Feisal Naqvi

Paleo Governance

In Uncategorized on September 27, 2014 at 7:16 am

Every year a new diet becomes popular. One year it’s the Mediterranean diet. The next year it’s the Atkin’s diet. Then it’s the cabbage soup diet followed by people swearing that kale smoothies three times a day are the only way to go. Currently, the most popular diet is Paleo – the idea that if we only eat like Neanderthals we will be able to recover our youthful figures.

I have tried all of the above diets and like most people, am still very far from my ideal weight. What I now know is what I knew before I tried each of the various diets: if you want to lose weight, eat less and exercise more. And do it consistently.

The problem with common sense though is that it is not news. Common sense doesn’t sell. And so it is that people like me rush from diet to diet, never losing weight permanently and yet never losing faith that a sylph-like figure is just around the corner.

The point of this elaborate introduction is not to talk about food. Instead, the point is that good advice remains good advice, even if it isn’t fashionable.

I mention all of this because there is obviously a tremendous pent up demand in Pakistan for better governance. The most recent illustration of this anger came in the form of rebellious passengers on a PIA flight who reacted to a two-hour delay by verbally assaulting the VIP allegedly responsible for the delay (the previous government’s minister of the interior, Rehman Malik). This being the Information Age, the abuse hurled at Malik was captured on a cell-phone video and has since been viewed with much delight by millions.

Predictably, the Rehman Malik incident has been used by our container-wallahs to justify their own rebellions against the state. A new Pakistan is coming, they say; one in which the masses will rise up and refuse to accept the corruption and misgovernance that has been their lot so far.

The problem for the Imran Khan’s excitable band of followers is that there is a very significant difference between what the PIA passengers did and what Imran Khan is urging. What the passengers did was to revolt against the abuse of an existing system. If the PIA passengers had done the equivalent of what Imran Khan is demanding, they would have thrown out the entire PIA flight crew as well and then demanded that the plane be flown by the passenger with the most wickets in international cricket.

Look, nobody disputes that Pakistan has problems. But just like fad diets don’t fix weight problems, quick fixes don’t fix governance problems. Governance takes time. More importantly, it requires consistency.

It may not be fashionable to admit this, but the fact remains that the Musharraf years saw a lot of very positive steps being taken in terms of governance. Local government, police reform, tax reform, higher education reform – the list is actually pretty long. Many of those reforms were however writ on nothing more than water and when the politicians became entrenched, many of those reforms were either repealed or diluted into nothingness.

How then does one fix a country like Pakistan? The short answer is, slowly. Yes, it would be great if we had a dynamic, far-seeing, corruption-free political regime that was free from all petty considerations. But we’re not going to get one. And the only thing our feverish search for a saviour is going to do is to prevent ourselves from getting on with the business of living.

What we keep forgetting is that most of the world didn’t transition overnight from corrupt kleptocracies into liberal democracies. Yes, some countries have leaped into the front rank very quickly – Singapore being the paramount example. But for every Singapore, there is a North Korea. And for every Lee Kuan Yew, there is a Kim II Sung.

The fact that we are still having this idiotic debate in Pakistan is particularly perplexing because we have had ample experience of dictatorships. And yet we keep wishing for miracles.

A friend of mine recently returned from a trip to southern Punjab where he worked with the army on flood relief. After the trip, his Facebook update was effusive in its praise of the men he had worked with. But then came the kicker: “The civil government should abdicate its responsibilities to the Pakistan Army, at least until our current breed of politicians has been put to sleep.”

The problem with this binary perspective is that it assumes the army exists somehow independent of the ‘civil government’. This is entirely incorrect.

I am delighted that the army is doing a good job with its flood relief efforts. But the reason why the army was able to help my friend with his flood relief efforts is because the entire state of Pakistan helps pay for a modern, highly effective military which has more than half a million men at its service. It is the civil government and more specifically, its tax collection machinery, that allows our army to function as well as it does.

But the fact that the army does a good job of doing its job is no basis for assuming that the army can do other jobs as well. In fact, the assumption made by highly successful people that they are somehow more likely to succeed in every other field is a flaw recognised by modern psychology. This is a lesson that our armed forces have learnt after multiple attempts at trying to show the bloody civilians how a state should be run. And it is a lesson that Imran Khan needs to learn.

