The big question after Prime Minister Imran Khan’s opening address to the nation over the weekend is how all the reform that he envisions will be delivered. For now, given the absence of any white papers or plans, we must assess the impending reforms process based on cabinet assignments and advisory roles announced thus far.
This PTI government will feature an astoundingly high number of associates and ex officials from the General Pervez Musharraf era (1999-2008). An equally astounding number of cabinet members and advisers have served the country before, in various capacities, under various rulers and regimes. Conversely, a shockingly low number of old-school Insafians have found their way into PM Khan’s cabinet. All of this can be explained rather handily.
To do so, we must afford at least some measure of honeymoon leniency to the government. If the people being assigned cabinet roles are good, competent, and honest women and men, then what’s the fuss? If PM Khan is privileging experience and merit, rather than loyalty, then why should we complain? Let’s also pretend that Punjab doesn’t exist. In short, let’s ignore altogether the indefensible lies and obfuscation being trotted out to explain the decision to crown an unwitting Usman Buzdar as chief minister of Punjab.
But let’s also get real. Whilst members of the PM Khan cabinet are known to be honest, educated, and qualified, they have all had a turn at this governance business. Every problem that PM Khan highlighted – from corruption, to lavish treatment for government officials, to stunting and infant mortality, to out-of-school children – all of these problems existed when members of the PM Khan cabinet served before (mostly during the Musharraf era). What will it be about PM Khan’s reforms that will make them stick unlike the Gen Musharraf reforms?
To begin, let’s revisit some of the foundational theories about why Gen Musharraf’s reforms (he attempted many) essentially failed. The conventional wisdom among pro General Musharraf, and even Musharraf-neutral folks tends to focus on two big causes. The first was legitimacy: Gen Musharraf was a constitutionally indefensible dictator. The second was compromises with politician types: once the good general made the decision to get into bed with the Chaudhrys of Gujrat, everything began to unravel.
Let’s explore Theory One: The failure of Musharraf-era reforms was rooted in the electoral, constitutional and democratic illegitimacy of the regime itself. Does the legitimacy problem disable PM Khan’s reforms agenda? The political opposition will certainly try to make this case, and may succeed to an extent. There are real questions about pre-poll manipulation, about the slant of the institutions, and most importantly, about the post-poll procedures adopted by the ECP as well as the mysterious problems that afflicted the RTS. But these questions don’t delegitimise the government. Despite these issues, the aggregate margin of votes cast for the PTI represents a mandate – thinner than anyone in the PTI would admit – but a mandate nonetheless. PM Khan’s ascension is broadly representative of the electoral mood. Parallels with a constitution-shredding general like Pervez Musharraf, in terms of legitimacy therefore, do not stick.
Let’s explore Theory Two: The failure of Musharraf-era reforms began when Gen Musharraf started to make compromises with characters like Pervez Elahi and the PML-Q. Of course, on this count, PM Khan has not waited three years to make deals with the devil. Try as we might, we cannot wish away Punjab. The very same Chaudhrys, Spanish real-estate portfolios and Bank of Punjab loot very much untouched, are back in power in a big way. On the back of less than a dozen seats in parliament, the PML-Q has scored a speakership in Punjab, installed a literal dummy of a Punjab CM, and been awarded at least two slots in the cabinet in Islamabad, with more likely to come.
The problem is, the Musharraf-era reforms were not undone by the PML-Q. If anything, the little political legitimacy they did enjoy was a product of the assemblage of politicians that the PML-Q put at Gen Musharraf’s disposal (many of those politicians, by the way, went back to the PPP and the PML-N after 2008, and a decade later, many of those – like Usman Buzdar – have now joined PTI).
The point of recycling these old arguments about the Musharraf era is to counter two myths. First, that PM Khan has a legitimacy problem. He does not – certainly nowhere nearly to the extent that Gen Musharraf did. Second, that having lotas on your side undermines reforms. It does not. The 18th Amendment is a stellar and historic piece of reform, and it has (so far) survived the test of time. Inter-party mobility is as much a feature of the PML-N and the PPP as it is of the PML-Q and the PTI. Despite a superficial resemblance to the Musharraf regime, the PM Khan cabinet’s killer weakness is not Musharrafian roots or the nature of so-called lota politicians that have joined the PTI.
So as far as what upended the Gen Musharraf reforms (many of which I personally supported, and some of which I worked on myself) we have to dig deeper than the myths that populate our imagination.
Gen Musharraf attempted four major reforms. He centralised national power in Islamabad, formally and deliberately. He decentralised provincial power to districts, formally and deliberately. He dismantled the commissionerate system that had manufactured Pakistan’s generalist civil service talent from 1947 to 2001. And he attempted to alter the structures and incentives of policing in the country. Not a single one of these reforms survived. If Dr Ishrat Husain, and Arbab Shehzad want the future to be different from the past, the establishment and reforms agendas will need to confront one basic, foundational truth.
Structural reforms do not live or die at the whim of Pakistan’s politicians or its generals. They live and die at the desk of the section officer, the deputy, joint and additional secretary, and the principal accounting officer. There are entrenched institutional interests that the bureaucracy, police, and the judiciary represent. Their behaviour is not unlike that of tribes, and the role of senior civil servants is often not unlike that of tribal sardars or waderas. The terrain and territory they defend are the perks and privileges of being unaccountable for service delivery. That accountability is restricted to councillors, nazims, MPAs, and MNAs – yet these politicians, no matter what party they are with now, do not control budgets, do not control appropriations and do not control the prioritisation of national, provincial or even local expenditure.
The soaring rhetoric of PM Khan’s speech is about to hit the tarmac of reality at the federal government secretariat. Naïve narratives about austerity will certainly assuage populist appetites on television talk shows, but they will not help deconstruct, neutralise or disarm entrenched lobbies and interest groups that are structurally resistant to a truly accountable, welfare state.
To dismantle the resistance and deliver his dream, Prime Minister Khan will need to go to war with the entrenched occupational groups and cadres in the civil services, and beyond. The innards of the republic will need to be poked, prodded and provoked. The civil bureaucracy has seen this movie before. They have won every time. Whilst we celebrate the brilliant speech by the prime minister, it behoves us to remember where resistance to change lies, and how it will be dismantled. PM Khan says he does not get blackmailed. His real test will be how he manages to take on the bureaucracy – both the ones outside his camp and the ones that are lining up to set up shop inside.
The writer is an analyst and commentator.