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April 11, 2018

Politics without governance


April 11, 2018

The governance of a democratic country is more than a matter of mere politics. Like economics, politics has an important role to play in society. But if economics and politics monopolise the field and push out other disciplines of knowledge and their expertise, neither development nor democracy would materialise.

Politics as an individual pursuit of power or influence is one of the oldest professions. It is necessary to recognise the difference between politics and governance at the outset. While politics is partisan and antagonistic, governance is neutral and holistic.

The former rulers of the Subcontinent focused on politics without governance. The only passion of this ruling elite was the politics of toppling this ruler or that and, thereby, controlling a particular territory. According to Clausewitz, war is “politics by other means”. The history of the Subcontinent is replete with wars and conquests for politics without governance. It involves rulers holding on to power, even if that required them to kill their own flesh and blood. The law was nothing more than the whims of the ruler of the day and people did not even have the right to their own lives, much less the right to development of any kind.

It took a long and painful struggle in Europe to control the wild and self-seeking politics of power and bring it within parameters of the law. The first milestone in this regard was achieved in 1215 when English barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta. Under this agreement, the king promised that he would not abuse his power and would instead abide by the customary law of the time.

But it took many more years and a bitter struggle to ensure that the ownership of the people over the nation-state and its resources was recognised by the rulers – albeit reluctantly. The intellectual foundations of this second struggle were laid by the Enlightenment – especially through the works of 17th and 18th century scholars like Locke, Bentham, Montesquieu, Rousseau and Voltaire. These scholars focused on the natural and inalienable rights of the people; popular sovereignty; freedom of expression; separation of powers; and the government as a servant of the people.

When these arguments were not taken seriously by some rulers, the French took a quantum leap forward and executed the king and his cohorts during the French Revolution. Europe learned its lessons after this event and democracy evolved as an antidote to the absolutism of power by anyone. The doors were opened to ensure equality to all citizens.

The other landmark event that provided the structure and operational systems of democracy was the Industrial Revolution. There are several similarities between the formation and management of companies – which were products of the Industrial Revolution – and the formation and governance of a democratic state. For instance, the shareholders of a company are recognised as owners of the company while the board of directors entails the agents of the owners who are given control over the assets of shareholders to maximise benefits.

Similarly, the citizens of a state are recognised as the owners of a democratic state and the government – as the agent of the people – is given control over people’s resources so that it can deliver security, education, health, employment and other benefits to them. But several laws, rules and codes of conduct are embedded in the provision of corporate and public governance to protect owners from an flagrant abuse of trust and self-dealings by the board of directors or the government.

However, none of these events took place in the Subcontinent. Nobles did not force any ruler to sign documents to abide by the law of the land. There were also no signs of anything resembling the French Revolution that could have shaken the foundations of the old decaying order. As for the laws for preventing the abuse of trust by the agents, most of these have been disabled in Pakistan by the agents themselves.

In the absence of historical foundations and suitable checks and balances, the old trend of politics without governance was revived and became the only game in town. It forced its entry into non-political services, professions and businesses – education, health, law and order and industry – and damaged their professional governance and decision-making abilities. While several Asian countries achieved 100-percent literacy long ago, Pakistan’s low literacy rate remains a source of international embarrassment.

The sugar industry remains so deeply inefficient that most of its units would have gone bankrupt in any fair and competitive economy. The industry has survived and flourished through government subsidies and by depriving farmers of their hard-earned and legitimate income.

No grass has grown under absolutism of this kind. Any treatise on democracy will tell you that democracy was not devised to replace one monopoly of power by another. It was meant to be an antidote against absolute power of any individual, group or organisation – fearful of Lord Acton’s warning that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

As a further curb against absolutism, power in democracy is dispersed – both horizontally and vertically – across different disciplines. Senior echelons have the power to overrule the decisions of the lower echelons. But they do not have the power to disrupt the working of lower echelons or usurp powers of another discipline.

During his official visit to Pakistan in 2002, Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad was asked for advice on how the country could be set on the path to development. Among other things, he said that developing countries like Pakistan are not like Japan and Germany, which have a vast variety of quality human resources to choose from in every field. Instead, Pakistan’s best course lies in the rapid development of quality human resources. But the country is losing its potential due to poor governance practices. If these practices are not reversed, people with knowledge, marketable skills and expertise will gradually leave the country. And Pakistan cannot realise its great potential without these assets.

But development of human and institutional capacities requires a system of governance where reward and punishment are determined by the success or failure in achieving professional excellence, and not by rendering services to this godfather or that. The politicisation of non-political services and professions has changed the whole value system of reward and punishment and resulted in a dysfunctional system of governance.

In countries where democracy and development have flourished, politics – like any other discipline – has been made to abide by the law to ensure that it is not be conducted above and beyond it. The non-interference of politics into other areas of national life – education, health, law and order, industry and economic development – creates a space for these spheres to grow; achieve professional excellence; and contribute to social and economic development. That is how the Asian miracle of development was achieved in many countries within a short period of 30 years.

But in their endless passion for politics, our federal and provincial power structures have no inclination to invest the necessary time and effort to address issues of governance. The problems have increased over time. As the country enters the 71st year of its existence, it needs a strong leadership to do away with the continuing challenges of politics without governance.

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

Email: [email protected]

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