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October 9, 2019

Separating symptom from disease

Opinion

October 9, 2019

Those that have directly suffered the skewed democracy and uneven freedoms on offer in Pakistan over the last three years or so are allowed to be bitter.

They are allowed to have a chip on their shoulder, and a bias in their views. It is the least that they should be allowed, given unfair court judgments and toxic propaganda about their loyalties to the nation. But the rest of us are not allowed to be bitter or biased. The rest of us should be keeping our wits and be able to filter reality with a degree of fairness and consistency.

This is why reasonable observers will be able to acknowledge that the prime minister conducted Pakistan’s business at the UN General Assembly with great skill and effectiveness two weeks ago. It is also why it is easy to conclude that the upcoming siege of Islamabad that Maulana Fazlur Rehman is planning is a disaster that all reasonable political and non-political forces should be working to thwart before the madressahs start emptying out and the streets start filling up.

Of course, acknowledging facts that may favour the government’s narrative does not mean we should shy away from larger truths. The PM and the cabinet were wholly unprepared to govern when they ‘lucked’ into a numerically advantageous electoral position on July 19, 2018. Over a year into its term, the ruling coalition today seems even less capable of navigating the country out of troubled waters than it did a year ago.

It is increasingly becoming clear that governing a complex nation in difficult regional and global environment is not as easy as the best intended among us would like it to be. Sooner or later, there will need to be a debate about the exact cost of the civil-military alignment that exists today. But before that debate can be conducted with any meaningful outcomes, a more urgent set of realities need to be acknowledged. These are the boring ones that do not excite us, and do not allow for the drawing of clear lines between right and wrong, or good and evil. These realities have to do with the complexity of the governance challenge. They require us to consider the need to embrace the things that smell bad, and be wary of the allure of things that look attractive.

There was a small uproar last week when the National Accountability Bureau summoned businessman Hussain Dawood for questioning. In the idiotic binary world that many of us occupy, questioning NAB is akin to batting for corruption. But the alternate that is on offer needs to be examined too. Questioning NAB or its methods seems to be an exercise in morality or adherence to rule of law or due process or perhaps, worst of all, alignment with democratic values.

The truth is that in a reasonable society in which social capital is not exhausted, and the state enjoys a degree of trust among various categories of citizens, a government body that is responsible for probing corruption should not be hindered in engaging with and asking questions of anyone, including the man that is perhaps one of the country’s most outstanding corporate citizens, namely Hussain Dawood.

Dawood’s work in Pakistan is what should land people in textbooks about economics, integrity and patriotism. But in a country that works, government should enjoy the confidence of the people, the firms and the institutions that make up society to be able to ask questions, even of Hussain Dawood. The problem is that no such confidence exists. Nobody actually has any confidence in NAB, or any other arm of government. Not even those that may happen to presently be in government.

This is not the fault of any single officer at NAB, nor is it Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s fault (the man that appointed the current NAB chairman). Nor indeed is it the NAB chairman’s fault. The first step in ascertaining what is broken is for us to give up our addiction to identifying singular individual villains for multi-decade, oft-multi-generational institutional crises. The diagnosis of these crises should be the subject of many books, like Ilhan Niaz’s ‘Culture of Power and Governance in Pakistan’. But we can start with a snapshot of how government is organized in Pakistan: dinosaurs at the top, mediocrity in the middle, and digital nativeness from the bottom, up.

In 2017, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi appointed a seventy one year old Javed Iqbal as NAB chairman. Abbasi, who is heroically resisting abandoning his political leader (despite the said leader not meriting such loyalty), has apologized that the chairman is who he is and is doing what he is doing. But he has not apologized for saddling the future of Pakistan with the burden of its history. Of course, saddling the country and its institutions with retired senior citizens (mostly men) is an epidemic that transcends all political parties, and all aspects of national life.

At Pakistan’s permanent mission to the United Nations, the prime minister sought to put his stamp of youthful vigour and strong nationalism, with a man who is seventy four years old. Ignored in replacing Maliha Lodhi was not only Lodhi’s stellar performance as permanent representative, but the presence of at least three options, far superior to Munir Akram, all under the age of sixty, all currently under the employ of the Foreign Office. These are: Khalil Hashmi (who has, after much delay, finally been deployed as the country’s representative at the UN in Geneva), Asim Iftikhar Ahmad (currently the country’s representative in Thailand), and Shafqat Ali Khan (currently the country’s representative in Poland). If Lodhi had to be replaced at all, why replace her with a dinosaur?

Several decades of this kind of addiction to very old men has produced an entirely predictable middle management problem in government: a soft-chewy bureaucratic core that knows the limits of performance and the value of sycophancy. The highest performing officers will often be ignored for the most effective networkers.

This is a formula for mediocrity in the public sector. Combine this with the class differential between say the average NAB officer and the average Pakistani tycoon, and the likelihood of people like Hussain Dawood being dragged to NAB is all the more pronounced, if nothing, then just for the spectacle it offers to an oft-rightly embittered middle class that occupies the mid tiers of government.

Add all this to the new wave of consciousness (faux or real) that social media offers to the average citizen, including government officials. Gone are the days of officers diligently earning their stripes doing the actual work of governance alone. For too many younger officers, demonstrating their work through the expression of their hard work in social media is just as important as the actual work itself. The implications are widespread, and demand a serious rethink of how government work is framed, assigned and adjudged.

All this complexity is not easy to fathom. It is much easier to froth at the mouth at the indignity of summoning Hussain Dawood. But as we have learnt from frothing at the mouth until Nawaz Sharif was in jail, the hero-villain construct of Pakistani governance doesn’t actually solve governance problems. It just rewards those that froth at the mouth more. Solving governance problems is a slightly more challenging task.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

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