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Bureaucrats made to order

February 19, 2011

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POOR or little if any governance at all is a perennial problem of Pakistan, suffered by the entire nation and not just its elite. As Ilhan Niaz, a professor of history at Islamabad University so convincingly argues, there’s a culture of power ruling the roost in the close circle of Pakistan’s establishment. And this culture of power isn’t a thing of recent vintage or provenance. Pakistan, in fact, seems to have inherited, as a legacy of the past, a patrimony that sticks to every iota of our being.

Power at the administrative level of a country has been wielded, all through the recorded history of mankind, by a class of people rightly described by Niaz as “servants of the state”. These “servants” primarily served at the pleasure of their sovereign and loyalty to him was the core of their career. The most notable example history provides of this phenomenon is of the mandarins of imperial China. They were chosen on the basis of their competence — in art, literature, poetry and calligraphy — through a competitive examination that could be the envy of modern states. But the emperor remained the final authority at the interview of successful candidates in his capacity as the “supreme examiner”. Understandably, the sovereign’s ‘pleasure’ was the supreme catalyst in deciding the success or failure of a “servant” of state. Closer to our historical experience, it were the British colonisers who introduced the vital elements of ‘open competition’ and merit in the selection of civil servants. And much as there may be incontinent temptation to blame most of our failures and drawbacks on the colonial period, they were also the pioneers in holding ‘public servants’ accountable for their abuse of office.

Niaz cites the famous case of Warren Hastings, the first governor-general of India under the British East India Company, who was hauled before a court of law in Britain convened to impeach him. His trial dragged on for nine years at the end of which he was found guilty of abuse of power. It was Hasting’s successor, Lord Cornwallis — the disgraced commander of the crown forces that lost out to the American freedom fighters led by George Washington — who brought in major reforms in the concept and performance of civil service, much of which was inherited by independent Pakistan 150 years later.

But — and Niaz mentions it pointedly — independent Pakistan got quickly down to distorting and destroying some of the best legacies of the Raj.

Independence of the judiciary, vital to the rule of law, was an early casualty. But a more rampant and far-reaching massacre, for want of a more befitting term, was that of the institution of merit-based civil service and bureaucracy.

On the flimsy and spurious slogan of doing away with colonial bequests, Pakistan’s feudal power elite went after the merit-based bureaucracy with a vengeance. Niaz has sufficed to observe, with the known restraint of a scholar, that “over a period of 60 years, the Anglo-Muslim elite that governed Pakistan has failed to build upon the positive aspects of the British imperial nomocracy.” But the history of Pakistan is also witness to the deliberate assault on the bureaucracy mounted by each successive regime, starting with Ayub Khan’s military government in 1958.

The feudal mindset of dictators and sham democrats saw the country’s bureaucracy, especially its top echelons, as a threat and ‘enemy’ if it weren’t controlled and calibrated to serve the pharaoh of the day. So the power-hungry ‘strong-men’, who came in all stripes and colours, felt no compunction in lancing the purported ‘dragon’. It was, for them, a job cut out.

The British had anchored civil service in India on merit and quality of performance and output, as well as on security of career, which was essential to instill confidence and trust in civil servants. Our autocrats pounced on both and pulverised the institution.

Starting with Ayub’s purge of senior civil servants, mostly from the elitist CSP, every other ruler that followed him undermined security of tenure and service from the civil servants, thus leaving them at the mercy of the ruler’s whims and fancies. That was the whole idea of the nefarious exercise: turn the civil servants into cowering lambs so they dare not do anything to displease the ruler and earn his wrath.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto took the rout to its limits by instituting the system of lateral entry, where candidates were picked, in imperial style, at the whim of the pharaoh to ‘serve his pleasure’.

Bhutto, autocrat par excellence, brought in the system of ‘designer’ bureaucrats, or bureaucrats made to order, with the sole intent to use them like puppets tasked to carry out his commands without demur. The massacre of free and non-partisan bureaucracy was complete.

Niaz has a point when he argues that “Bhutto put the state apparatus in the half [of Pakistan] that remained through a series of punishments and humiliations from which it never recovered.” That recovery — probably hoped for by idealists uninitiated in the macabre political and power culture of Pakistan — is still nowhere in sight. Every major political party in Pakistan today has, over the years ‘designed’ its own sets of bureaucrats to do their bidding and dirty work. The police service, in particular, has been the focus of cherry picking by ambitious politicos for obvious reasons.

In terms of lessons of history, the Pakistani clock is obviously set on moving back to the medieval ages when the ruler of the day was, in the words of Louis XIV, “the state” and all levers of power and authority were vested in their hands. If the present power setup in Pakistan is anything to go by, the rot is complete.

The ordinary citizen’s perennial lament of bad governance and lack of transparency have reached its zenith, in the most cynical sense, under the present feudal elite of Pakistan, with a supine bureaucracy robbed of security of service at its beck-and-call.

Niaz has done a good job calling a spade a spade with the dexterous finesse of a scholar. His copiously researched book — actually his doctoral thesis — carries a wealth of source material and footnotes that could be a treasure-trove for any serious researcher or student.

The reviewer is a former ambassador

The Culture of Power and Governance of Pakistan: 1947-2008 (POLITICAL SCIENCE) By Ilhan Niaz Oxford University Press, Karachi ISBN 978-0-19-547731-3 320pp. Rs795