People are not born good or bad; law-abiding or wild and violent. The way they are governed makes them one or the other. And without reforming the overarching political governance of the state, the actions taken over the years in the name of various sectoral ‘reforms’ – education, health, agricultural, labour, industrial, trade and others – have not achieved desired results nor are these likely to make much difference in the future. The reason is simple: these ‘reforms’ work at cross-purposes with the agenda of political governance – and no reform has succeeded in the world, unless enforced from the top.
So how did the governance of the seventh largest state of the world come to be reduced to ‘the lowest common denominator’ in the hands of transient elements that have penetrated into almost every aspect of governance?
Under assault from non-state actors, the state and its institutions have been underperforming for lack of capacity and competence. More troubling, however, has been the strategy of disabling them from functioning as instruments of the state and allowing them to act when, where and to the extent desired by those controlling the levers of government.
This has deformed the state and its institutions and given a bad name to the country. Most state institutions have regressed into a medieval mode of self-serving and exploitative entities.
The deterioration in two basic state functions captures the essence of the argument: collecting taxes to run the affairs of the state and enforcing the law of the land to deliver order and stability in society.
The declining capacity of state institutions to govern effectively and impartially also opened up space for new sets of skills and enterprises. The size of the black economy now equals the white economy (up from 20 percent in the mid-1970s). Only one percent of the population pays income tax and our tax-to-GDP ratio is among the lowest in the world. A 1990s’ survey of the country’s busiest markets – Bohri Bazaar in Karachi, Anarkali in Lahore and Jinnah Super in Islamabad – disclosed that the average income shown by shop owners in these markets was less than Rs10,000 per month.
A ‘closed-circuit model’ of development has taken hold of the national economy where – like the judge, jury and executioner being the same – those awarding, receiving and executing public contracts are often the same or are their proxies. No wonder then that $200 billion of Pakistani funds have flown to Swiss banks alone.
On the other hand, governance of the lowest-common-denominator helped the informal economy expand into hitherto suppressed areas – and play a larger than life role in the black economy of the country. Land grabbing, extortion, kidnapping, gun-running and gang wars enlarged their domain to fill the vacuum; while ethnic, sectarian and political turf wars and protection rackets muscled their way to grow beyond the reach of the law. Even the euphemistically named ‘development funds’ from the state’s exchequer – meant for upgrading decrepit infrastructure – morphed into an art in rent seeking.
It was not that the state did not know what was going on. A hapless state was seeing it all but was often incapable, unwilling, or disabled from doing anything. The internal systems of checks and balances within the executive branch were either co-opted or disabled. The oversight function of legislature was compromised when an oxymoron was invented – a democracy without opposition – where ‘everybody wanted to be onboard everything’ with the government; leaving the state and its silent suffering citizens to fend for themselves. Even the honourable judges of superior judiciary have been complaining of stonewalling of judicial orders by the executive branch.
What this tells us is that the deterioration in the basic functions of the state has been deep and widespread – and grown powerful enough to resist change in status quo. The tables have been turned upon the state. For short-term interests of the few, long-term interests of the state were compromised. And Pakistan continues to pay a heavy price in blood and treasure. One serious collateral damage to the security interests of countries whose leaders have parked their questionable assets in foreign countries lies in their being hostage to the host country’s intelligence agencies and providing a handy tool to influence the policies of their countries.
Instead of the governments serving the interests of the state – as is the universally accepted norm of democratic governance – the state became subservient to the interests of the leaders in control of the government. The root cause of malgovernance in Pakistan lies in this reversal of the roles of the state and the government.
This malgovernance is reflected not merely through media reports on extortions, killings and terrorism but also through the lives of millions of silent sufferers who have been condemned to live in poverty, hunger, illiteracy and disease from one generation to the other; whose educated sons and daughters cannot find opportunities for upward mobility and who hear endless stories of plunder of public resources in the name of ‘development’ – and wonder whose development they all talking about.
When governance deteriorates to becoming a part of the problem rather than its solution, an overhaul of governance becomes overdue. Everyone recognises this except the oligarchy, which is confident that by ‘reconciliation of interests’ of major power brokers, and getting ‘everybody on board everything’ it has cleverly blocked all avenues of change. The governance of ‘the lowest common denominator’ is a by-product of the strategy of ‘reconciliation of interests’. By the time every power broker managed to protect their turf, there was nothing left for the state to govern.
But every thesis has an antithesis. The roll-back of the thesis of ‘everybody onboard everything’ finally started when General Raheel Sharif launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb to take the battle to terrorist hideouts and rescue the writ of the state from withering away any further. As the tentacles of terrorism had spread out to the cities and the countryside in various shapes and forms, their pursuit made the army take larger responsibilities for their eradication – since governance was unwilling or unable to do its job.
In this background, the formation of apex committees to strengthen a professional and depoliticised law and order administration is a welcome step. It has already started showing results in Sindh where it is winning the hearts and minds of the silent sufferers of the city.
Two things are likely to influence the future course of events. Because governance is indivisible, it would be difficult to depoliticise and professionalise one compartment, while business as usual continues to contaminate other compartments. Also, apex committees would need an under-structure to successfully implement their law and order agenda. How would this come about?
And secondly, will the ‘everybody onboard everything’ thesis reform itself and show wisdom to facilitate apex committees and not throw a spanner in the works?
Moving forward is the only option left for us to for rescue the state, which has already paid heavily in blood and treasure for too long.
The writer specialised in FDI from MIT and designed the Board of Investment and First Women Bank.