer is the author of Thinking with Ghalib (Folio Books 2021) and Pakistan ka matlab kya (Aks Publications 2022).

THE big question Pakistanis must ask is how to get out of this disarray. By now, no one can deny that the country is in a huge mess, which is getting worse by the day. And it is getting worse because of the quality of its rulers. They are interested in nothing beyond their own interests; their only concern, while the country drowns and burns, is who will get to appoint the most important man who, they will then complain, does not allow them to do what needs to be done.

This is a massive muddle that has no simple resolution because the quality of the leaders has been declining from day one. The tweets of leaders and their potential replacements are testimony to their intellectual calibre. Their vision does not extend beyond cutting ribbons at bus stations or ordering people to show up on time or delighting on being on the same page quite oblivious to what’s written on it. The most important men, whoever they are or have been, are no different except that they have elevated themselves above any accountability and are unwilling to concede that their grand experiments have severely exacerbated successive crises.

Read: Pakistan is one of the worst-governed countries in the world. It’s time we wake up to this reality

There is little point hoping and praying that a saviour will descend from heaven to straighten things out. Many have come and gone, some on horses, others on containers. The quality of leadership continues to plummet because of the kind of school education it has imposed to suppress any questioning of its doings. In destroying what they aim to save, they have spawned a monster which will end up strangling everyone except for those who will flee abroad.

At this stage of terminal decline, there is no possibility of a normal recovery because of the state of the rot and the capability deficit to address it. Only radical solutions offer hope. Ideally, one would hope that the quarrelling rulers would realise the gravity of the catastrophe that threatens everyone and arrive at a consensual response, but that is extremely unlikely. In its absence, only popular demand can force their hand and save the country.

At this stage of terminal decline, only radical solutions offer hope.

I am proposing three radical solutions, in increasing order of radicalness; not with the expectation of their immediate adoption but with the hope that they would energise a discourse that can promise possible escape from what otherwise portends to be a sure death. In proposing these solutions, I am aware that they will cause many a great deal of angst, but at this point there is no painless way out of the quandary.

The first proposal is one of decentralisation. The existing 38 administrative divisions should be declared as the second tier of government, each with their own legislatures and executives. Pakistan, with a population of 220 million, is an anomaly having just four second-tier units, one of them being more populous than the rest combined. Compare the equivalent number in Malaysia (13), Iran (25), Brazil (27), India (36), and Philippines (76). At the very least, this would divide the country’s problems into manageable pieces and hopefully some set of local leaders would address them more contextually and better than others. This reorganisation would also avoid the trauma of the much-needed subdivision of existing provinces that has proved beyond the emotional maturity of our leaders.

The second proposal is devolution of maximum powers to the provinces and restructuring Pakistan as a loose confederation. One has to be honest and admit that the former eastern part of the country has been much better off as Bangladesh than it was as East Pakistan once liberated of the praetorian obsessions of the western wing and the latter’s need to keep various conflicts alive in order to sustain its hegemony. East Pakistan, one should recall, was termed an economic ‘basket case’ and a millstone without the burden of which Pakistan would race ahead. The reality has been exactly the reverse.

Learning from this, one can surmise that had authority been devolved to East Pakistan, the trauma of the ultimate separation could have been averted. Balochistan, with its immense resources and small population, should benefit similarly by having a greater say in its decisions and fewer impositions by an unsympathetic and hostile centre. One only has to see how the Gulf kingdoms across the water from Balochistan, with a similar tribal social structure, have left Pakistan very far behind. The extent to which the devolved provinces bind together should be a function of mutual interest and not coercion. This would also provide a test of whether Islam and Urdu really provide the glue for multinational unity or are merely an excuse to exercise hegemony on the unwilling.

The third proposal is a reorganisation of governance. It is no longer possible to revert back to monarchy (though note how intelligently that has been employed in Malaysia) and dictatorship has time and again made things much worse. There is no alternative to popular rule, but we can certainly have a system where governance is truly by the people. There is a model for such an alternative called ‘sortition’, in which legislators are selected by lottery from the larger pool of adult citizens.

In ancient Athens, sortition was the method for appointing political officials and was deemed the principal characteristic of democracy by ensuring that all eligible citizens had an equal chance of holding public office. Unhealthy factionalism, the buying and selling of electables, and populist posturing is eliminated when assemblies are chosen by lottery. These representatives can then engage the experts they need for formulating policies.

This proposal is bound to be met with incredulity and scepticism. I can only point out that even today, in common-law systems, sortition is used to select prospective jurors who have a say over life-and-death decisions. Today, it is a life and death instance for Pakistan, and citizens need to take their governance in their own hands. There is no way they can do a worse job than the motley bunch of uncaring electables and strongmen to whom they have handed over their destiny.

Any extension of the status quo will reduce Pakistan to rubble. By the time the music stops, the lights will be out and there will be nothing to eat next year.

The writer is the author of Thinking with Ghalib (Folio Books 2021) and Pakistan ka matlab kya (Aks Publications 2022).

Published in Dawn, November 20th, 2022

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