Modern political philosophy is normally traced back to ‘Leviathan’, the masterwork of Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes, born in 1588, spent a large part of his life in exile in France as a consequence of the English Civil War. This close exposure to political turmoil in turn informs the political philosophy of Leviathan.

In simple terms, what Leviathan argues is that left to their own devices, human beings are insecure and violent beings who will only kill each other. Hobbes’ view of life without governance, or what he referred to as “the state of nature” was thus decidedly bleak. In such a condition, he argued that there could be no place for industry (“because the fruit thereof is uncertain”), no progress in the arts and sciences and “which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death.” In short, life in a state of nature would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

My point here is that anarchy is not a desirable condition for any country. And in our case, attacking the legitimacy of state organs is a particularly dangerous tactic. Pakistan is not a stable country. On the contrary, it is a dangerous bundle of contradictions lashed together by the remnants of the governmental structures bequeathed by the English to us. We have spent 68 years lurching from crisis to crisis and from dictatorship to dictatorship. It is about time we had a little less excitement in our lives, not more.

Backyard games are notorious for coming to an unscheduled halt when the person who has provided the equipment becomes upset at being given out and decides to take his bat (or ball) and go home. Or as Punjabis describe this approach, “na khedaan gay, na khedan deyaan gay.”

What we are seeing with the PTI’s never-ending dharna is just a manifestation of this deeply unsportsmanlike attitude. Yes, I know politics is far more important than sports. But then all the more reason for the people involved to show some maturity. After all, we teach our children not to be sore losers. One expects somewhat better of our leaders.

This column was printed in The News on 27 September 2014

When the madness passes

In Uncategorized on September 27, 2014 at 7:14 am

As I write this column, the streets of Islamabad are still occupied by supporters of Imran Khan and Dr Tahirul Qadri. And both leaders are still occupying their respective containers.

But assume for a minute that this storm too will pass, that battered and bruised as it is, parliamentary democracy in Pakistan will survive to fight another day. Does that mean we can (or should) forget about what the container-wallahs are saying?

Well, the answer is yes and no.

Imran Khan’s main argument is that the current parliament is illegitimate because it is the product of rigged elections. That argument is rubbish.

Let’s start with the basics. The way polling works in Pakistan is that empty ballot boxes are brought to a polling booth. Each party is allowed to have polling agents at the booth. Those agents certify that the ballot boxes are empty. The ballot boxes are then sealed and placed in the middle of the polling booth. Polling agents are also allowed to challenge the identity of every voter who shows up. And the votes themselves are cast in public, in full view of the polling agents. When the polling time ends, the ballot boxes are opened in front of the polling agents and the ballots are then counted in front of the polling agents. At the end of the counting, each and every one of the polling agents signs off on the voting tally.

Obviously, this is not a foolproof process. However, it is a pretty good process and one whose kinks have been worked out overtime. Thus, if somebody is going to allege that the process was hijacked, he needs the following: (1) a theory of how the process could have been hijacked; and (2) evidence that the process was indeed hijacked in the manner suggested.

In the instant case, Khan lacks both elements of a convincing case. He has no theory as to how the polling process was rigged in favour of the PML-N. And he has no evidence.

Lest you think I’m being too harsh, let’s look at the facts. Following the 2013 elections, PTI candidates filed 58 election petitions – 30 in relation to National Assembly seats and 28 in relation to provincial assembly seats. Out of these 58 cases, 39 have been decided. And out of these 39 decided cases, only two have been appealed to the Supreme Court.

The PTI response, to the extent one can discern a coherent argument, is that the whole process of deciding election disputes is fundamentally biased against them. If so, let me repeat my question: how?

Election petitions are adjudicated by retired high court judges appointed by the Election Commission. The Election Commission itself consists of five retired high court judges appointed with the consent of both the PPP and the PML-N. As already noted, appeals from election tribunals lie to the Supreme Court. And not even the PTI has directly accused the current Supreme Court of being biased.

What then are we left with?

Well, what we are left with are the following queries: when is revolution justified? And are there any such conditions justifying revolution in Pakistan?

