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April 24, 2018

Myth of technocratic utopia


April 24, 2018

The conventional wisdom that fantasy-weavers would IV into our consciousness is that politicians are corrupt and incompetent and therefore can never fix anything. At first flush, this is such an appealing proposition that the mind wants to give in entirely to it: “mainoo lutt lay!” the mind says at the prospect of such a lazy, elegant and lubricated little myth.

The only way to fix Pakistan, therefore, is to Ross and Rachel ourselves from democracy for a while: take a break. In the interregnum, we must hand the reins of the country to highly educated, urbane and clean Pakistanis, otherwise known as technocrats.

What an enchanting prospect! Just imagine leaders who aren’t worried about the next election, and committed only to serving this great country. Leaders who actually speak coherently and with confidence, in English, with suits that fit, that they bought with the money they earned fair and square at the international organisations that serve as proof of their credentials. Leaders that are respected for their minds, instead of their wealth. Leaders that don’t have corruption cases by the bucket load hanging from their necks. It really is the dream, isn’t it?

In the popular imagination, the names being proposed for caretaker prime minister these days are a reflection of this fantasy: a saviour regime led by technocrats. But a closer examination of these names reveals something that the fantasy weavers do not want revealed: Pakistan’s technocrats have been serving this country through thick and thin, during military regimes and democratic ones, during good times and bad times. They don’t need any kind of interregnum, and they don’t wait for the perfect scenario before contributing to the larger system of individuals, organisations and institutions that determine how resources are allocated in this country, and how the people are served by the state.

The truth is that the technocrats that we pine for are, by very definition, in the business of public service. To a man and a woman, nearly all the candidates whose names are bandied about as possible technocratic saviours have been serving the country for decades. The myth of the technocratic saviour is a fabrication by mid-ranking social and political engineers to undermine the continuum of electoral politics and the overarching Pakistani democratic process.

Meanwhile, the highest offices of the country repeatedly assure one and all that there is no threat to democracy. The army leadership and the judiciary have both reiterated that there will be no disruption or interruption or interregnum. Given all this, the constant noise being generated about a technocratic solution to Pakistan almost seems like a deliberate attempt to undermine the reputations of long-standing public servants that are being discussed as possible candidates for the caretaker government.

One of the most outstanding candidates for caretaker prime minister is Dr Ishrat Husain. In the interest of full disclosure, I consider Dr Husain to be a mentor and have known him since 2001, when I moved back to Pakistan upon the completion of my higher education.

Dr Husain was known more widely at the time as the highly competent and upstanding governor of the State Bank of Pakistan. However, I had the privilege to meet Dr Husain for the first time as a staff member of the Steering Committee on Higher Education (SCHE), which was the transition body that took the University Grants Commission and converted it into what we know now as the Higher Education Commission.

After six years as State Bank governor, Dr Husain spent the last twelve years not only adding to the stock of intellectual capital of the country – writing important books about the economy and governance – but also helping the rest of the world understand Pakistan better, leading the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council for Pakistan. Along the way, he spent nearly eight years leading the Institute of Business Administration in Karachi and ensuring that it would continue to be a centre of excellence for future managers and CEOs. Among his most important contributions was his leadership of the National Commission for Governance Reforms that straddled the Musharraf regime and Zardari regimes between 2007 and 2009. The outcome of that commission continues to be among the most comprehensive analyses of the challenges of public administration in this country.

Another name oft-repeated as a candidate for the caretaker regime is Shahid Kardar. Mr Kardar is also a dear friend and a public servant par excellence. He has served as finance minister in Punjab, as the head of the Punjab Education Foundation and like Dr Husain, as the governor of the State Bank. In each position, his uncompromising clarity and integrity have been instruments of effectiveness for governance and instruments of inspiration for his many admirers.

Pakistan’s current permanent representative to the UN, Maleeha Lodhi, is another outstanding public servant whose name has been appeared in news reports about caretaker candidates. Perhaps no other individual has embodied public service better than our former ambassador to the US, high commissioner to the UK, former editor of this newspaper, and editor at large for international affairs. Throughout her career as a journalist and a diplomat Ms Lodhi has espoused issues like female empowerment and education, and I know personally of how passionately she works to support organisations working in education.

Neither Ishrat Husain, nor Shahid Kardar, nor Maleeha Lodhi need their friends to restate their resumes in the op-ed pages. But I have presented their credentials here with a very specific purpose.

The capacity of technocrats to serve Pakistan does not hinge on some ill-defined, unconstitutional and illegal technocratic utopia. The most effective public servants find ways to serve Pakistan regardless of who is in power, and what the state of institutional relationships is. Senator Musadik Malik of the PML-N is another example. Dr Malik is an internationally renowned strategist who has advised dozens of Fortune 500 companies. He helped set up the human development agenda during the Musharraf era, and was caretaker minister for power and energy prior to the 2013 elections. His contributions to Pakistan and his potential to continue contributing were acknowledged by the system when he became spokesperson to the prime minister in 2014, and a senator in March 2018.

Mr Kardar was appointed governor of the State Bank by the PPP government in 2010. Dr Husain was among the leading candidates to be appointed governor Sindh by the PML-N in 2017. Ms Lodhi has been appointed to represent Pakistan by the PPP, the PML-N, and by the Musharraf regime. Dr Malik was appointed in a caretaker regime, and became senator under the PML-N. Technocrats invested in public service cannot, by definition, wait for the utopia that is weaved on our nightly news talk shows. They serve this country, without prejudice.

Pakistan is privileged to have a richness of technocratic skills in these and many others, such as Dr Hafeez Pasha, Dr Nadeem ul Haque, Dr Sania Nishtar, and dozens more. No matter what happens during the election, they will continue to serve Pakistan from whatever vantage point they have available. It is invariable that some among them will be invited to serve the next government, whichever party or combination of parties wins the election.

In short, we don’t need to short-circuit Pakistan’s constitution and take a break from democracy to benefit from the intellect and integrity of Pakistan’s wealth of technocratic minds. They are already serving Pakistan, and their patriotism and professionalism ensures that they will never stop. The alchemists that want to subvert our constitution and democracy should stop trying to ruin reputations. InshaAllah, we are having an election, and inshaAllah, we are having it on time.

Our greatest public servants and technocrats will continue to serve this country – regardless of how good or bad the men and women running it are.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

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