Saturday April 20, 2024

What is our capacity scorecard?

By Foqia Sadiq Khan
April 12, 2022

By the time you read this article, Shehbaz Sharif is most likely to have been voted in as the prime minister of Pakistan. When columnists like myself will look back at the developments in Pakistan 20-30 years from now, April 9, 2022 may stand out.

Pakistan’s democracy is resilient. No matter how much the pro-status quo forces try to suppress it; it always bounces back. Even if it is a ‘controlled democracy’, the throwing out of fascist Imran Khan through democratic means is historic. The ouster of the PTI through a vote of no-confidence is a victory of democracy and constitutionalism in Pakistan.

As Haris Gazdar had written way back in 2008, Pakistan’s political parties have well-defined ideological markets. The old guard of the PML-N, PPP, and MQM are back in power. This time around, they are going to have a much smoother relationship with the country’s powerbrokers as the rules of game have changed post the Panama judgment.

However, the PML-N coalition has to look beyond the immediate concerns; it needs to think long term for the development and progress of Pakistan. One of the perennial questions being faced by Pakistan like other developing countries is the issue of state capacity. The Pakistani state is both strong and weak at the same time: it is a strong state when it comes to repression. It is a weak state in terms of its governmentality.

There have been some success stories of displaying state capacity in the recent past both by the PML-N and the PTI and those lessons need to be learned and analyzed. Even though the success stories are limited, if we were to properly analyze what worked to make those success stories possible, it would help amplify those efforts to improve governance in the country.

Shehbaz Sharif, as the longest serving chief minister of Punjab from 2008-2018, displayed how the state’s capacity can be built to deliver on governance. His 10-year experience will be very handy now that he is to rule as the chief executive of the whole country.

Shehbaz Sharif worked in Punjab in the past by incentivizing bureaucrats. He rewarded those bureaucrats who delivered and tried to move away from the politics of patronage to public service delivery. His successful campaign against dengue is one such success story. He let his administration use digital technology to track dengue spreading hubs and again used this technology to make sure that effective remedial actions were taken to prevent dengue in Punjab.

Unfortunately, the PML-N’s approach to development is largely made of brick and mortar – make roads, build flyovers etc. However, the PML-N has also delivered on providing mass transport systems for the ordinary citizens. Shehbaz Sharif’s effective state capacity in Punjab focused on augmenting this brick-and-mortar developmentalism.

This time around, as the chief executive of Pakistan, Shehbaz Sharif needs to move beyond infrastructure development and go for building institutions that deliver for the people. Of course, both Nawaz Sharif and Shehbaz Sharif brought in CPEC and ameliorated the energy crisis in the country as well. This was one of the crowning success stories of the PML-N rule in the past.

The PTI government under Imran Khan failed on most counts but it handled the Covid pandemic pretty well. The NCOC worked as a hybrid institution and its delivery has been really good. The NCOC started off slowly on vaccination and it was duly called out for its initial slow response in these pages. However, it learnt pretty quickly and expanded the vaccination programme on a massive scale. Now most of the adult population of Pakistan is vaccinated. The credit for this goes to the civilian and military leadership of the NCOC. Asad Umar and Faisal Sultan led from the front. Of course, Imran Khan’s experience of running the Shaukat Khanum hospital came in handy during the pandemic as he was able to set up systems pretty quickly.

Another lesson the NCOC learnt pretty quickly was that it had to work with the provinces to contain the pandemic. Therefore, it had good coordination with all the provinces including Sindh with whom the PTI seems to be feuding on other issues. This federalist nature of the NCOC enabled it to deliver. This was another success story of effective state capacity. Lessons need to be learnt from it. It needs to be analyzed what worked and how and those lessons need to be applied in the future both in healthcare and other sectors by the Shehbaz Sharif government.

Imran Khan also did not impose long-term lockdowns that would have been disruptive to the economy, particularly for the working class. He imposed limited and localised lockdowns that were not as detrimental to the economy as Modi’s senseless national lockdown had been for India. Overall, the PTI handled the pandemic well and delivered on vaccination through the success story of the NCOC.

The PPP, PML-N, and PTI have also delivered on social protection in the country from 2008 onwards. The PPP government conceived BISP, the PML-N government continued it and the PTI government delivered on it under the Ehsaas programme. All three major parties have displayed commitment to social protection and delivered on it. Social protection in Pakistan from 2008 onwards is another major success story.

The PTI government however destroyed the education sector in Pakistan by introducing its disastrous Single National Curriculum as well as by undermining higher education. It also failed to curb inflation; the unprecedented rise in commodity prices has been its worst failures. The PML-N led coalition government needs to both repair the education sector and control inflation.

There is enough learning on building state capacity to deliver for the people. Shehbaz Sharif knows it better than anyone else in the country. It is about time the PML-N gives up its obsession with infrastructural development and delivers on health, education, justice, economy and other sectors of development.

The writer is an Islamabad-based social scientist. She can be reached at: