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April 26, 2019

The myth of competence


April 26, 2019

Politics carries a negative connotation for us and yet we love to discuss it because all of us have some kind of political DNA. If politics is all about negativity, then why do not we shun it from our drawing room discussions?

The phrase ‘playing politics’ is used to describe the misdeeds of an unscrupulous character who cheats people for his/her person gains.

One thing is certain about politics: it is about the collective life of human beings as an expression of solidarity against perceived or real external threats to a group of people. Politics is mediated through some formal arrangements ie institutions which impose a set of principles upon its members. Perceived or real external threats help create solidarity among people and help create institutions for common expression to ward off the external threat.

From this perspective, we are all political because we will not let it go easily if we feel threatened. Politics is immersed in our reflexes and therefore the more the fear the more the politics. But the timid enjoy reading about politics and the brave practise it. The brave are then curtailed to their size because institutional discipline does not leave enough space for ramblers and outliers. The brave lose the battle in the world of organized tyranny if they do not create counter-tyranny – and the conflict goes on.

If the brave submit to the timid, politics takes a negative turn and the timid rule with guns as the brave sell their wisdom to make a living. Competence is not about what you know; it is more about what you do not know or how good you are in pretending that you do not know. No matter what qualification you hold, you cannot be competent unless you learn the trick to submit.

Politics is institutional, collective and instinctual and it reveals the secret of Homo sapiens’ tendency to live in groups. Beyond this colloquial use of the term, politics is all about managing relationships for the larger goal of the collective good. Those who reach the pinnacle of a system will not enjoy bravery and wisdom. The most agonizing thing for a brave and thinking individual is to submit to the timid. The choice is: either you live wisely or enjoy competence. You cannot be both simultaneously, because wisdom is freedom and competence is slavery. Wisdom resides in you while competence is defined by others.

If you were Asad Umar, I would not mind terming you a timid competent rather than a wise incompetent. The irony is that our competent media is hell-bent to prove Asad Umar as an incompetent man for the job. If politics is the art of managing relationships for the larger goal of statecraft, then it is better to do politics rather than pledging competence to the state.

Politics is a process of statecraft which helps diffuse power from a central authority to the diverse social group through reciprocity and quid pro quo. In a democracy, politics is governed by the principles of equity, justice, inclusivity and collective expression of voices, will and aspiration. You may be a well intentioned individual but if you do not know the art you may end up becoming the instrument of the powers that be.

An honest but incompetent political leadership is worse than a competent but corrupt leadership – this is the emerging popular narrative in Pakistan. The genesis of this new popular narrative is linked to the consistent failures of the PTI government to deliver on its promises. The PTI rose to political prominence as a result of a prolonged campaign against corruption and incompetence. The top leadership of the PTI, led by Imran Khan, put forth the political agenda of a new Pakistan whose development potential, according to the PTI, was hindered by corruption, dishonesty and incompetence. It was, therefore, inevitable to have an honest, upright and clean leader at the top slot of government if Pakistan were to become a prosperous and developed country. Many people in the country saw these qualities in Imran Khan — and for all the right reasons as he was the only one among many other contenders of the top seat who was not tainted with corruption at least.

There is no doubt that Imran Khan could establish his personal credentials as someone who has empathy for the poor people of Pakistan, something reflected through his charity work. Imran Khan has said time and again in his political speeches that he ventured into politics because he was impressed by the overwhelming response of the people of Pakistan during his campaign to establish Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital. To his credit there is also the important personal milestone of being the only skipper of the Pakistan national cricket team under whose leadership Pakistan could win the cricket World Cup.

Imran Khan has been able to exploit effectively his individual achievements in his bid to establish credentials for political leadership and statesmanship. Both his professional achievements as a cricketer and his altruistic welfare drives were deemed as the fundamental preserves of an emerging political leader with the ability to translate vision into action.

However, politics in Pakistan has never been a simple mechanics of building a strong political constituency as a precondition for electoral victory. Nothing concrete can be inferred from our chequered political history as an example of when the ideas and actions of a political leader could bring about real political change. There has always been a pattern and patchwork of influences, which calls for larger political deals than the simple democratic processes of transforming popular political ideals into actionable policies.

In strong democracies, parliament becomes the supreme institution to protect the interests of citizens, and the source of political power. In weak democracies like Pakistan, the political choices of citizens do not matter amidst the clash of titans who hold key to the real power. Parliament must become a place to promote public welfare and it must be subservient to public interest but in Pakistan it has turned into a wrestling ring where the fight ends only when one of the fighters surrenders.

The macho-man rule breeds a messianic view of politics which has always been the hallmark of Pakistani politics under military dictators. It is instructive that Imran Khan and his PTI leadership must learn the art of politics and devote their energies to statecraft rather than fighting petty media wars.

What is incompetence? It is the lack of the required capacity and skills to perform the task for which a person is chosen in a system. Incompetence is not purely an individual’s trait; it is also about the factors built into a system which govern the rules of business. An honest, committed and upright person may have good intentions to play his/her role fairly but that is not the only condition for a system to function. If you are brave and wise, you may not be competent and if you are competent you may not be wise and brave.

Thus the competence argument does not hold much water in real politik; rather, it is all about your ability or inability of playing to the gallery.

The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @AmirHussain76