The prospects of a technocrat setup might look promising on paper, but it does not bode well for Pakistan’s democratic future
here has been a buzz in Islamabad in recent days about the setting up of a so-called technocrat setup. Former speaker and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf leader Asad Qaisar has claimed that he was approached by some members of the governing coalition with the idea of an interim administration comprising technocrats. His revelation came at the back of former FBR chairman Shabbar Zaidi mentioning the desirability of establishing an interim technocratic government in a TV show where he alleged that the political governments lacked courage to take tough decisions. Since then, both the opposition and the government have distanced themselves from the scheme and accused the other side of bringing the proposal to public discourse to cover for their own failings.
Whether the notion of handing over the reins of the government to technocrats is a red herring or a real proposition is something we will only find out if and when such an administration takes shape. More out of academic curiosity therefore, than impending eventuality, the current debate around the issue presents us topicality to contemplate why the idea of technocracy has gained roots in our political system and in popular imagination; and what the recurrence of such a debate reveals about the history and future of our democratic institutions.
Needless to say, technocracy is not a new idea in Pakistan. As early as 1954, when the Constituent Assembly tried to reduce Governor General Ghulam Muhammad’s position to a ceremonial head of state, the latter retaliated by dissolving the assembly. With the abetment of serving and retired civilian and military servicemen, Ghulam Muhammad then installed an administration that Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Bogra called the “cabinet of talents”. The nomenclature makes no secret of the alleged competence of the individuals comprising the cabinet staking their claim to legitimacy. Unsurprisingly, the cabinet included many of the same civil and military bureaucrats and politicians who had previously enjoyed significant power, and were mainly responsible for precipitating the crisis that became the justification for their entry into the cabinet.
Ever since, a frequent return to some form of technocracy has been a feature of Pakistan’s political history. The trend has been more direct under the rule of military than it has been under elected governments relatively free of direct military involvement.
Even the idea of technocrats’ government as an interim administration has been tried before. In 1993, when a constitutional crisis resulted in the resignation of both Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, a former bureaucrat and then vice president at the World Bank Moeen Qureshi was installed as prime minister. In his three months tenure as interim prime minister, Qureshi took important steps like cutting government expenditure, devaluing the rupee and widening the tax net. When Shabbar Zaidi referred to elected governments’ reluctance to take tough decisions, he likely had Moeen Qureshi’s policies and actions in mind as evidence of what a technocrat could achieve.
Considering that the current crisis in Pakistan for which a government of technocrats is being touted as a panacea is economic and financial in nature, it has to be noted that at least since 1999, there have been more technocrats at the helm in the ministry of finance than there have been politicians.
To my mind, the enduring appeal of technocrats’ governments relies on two assumptions – either held by a different set of people. In the broad popular opinion, the argument for technocrats’ government has been politicians’ incompetence. For many decades, politicians in Pakistan have been portrayed and viewed as incompetent and unscrupulous. Predictably, therefore, many people believe that recourse to expert knowledge is the answer to politicians’ failings.
The other assumption made by a narrower section, primarily of technocratic and journalistic elite, is that elected governments evade difficult policy decisions in favour of what is politically expedient. This assumption is premised on steps like the previous government’s continued reliance on fuel subsidies even when the global oil prices continued to skyrocket; and the current government’s reluctance to meet the IMF conditionalities.
These assumptions, especially the latter, are not entirely without merit. Moeen Qureshi’s interim government, for instance, did strengthen Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves and expanded the tax net.
The prospects of a technocrat setup might look promising on paper, but it does not bode well for the sustainability of Pakistan’s democratic future and the strengthening of our elected institutions. The most obvious argument against an extended technocracy is constitutional. The constitution, which lays down the framework for any meaningful political development in Pakistan, only provides for caretaker governments for a limited period to manage the affairs of the country and facilitate the conduct of elections. As universal political convention, the caretaker governments are expected to abstain from taking decisions that may have long-term political or economic implications since such governments lack the popular mandate needed in a democratic polity.
Secondly, if actions of elected governments are restrained by public opinion, it is precisely because this is what is supposed to happen in a democracy. I noted the limitations of policy that is shaped while paying heed to popular opinion. However, unrestricted by public opinion and unresponsive to public censure, technocrats’ governments also initiate policies with personal or parochial interests in sight. Democracies run on the wishes of the people for a reason.
Thirdly, on most occasions, technocrats have less than stellar policy and performance record. Considering that the current crisis in Pakistan for which a government of technocrats is being touted as a panacea is economic and financial in nature, it has to be noted that at least since 1999, there have been more technocrats at the helm in the ministry of finance than there have been politicians. For them to appoint themselves as the solution to crises that they have themselves precipitated points to a failure of logic.
Lastly, even if the policies of a technocratic government are beneficial to the economic health of the country, there is an understanding that such a solution is temporary in nature. The sustainability of policies depends on the backing of democratically elected governments.
In the final count, we should view the current crisis as a resilience test for our democratic institutions. Part of the advantage of democratic governance is the system’s capacity to weigh popular wishes against the realities of exogenous shocks. How our political elite balance the two, if at all, will add to our political wisdom.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at University of Peshawar. He can be reached at aamerazauop.edu.pk