Let me try to answer the first question by looking at it through a judicial lens. Most democracies today embrace the concept of a court which has the right to strike down legislation. Certainly, our constitution and our legal history embrace that concept. At the same time, given that laws have to be passed by a majority of the representatives of the people, how does one justify a situation in which a few unelected persons can overrule the will of the people?

Alexander Bickel, the famous legal philosopher, defined this problem as the “counter-majoritarian” dilemma. And in countries where people take representative institutions seriously, this problem too is taken seriously.

One minimalist answer as to when judicial intervention is justified is based upon the judgement of Justice Harlan Fiske Stone of the US Supreme Court in a 1938 case, US v Carolene Products. Or, to be more precise, footnote 4 of that case. Footnote four has sometimes been referred to as ‘the most famous footnote in constitutional law’ and has provided fodder for legal arguments for decades. Stripped of all verbiage, what footnote four says is this: courts are not to strike down legislation unless it is impossible to find any rational basis for it. On the other hand, where legislation appears to discriminate against minorities, especially to keep them from participating in the political process, then a heightened degree of scrutiny (and intervention) is justified.

Let me simplify footnote four even further: so long as the legislature is playing by the rules, courts shouldn’t interfere unless the law is utterly insane. But if the legislature bends the rules to keep people out of power, then the courts must be vigilant and interfere.

What does all of this have to do with Pakistan? After all, Pakistan does not have the kind of deep and prevalent racism that marred the United States.

Well, Pakistan may never have had slavery but we have certainly had millennia of extremely unequal relations between the classes. Even today, Pakistan is a deeply divided society in which inequality runs deep. This is not a society which embraces the common man. More importantly, this is not a society whose political institutions are structured to be responsive to the common man.

In Pakistan, political power is concentrated in the hands of a tiny few. All decisions at the federal level are taken by the prime minister or by a handful of his associates. All decisions at the provincial level are taken by the relevant Chief Minister or by a handful of his associates. Given Pakistan’s ‘first past the post’ system, a party either wins an entire province or wins nothing. In turn, this means any party with a secure hold on either a province or the federation can simply ignore whatever its rivals want.

The standard solution to this concentration of power issue is to call for proportionate representation. Unfortunately, the only way proportionate representation works is if there is a high degree of enlightened self-interest amongst elected representatives. Without that enlightened self-interest, proportionate representation only results in endless bickering and deadlock.

In Pakistan, our parliamentarians are barely under anyone’s control. Those of us who are not in our teens remember a time when ‘horse-trading’ of parliamentarians was a serious problem. Installing a proportional representation system in Pakistan would therefore result in complete chaos.

The alternate solution is to keep the ‘first past the post’ system but break up the power structure. In other words, have a ‘first past the post’ system but either increase the number of provinces or devolve real power down to the district level. That way, the resulting system can be both functional and yet more representative.

More importantly, the constitution itself is very clear in this regard. Article 140A of the constitution says that every province shall establish a local government system and devolve “political, administrative and financial responsibility and authority.” Till date, no province has done this; not even Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Let’s go back to Imran Khan now. What he should be asking for is not the dissolution of parliament but a more representative democracy, one with an effective local government system. Yes, his party did get the second-largest number of votes in the 2013 and yes, it doesn’t have much to show for it in terms of concrete power. But that isn’t because the elections were rigged. That is because the system is rigged.

Khan has a right to demand that the system be changed. He has a right to demand that the constitutional mandate in favour of local government be respected and implemented. What he does not have is the right to destroy what little democracy we do have.

This column was printed in The News on 18 September 2014

Up the Revolution

In Uncategorized on August 11, 2014 at 9:49 am

There is an old saying that if you are not a socialist by the time you are 20, then you have no heart. And if you are still a socialist by the time you are 40, then you have no head.

My point is that while it is acceptable for one’s youth to be spent in the pursuit of utopian political dreams, there comes a time when the callow confidence of youth should give way to the accumulated wisdom of years.

I mention this because judging by the bleats emanating from our intelligentsia, it is acceptable to continue mouthing vague demands for a better tomorrow, no matter how old you are. Seriously people, it’s time to grow up.

To clarify, my problem here is not with the people demanding a better tomorrow. Please do demand a brighter, better future. But also tell me how you are going to get there. Otherwise stop wasting my time.

