Reforms not politics

August 02,2018

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The victory of Imran Khan’s PTI in the July 25 elections has fostered hope that Pakistan may have turned the corner. People believe that the age of incompetence and greed will now be replaced with merit and integrity in governing national affairs.

The games played in the governance structure over the years had produced one embarrassment after another for the country. Pakistan had started slipping in the rankings of every index on human and economic development. Their policies of ‘you scratch my back and I scratch yours’ created a new trade union whose members are seen to be preoccupied with promoting their own class interests. This alienated people and left them wondering if there was anyone who could protect and promote their interests.

This alienation turned into deep disaffection as people saw the takers strutting up and down the national and provincial corridors of power like proud peacocks, even as the miseries of daily life kept mounting for the teeming millions and the country faced one humiliation after another.

The people felt abandoned. They were forced to believe that incompetence and corruption had become the new normal for governance as its systems kept placing those who were severely lacking in terms of integrity and commitment to national development in leadership positions.

In this backdrop, have the results of the recent elections come as an answer to people’s prayers? Is our dysfunctional system going to be radically reformed? Can the 2018 polls be the game-changer that many of us have been waiting for?

If past experiences are anything to go by, every attempt at changing the status quo has been met with resistance from elements that haven’t shied away from deploying every weapon – from secular to religious – to retain their rentier benefits.

Let’s consider the substantive issues of governance reforms. In his post-victory address, Imran Khan talked about the importance of building institutions. Rule-based institutions, which are neutral and work for the benefit of the people, are the hallmarks of democratic governance. These institutions are diametrically opposed to personalised, partisan and politicised bodies that are meant to serve only those who control the leavers of political power.

Imran Khan’s approach to institutional development is similar to that of Lee Kwan Yew, Singapore’s former prime minister. It is based on the idea of recognising the difference between politics and governance, and understanding that there is a time and place for each of these elements to be used in a properly sense. During one of our meetings many years ago, Lee Kwan Yew said that the direction in which a country goes is largely determined by the fundamental issue of governance: We must, therefore, gauge whether the laws and institutions of the country are designed for the benefit of the people or the rulers.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Muhamad offered more or less the same advice to the Pakistani leadership and urged it to realise that national development can’t just be used to play politics. Such tactics damage the integrity and discipline required for the success of national development policies.

The wisdom in the words of both Asian leaders is evident in the rapid strides made by Singapore and Malaysia in every sphere of national development. Their laws and institutions, which have been designed to work for the benefit of the people, have transformed these countries. Singapore and Malaysia are no longer low-income, underdeveloped countries. They have now become the pride of Asia.

Meanwhile, our laws and institutions have repeatedly worked for the benefit of our rulers, whose riches have multiplied and been stashed away across the world. These riches are now the talk of the town and are being widely discussed in all forums – from media houses to courthouses.

Singapore, Malaysia and Pakistan’s governance models clearly prove that the laws and institutions actually do work. Whether these law and institutions work to deliver benefits to the rulers or the people depends on how they are designed and enforced. So, if our probable PM-in-waiting Imran Khan successfully changes the distorted direction of our laws and institutions, and ensures that they work for the people of Pakistan, they will continue to fulfil his mission and transform the lives of the millions of marginalised people of this hapless nation.

Politics cannot be the only game in town. Pakistan has already suffered from too much politics and too little governance. The time for politics should over after the elections. All governments – federal and provincial – should get down to fulfilling their fundamental responsibilities to deliver the goal of good governance for which they have been elected in the first place. Three months before the next elections are scheduled to be held, it will once again be time to play politics again. But resorting to politics for 365 days of the year will be to no avail.

There are several challenges that the new government must address. The colossal mess created over the years in almost every field of national affairs requires well-thought-out strategies and solutions.

But there is one asset that may ultimately prove to be a critical resource in handling these challenges. Having worked closely with former prime minister Benazir Bhutto during both her terms in office, I had many opportunities to see how the leaders of developed countries and multilateral organisations like the IMF were keen to assist her and would sometimes go beyond their conventional policies to help her in whichever areas of priority she laid out for her government.

If he becomes PM, Imran Khan can bring the same charisma and credibility to the office. World leaders will probably help him succeed in the reform agenda that he outlines for his government. This must be factored into strategies that the PTI develops for the benefit of the people of Pakistan.

While there are countless challenges, there are also many opportunities. The usual challenges of a developing country have been compounded by incompetence and corruption for several years. Pakistan has repeatedly seen its potential reversed at the hands of pitiless politics. It remains to be seen whether these stalwarts will find compassion in their hearts for the exploited and pauperised people of the country, and respect the wishes of the majority to opt for a different approach to deliver better governance to the country.

If this miracle occurs and we can move beyond our addiction of engaging in politics throughout the year, then institutional reforms that work for the people and are driven by merit and integrity will be the game-changers that the people have been waiting for. And this makes us hope that the time may have come for Pakistan to rise again and finally realise its potential.

The writer designed the Board of Investment and the First Women’s Bank.

Email: smshahalum.mit.edu


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