Performance & the image

June 28, 2011

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A CORPS commanders’ conference held recently in Islamabad noted that some quarters are trying to deliberately “run down the armed forces”. What the generals found to be most disconcerting was that this “slandering” would hurt its image.

Coming soon after three events in quick succession — the Raymond Davis fiasco, the sting operation in Abbottabad and the PNS Mehran siege — the commanders’ statement is intriguing. It appears that those who head our armed forces draw a clear line between image and performance, as though the former is not created by the latter. ISPR is responsible for creating the shining image that is supposed to help.

The army’s civilian partners are also obsessed with the government’s image. There are no qualms about covering up the poor performance of the administration. The government follows the same pattern. In the National Assembly’s budget session it came to light that the ministry of information (which can be more appropriately described as the ministry of image-building) has earmarked Rs4.1bn for its annual expenditure for 2011-2012, of which Rs3bn are under the head of “other expenditure”, the purpose of which has not been explained.

The ministry is known to operate a secret fund that is used to pay loyalists in the media whose assignment is to build the government’s image even if this requires concealing facts and spreading falsehoods.

That is not all. Various reports inform us that the Pakistan Embassy in Washington is paying hefty amounts to lobbyists to plead its case. The firm of Mark Siegel, the best known advocate for Islamabad on Capitol Hill, has received $2m since 2008.

Last year another firm, Cassidy Associates, received $60,000. The US system accepts such lobbying and, following the same pattern, Islamabad has fallen in line to polish its image.

The question is not whether the money was well spent — the nose-diving of US-Pakistan relations suggests that the lobbyists could not do much. What needs to be asked is whether there should there be a relationship between image and performance.

The norms were somewhat different before 1991, when the fall of the USSR ushered in the era of unbridled capitalism with its attendant emphasis on a corporate culture designed to promote consumerism. This almost amounted to condoning lies and falsehoods for the sake of creating the right image.

In days of yore, image largely matched performance. In some cases a positive image was carefully cultivated but was designed to facilitate competency and efficiency. As a result, if performance was flagging it received a much-needed boost. But the emphasis was always on performance.

Today norms have changed. It is widely believed that appearance and the motions of observing formal procedures compensate for lack of competence and professional expertise. This is disturbing because it amounts to attaching a premium to outward forms while assigning lower priority to the basic qualities that really matter: knowledge, skill, attitudinal attributes, work ethics and productivity.

While civilian institutions can for a while get away with sloppy behaviour even as we see it happening around us, can the protectors of our security — be they soldiers or policemen — afford to let down their guard even for a moment? It can be a matter of life and death in the kind of work entrusted to them.

In such cases it is the image of an institution, not of individuals, that needs to be protected. If the individual in the leadership position spruces up an institution’s performance and, therefore, its image, he will one day or another get credit for it. If, on the other hand, an institution is not working well, it can be saved by the head stepping aside and allowing someone else the opportunity to improve its performance.

Doesn’t it hold true for the armed forces at the moment? In a television interview I saw in one of the rare moments when I switch on the idiot box, Gen (retd) Ziauddin Butt, former DG ISI, was condemning Gen Pervez Musharraf, specially with reference to Kargil. He suggested that the former army chief should be tried. Surprisingly, he had nothing to say about the present leadership and was concerned that the nation should have a sense of ownership for the army.

Popular hatred against the armed forces is on the rise. This trend must be arrested. But can it be done at this stage, when, according to The New York Times, army chief Gen Kayani “faces such intense discontent over what is seen as his cosy relationship with the United States that a colonels’ coup, while unlikely, was not out of the question”. This reflects popular sentiments.

I wonder, wouldn’t it be a sensible move at this stage if Gen Kayani and his partners in the air force and navy were to resign as a gesture to save our defence institutions? A change of face will reassure people — in the forces and outside — who are disconcerted. A change through a normal process — unlike what happened to Gen Butt in 1999 — would ensure a smooth transition, given the discipline the forces have so far managed to maintain. That is the only way to save the armed forces and Pakistan. One may well ask, why spare the civilian government for all the mistakes it has committed? No doubt, it has to be held accountable too. But begin with the one causing greater damage. Besides, this government at least tried to rein in the army, even if it failed.

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