Let’s take this perennial demand for a “fresh start”, this mythical future in which you can suddenly discard all the corrupt, old politicians of Pakistan and replace them with honest, dedicated public servants.

To begin with, it’s not possible. Musharraf tried it by requiring all politicians to have a bachelor’s degree. That succeeded in getting rid of a bunch of old fogies. But the old fogies were then swiftly replaced by a bunch of new fogies closely related to them. And the net result in terms of Pakistan’s political structure was zero.

The second point is that being a politician requires skill. Getting rid of all existing politicians and replacing them with new faces makes about as much sense as getting rid of all existing journalists and replacing them with people who have never written before. Yes, some existing politicians are crooks. On the other hand, so are some existing journalists.

What applies to professions applies equally well to social structures. Societies do not spontaneously organize themselves in kindler, gentler ways. If you blow up a building, the accumulated rubble is not likely to reassemble itself into a more aesthetically pleasing structure. Similarly, if you blow up the political structures which exist, the ones which will show up next will be nastier and meaner. Yes, in the long run things might be better. But then again, things might have been even better in the long run without the explosions.

You would think that, of all people, Pakistanis would have learnt this basic lesson. We have, time and time again, abandoned faith in democracy and sought solace in shortcuts. 1958. 1977. 1999. Each one of those experiments in autocracy ended badly. Each one of our dictatorial interludes ended with mass protests. I am old enough to remember the last two transitions from army rule to civilian rule, and this time I swear, I thought we had finally learnt our bloody lesson. And yet, here we are again, columnists swooning all over the place in expectation of the tsunami about to wash everything away.

I’m tired of hearing tsunami aa rahi hai. Uss kay baad kya aaye ga?

There is a legendary story about how Lyndon Johnson raving to Sam Rayburn about the team of bright Ivy leaguers accompanying John F. Kennedy to the White House.  Rayburn, a crusty Texan, served as the Speaker for the longest period in US history and by 1960, had more than a half-century of elected service behind him. As Johnson went on and on about the intelligence and brilliance of the “Harvards,” Rayburn remained unconvinced. Rayburn’s final verdict: “I’d feel a lot better if some of them had run for sheriff once.”

The truth of Rayburn’s observation was borne out a few years later. In November 1963, Kennedy was personally popular but his civil rights bill was stuck and going nowhere. After Kennedy’s assassination, he was succeeded by Lyndon Johnson, a man whom most of Kennedy’s admirers saw as the antithesis of their fallen hero’s aspirational politics. But Johnson succeeded where Kennedy failed. By using every single tool at his disposal – some legal, some not so legal – Johnson managed to break the power of the Southern Democrats and get Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1964. It wasn’t pretty. But the job got done.

The standard response of the armchair revolutionary to such examples is to venture into either political mysticism about the genius of “our people” or to veer off into the opposite direction and talk about  how the only way to develop Pakistan is with a firm (as in dictatorial) hand at the tiller, one not accountable to every public whim.

I have little patience for mysticism, be it political or religious. In both cases, it boils down to sentiment without substance.  The democracy and autocracy argument, on the other hand, has more intellectual heft. Fortunately for me, this argument has been picked apart by noted development expert, William Easterly, in his most recent book, “The Tyranny of Experts.”

Easterly’s fundamental point is very simple. He concedes that there many examples of autocracy producing good results in poor countries. But this, in turn, does not mean that autocracy was responsible for those good results. Instead, the fact that some poor countries have flourished under dictators is instead explained by the fact that (a) many poor countries have dictators; and (b) accelerated development tends to happen mostly in poor countries.

Easterly then illustrates his point in a different (and simpler) way. Most violent felons in the United States are black. This does not mean that all black people are violent felons. Similarly, the largest number of people identified by the world as “terrorists” are Muslims. This does not mean that all Muslims are terrorists. And so, there are many development success stories regarding dictatorships. This does not mean that dictatorship is the way to economic progress.

I know Pakistan needs a lot of improving. But that improvement  can only happen through Parliament, not on the streets. I also understand there is a lot of frustration amongst people who are unhappily placed. But at least those of us who are beneficiaries of the system should shoulder the burden of explaining to others that destruction is not the answer. To quote Sam Rayburn again, “A jackass can kick a barn down. But it takes a carpenter to build one.”


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