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What happened to ‘public interest’?

June 28, 2012

THE christening of the new PPP prime minister (PM) was followed by a predictable set of reactions, both from within the fold and the proverbial anti-PPP camp.

Needless to say, any choice of PM would have been controversial, but the decision to propel Raja Pervez Ashraf to top spot has proven to be especially so.

The invective emanating from the anti-PPP camp is hardly surprising, given that the new Leader of the House is still (in)famous for his performance as the elected government’s first minister of water and power.

On the other hand, not too much has been said or written about how the PPP’s own rank-and-file perceives its new second-in-command.

One of the most striking aspects of today’s Pakistan is the absence of a singular ‘public’ and shared conception of the ‘public interest’. The struggle to establish a sense of the collective good precedes even the inception of the state but the quandary has appeared to become increasingly insoluble over time (notwithstanding the best efforts of the most committed Pakistani nationalists). The standard explanation about the parochial interests of the functionaries of the state carry some weight, but in positing an exclusively state-centric argument, we are in danger of missing the point entirely.

More attention needs to be paid to the prevailing attitudes of ordinary people towards the ‘public’? My proposition is that an increasingly large number of Pakistanis neither have an appreciation for nor a commitment to the impersonal ‘public interest’.

As a general rule, an individual with a relative or friend occupying public office expects the latter to use his official mandate to serve private rather than collective concerns.

If the said government employee — and this applies to the peon as much as to the federal secretary — chooses to reject the sifarish of his personal friend/relative and instead follow the letter of the law, s/he is likely to face some form of social sanction (even if only symbolic).

While those with long memories will argue that this rather unabashed ‘privatisation of public resources’ was conspicuous by its absence under the British, or in the first few years after Independence, I maintain that the difference lies in how openly such practices are acknowledged now as opposed to yesteryear.

Related to this are the much more diverse social backgrounds of those either occupying public office or with access to public resources. In other words, as hitherto marginal social forces have become the face of the ‘public’ and therefore determine the ‘public interest’, the real definitions of both have come increasingly to the fore.

Shedding some historical light on this point will help clarify it, as well as explain why the PPP is such a polarising force in this society. The least emphasised aspects of the social and political upheavals of the 1960s — both in this country and much of the world — was the breakdown of the insular political fiefdoms of the ‘traditional’ elite inasmuch as the composition of the civil and military services was forever changed.

Underrepresented ethnic groups, castes and more generally the non-rich were inducted into the services, thereby forever changing the ‘public’ and attendant notions of the ‘public interest’.

That the newer entrants into public office considered it perfectly rational to direct what were notionally ‘collective’ goods and services towards parochial ends speaks to the conduct and discourses of the ‘public’ that had existed prior to that point. In short, since the British period, the ideals of ‘public’ and ‘public interest’ have coexisted seamlessly with highly contrary practices.

The PPP became the face of the ‘new public’ because of the specific conjuncture within which it came into existence and captured state power (and notwithstanding its regular compromises with the ‘traditional’ elite).

Since then the PPP has continued to play up the perception that is the party of the underrepresented masses that continue to bear the brunt of an ‘establishment’ and powerful social forces that dominate what is still a distinctly unequal society. It is thus that the non-elite, Sindhi-speaking Raja Pervez Ashraf can become the darling of a cadre that still considers the party the proverbial underdog.

Meanwhile, the same Raja Pervez Ashraf is the epitome of everything wrong with Pakistan for those who continue to stress the need for a singular Pakistani ‘public’, and a ‘public interest’ underwritten by an impersonal rule of law. He is not equipped to rule the country, they say, because he is interested only in catering to his parochial band of supporters.

The jiyalas would likely repeat the words of another PPP man, ex-minister Qayyum Jatoi, in response.

About halfway through the elected government’s tenure, Jatoi thundered against the PPP’s critics, and the establishment in particular, for being unwilling to accept that the PPP and its ‘oppressed’ constituencies also had a right to capture ‘public’ resources, typically the preserve of relatively affluent segments of society.

He made no bones about the fact that it was now the PPP’s turn to get its share of the booty.

In the event then PM Gilani felt compelled to ask Jatoi to relinquish his official position, even though the PM did not necessarily contradict the overtly political statement made by the jiyala from Muzaffargarh.

It might be instructive to take note here of arguably the most polarising political figure in contemporary India — Laloo Prasad Yadav, ex-chief minister of Bihar. Laloo Prasad’s time in office is euphemised by the intelligentsia as ‘Jungle Raj’ precisely because the impersonal ‘public interest’ was held completely hostage to sectional concerns, and more specifically the backward castes of whom Laloo Prasad was considered representative. The man was unscrupulous in his ‘corruption’, but loved by his supporters all the same.

If nothing else we should take heart from the fact that we share something with the ‘world’s largest democracy’. The concept of the ‘public’ in India, like in this country, is also subject to constant reinterpretation in light of both the legacies bequeathed to us by colonialism and ongoing processes of social change that add yet more layers to an already complex socio-political hierarchy.

And just as India’s educated, affluent classes need to do more than just exhort the need for the mythical ‘public interest’ to be protected, our elite needs to put its money where its mouth is and recognise that it is the embedded structures from which they have so long generated parochial benefits that render all talk of one ‘public interest’ just that — talk.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.