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April 17, 2016

Burnol lagaiye!


April 17, 2016

Back in the dark ages when PTV was all one had to watch, one of the jingles that went viral was the ad for Burnol, a tube containing a panacea for all ills. Or as the dialogue went, “Jal gaya? Burnol lagaiye! Cut gaya? Burnol lagaiye! Keeray nay kata? Burnol lagaiye?”

I was reminded of the Burnol advertisement by the recent spate of columns advising the armed forces to step in, initiate ruthless accountability, replace our corrupt kleptocrats with a new bunch of “clean tareen” leaders and set Pakistan on the path to becoming Switzerland. If you think you’ve heard that advice before, rest assured, so has the rest of Pakistan. It is advice that gets trotted out at every crisis, big or small. Like Burnol, the fauj fixes every problem.

My question today is this: why do people do this? What part of the history of Pakistan encourages people who should know better to turn to the armed forces for solace? What makes people think that replacing one head with another will fix Pakistan?

Let’s put the conspiracy theories aside for a moment and assume that there is a rational (and respectable) explanation for such reductionism. If so, what could that be?

My thesis is that the faujis (and by extension, the fauji sympathisers) believe in the ‘minus one’ option because it accords with their own experience and because they fail to differentiate between the wildly different natures of military and civilian institutions.

Let me begin by stating the obvious: the military is the strongest institution in Pakistan. No other institution or entity is even remotely comparable to it as an organisational entity, not even the DMG of yore.

Like all Pakistani institutions, the military is peculiarly susceptible to the foibles of its leader. A good chief can do wonders and a bad chief can run the whole organisation down. But as a retired general explained to me, a good chief can fix in a year whatever mess a bad chief has produced. To use his examples, first term Kayani fixed the mess that Musharraf made in the army. And Raheel Sharif has fixed the mess made by second term Kayani.

In other words, notwithstanding its susceptibility to problematic individuals, the Pakistan Army has sufficient organisational strength and institutional integrity that the damage which can be done by even a terrible leader is readily fixable by a good leader.

The fauji therefore looks at the messes made by civilians and assumes that the solution to the mess is to replace the ‘chief of civilian staff’ leader with his deputy. To put it mildly, this doesn’t work.

The reason why the ‘minus one’ approach doesn’t work when applied to civilian politics is because none of our political parties has any independent institutional existence comparable to the army. Take any political party in Pakistan today and remove its head: the entity which emerges will not just be exponentially weaker than its predecessor, it will – in effect – be a different party.

Seriously, think this point through. Imagine that tomorrow Imran Khan retires from politics, takes a vow of silence and goes for a long walk in the Hindu Kush. How long do you think the PTI would last?

Unfair, you may say. After all, the PTI is a new party. Obviously it is going to be dependent on the charisma of its leader.

My answer is that the same problems afflict even the two older parties. Benazir’s assassination and her replacement by Asif Zardari has resulted in a hugely weakened entity, just like the assassination of ZAB and his replacement by Benazir produced a pale shadow of the party ZAB had created.

As for the PML-N, it has to be remembered that the ‘N’ in the PML-N stands for Nawaz. Yes, the Noonies are the most institutionalised of all the parties. But even they are a far cry from matching the institutional identities of parties like the Democrats and the Republicans in the USA.

Louis XVI, the greatest of all French emperors and the builder of Versailles reportedly addressed the French parliament with the words, “L’etat, c’est moi.” Thankfully, the time has passed when any leader of Pakistan could say that. However, that pathology – “I am the state!” – is still true of our political parties. Our political parties are their leaders. Replacing one party leader with another and the result is a new party, not an improved party.

Let me spell out my argument. People who think that Pakistan is going to hell in a hand-basket (ie, the ‘drunken uncle’ brigade) need to stop fantasising about quick solutions. The army cannot fix Pakistan. Been there, done that. Repeatedly. More importantly, the army cannot midwife a better, more democratic Pakistan. If you decapitate a political party and replace its head, the ensuing chimera will be weaker, more corrupt and more incompetent than its predecessor. Yes, democracy sucks. But the alternatives are worse.

What then is the solution? Well, if you would like a long answer, please track down the forthcoming edition of the Journal of Development Studies and read the article on ‘Pathologies of Development Practice’ by Dr Ijlal Naqvi, distinguished (assistant) professor of sociology at the Singapore Management University. And yes, he’s my younger brother.

The condensed version of younger bro’s article is that governance reform efforts in the Pakistani electrical power sector failed despite people writing about (and recognising) the shortcomings of these programs before, during and after the programs failed. The World Bank and USAID even revisited these failed programmes and pointed out all that had gone wrong in earnest post mortems (before then repeating their mistakes all over again).

The point being made by younger bro is this: aid agencies (and other starry-eyed dreamers) constantly come up with programmes intended to recreate a Denmark in Pakistan. They even sketch out elaborate paths and multiple steps from here to there, forgetting that governance in the real Denmark evolved over decades (and centuries) of political compromise, and certainly not according to any preconceived plan.

In short, governance problems are complex and can’t simply be solved through preconceived notions. People are not machines. Not only are humans unpredictable but they have the capacity to learn from new situations and to then respond in ways intended specifically to stymie reform efforts.

As a consequence of this fundamental fact, the home-run approach very rarely works when it comes to governmental reform. Instead, what tends to work better is a ‘small-ball’ approach, empowering local actors to make multiple attempts to figure out solutions through trial and error. Compare the Citizen Feedback Monitoring Programme (growing out of Zubair Bhatti’s experiments in Jhang) to the ADB’s Access to Justice Programme. It takes patience, local knowledge, and a willingness to adapt – all factors in short supply at international development agencies.

While Naqvi junior doesn’t draw out the obvious parallel, fixing Pakistan’s political system is no more susceptible to quick fixes than Pakistan’s bijli system. Nobody – no matter how honest, no matter how well-intentioned, no matter how learned – can fix Pakistan’s problems in one go. Governance belongs to a different class of problem. You can’t create a competent state in one go any more than you can create a full-grown tree in one go. In both cases, growth will take time.

The writer is an advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

Twitter: @laalshah

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