Tuesday July 23, 2024

The lockdown and the invisible hand mafia

By Mosharraf Zaidi
October 25, 2016

So you never know, never never know,/Never know enough, ‘til it’s over love ‘Til we lose control, system overload/Screamin’ “No! No! No! N-No!”

–‘Love Lockdown’, Kanye West

The prime minister faces yet another major challenge from Imran Khan and the PTI in the coming days in the form of a threat to lockdown Islamabad. The reason is not a big secret. The prime minister sought to make the Panama leaks about his own sob story, rather than acknowledging what the Panama papers represent: a black eye for self-respecting Pakistanis, who demand, at a minimum, a prime minister whose own affairs are above fiduciary reproach.

The prime minister’s decision to dig his heels in and refuse any modicum of accountability or transparency on the issue of his family being named in the Panama Papers is the Trojan horse upon which Imran Khan wants to ride into Troy. For providing Khan a vehicle to disrupt his elected government, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has no one but himself and his myopia to blame. In the anticipation of a change of guard at the General Headquarters of the Pakistan Army, an impending lockdown of Islamabad and a Supreme Court hearing that sounds awfully nostalgic, many fear that the country is on the verge of something big.

If these fears turn out to be true, it would represent the end of the longest, most sustained, most golden opportunity for the transformation of Pakistan, in its history. For this, PM Sharif can only be blamed partially. If the worst happens, the blame will need to be apportioned across a much wider spectrum than just the PML-N and its self-destructive nature.

Why would it be PM Sharif’s fault? The easy answer is that he doesn’t up and resign in the wake of the Panama leaks. The correct answer is more complicated. Whether he is guilty or innocent in the Panama Papers issue is a matter for the courts to decide. However, what we definitely know is that none of the organisations and institutions of the state that should have kicked into motion upon the publication of these leaks actually did anything useful. To the extent that the PTI and its supporters have become desperate and despondent, they are right: the prime minister is relatively untouchable. Short of him standing over a dead body with a smoking gun in his hand, he is not about to be taken to task for anything. The question is whether locking down Islamabad for love of accountability is the right response to a political behemoth that seems unmoved by scandal and untouchable through the way the system works. (The answer is no).

There is a lot of legitimate scepticism about whether the procedural instruments at the disposal of Pakistani citizens can force the Sharifs to be a little more open and honest about the total quantum of their wealth, the degree of global mobility their wealth has been afforded over the years, and the directness with which it has been reported to the Pakistani people. This is not trivial. Doubts about the Pakistani state being able to satisfy these questions undermine the efficacy and utility of a range of institutions and organisations, including the Supreme Court, the Public Accounts Committee, the Election Commission of Pakistan, the Auditor General of Pakistan, the National Accountability Bureau, and the Federal Bureau of Revenue. These doubts sow the kind of discord and lack of confidence that is kryptonite for a Pakistan that is besieged by all sorts of wounds and ailments: some self-inflicted, others, the havoc wreaked by opportunistic enemies.

If trust and confidence in public institutions evaporates, so does the potential for those very institutions to demonstrate success and be effective. In short, we cannot have an effective Pakistani state whilst public confidence in the state continues to be low, and constantly suffer erosion.

The fact that so many statutory bodies in Pakistan are so hugely ineffective in protecting this country’s citizens and their rights is at least partially PM Sharif’s fault. He is in his third term as prime minister, and surely should be able to muster up some evidence of wanting to improve the performance of the PAC, the ECP, the AGP, the NAB, the FBR and other organs of the state? Surely! Whilst one is keen to excuse him of his liability to govern on the basis of constant disruptions to his governments by hook and by crook, evidence that he has tried, even a little bit, is difficult to find. The PML-N is not a reform oriented party. Indeed, in its latest permutation, the party has ceased to even pretend to be reform-oriented.

But this isn’t the whole story. The ineffectiveness of government is not just a matter of PM Sharif lacking the instinct to be a reformer. The real story is much worse. And here it is not the PM alone, but the entire political and military elite that can be held responsible. For decades now, the institutions of civilian authority have been hollowed out and systematically disembowelled through the predatory instincts of what I call the invisible hand mafia.

The invisible hand, of course, is Adam Smith’s original formulation of the unintended positive collective outcomes, based on intentional private actions. My use of the term here is referring to anything but positive collective outcomes. In short, I am employing irony. I make that clear here because it is easy to misinterpret. And Pakistan’s invisible hand mafia’s principal expertise is to work for the benefit of the few, at the expense of the many. In this way, it is the reciprocal equivalent of Adam Smith’s invisible hand. Hence, invisible hand mafia.

It is no secret that every government, military or civilian selects only the most ‘competent’ technocrats as finance minister. From Sartaj Aziz, to Shaukat Aziz, and from Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, to Ishaq Dar, they always seem to be incredibly capable men. And for the most part, these competent men have staved off economic collapse even at the worst of times. These finance ministers in turn select only the ‘most able’ bureaucrats to run the finance ministry for them. It is not a coincidence that Dr Waqar Masood keeps being retained as secretary finance.

The principal utility of these men to men like Nawaz Sharif or Asif Ali Zardari or General Pervez Musharraf is not their economic vision, or their passion for economic transformation. This is why we never see any reform. The principal utility of these men is to accumulate and mobilise power in the hands of their bosses. The reason you never see a strong, elected man or woman at the Ministry of Finance is that this would be seen as suicide.

The Ministry of Finance is the nerve-centre of power in Pakistani governance, both during dictatorships and during democracies. No matter what mode of governance is in place and no matter what process has been followed to appoint the head of a statutory body, the purse strings of literally every single government organisation are held firmly and irrevocably in the hands of the secretary finance and through him, as principal accounting officer, in the hands of the finance minister.

The PTI is not naïve about the intricacy and complexity of the role of the elite bureaucracy in Pakistan, which though it includes the DMG or PAS, is much wider and more diverse. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, it has struggled mightily to find and retain officers that will do, variously, as Imran Khan, Pervez Khattak, Jahangir Tareen, Asad Qaiser and groups of other MNAs and MPAs say. And these lessons from governing KP will no doubt inform the continuation of the invisible hand mafia, if ever a PTI government was to be formed in Islamabad.

Locking down Islamabad is a political stunt by Imran Khan being enacted in the hopes of triggering a disruption to the democratic system. It is about accountability and reform in name only. If it were to succeed, PM Sharif can legitimately be held to account for not having challenged the invisible hand mafia and allowing it to continue feeding on the weakness of executive government functions across the spectrum of Pakistani governance. However, any unconstitutional and illegal move to unseat the elected government will ultimately be the responsibility of those that make that move.

In that list, Imran Khan’s name shines brightly as the principal cheerleader and enabler of such a move. That so many people support Imran Khan and his open hostility to a hard-won democratic system should be a wake-up call for PM Sharif. Sadly, it seems nothing will wake him up.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.