Feisal Naqvi

Archive for January, 2009|Monthly archive page

The Empire Strikes Back

In Uncategorized on January 30, 2009 at 3:29 am

In the halls of Islamabad, devolution is already dead. People gather in hushed groups to discuss its replacement, whether the local government system should revert back to its 2000 persona or if we need to go all the way back to 1979. But so far as devolution itself is concerned, there is no doubt amongst the powerful that its time has come and gone.

First, though, a little history, because to understand local governance in Pakistan, one has to revert first to the imperial model of governance – and by imperial, I mean Mughal, not British.

The Mughal model of governance operated primarily through the jagirdari system, i.e. tax farming. The emperor would thus dole out tax fiefdoms, large and small, to his favourites and those favourites in return guaranteed a certain amount of revenue: whatever additional amount they squeezed out of the peasants was theirs to keep. Of course, since the jagirs could be taken away at any time, the jagirdars had no incentive to manage wisely for the long term.

When the East India Company defeated Nawab Shuja-ud Daula at the Battle of Buxar in 1764, they took from him the diwani rights to Bengal, which included the right to collect land tax. As with all corporate assets, returns needed to be maximised. The British therefore introduced a system whereby Bengal (and subsequently, the rest of imperial India) was divided up into districts, each headed by a District Collector of Revenue (i.e., the DC).

As the primary representative of imperial power, the DC exercised control over all aspects of governance. The DC was simultaneously a judge (in his capacity as magistrate) as well as the executive arm of the state, exercising supervisory control over the police. Most importantly, the DC controlled the entire land record system through his position in the revenue hierarchy.

The end result was that the DC became the face of the empire, at least so far as the rural populations of the sub-continent were concerned. It is fair to say that in a very large number of cases, the men who served as DCs were decent, hard-working people who did their best for their subjects. But it is also fair to say that the DCs saw their role, both before and after Partition, in extremely paternalistic terms.

Local governance in Pakistan thus grew up under the heavy shadow of the DC. Local government bodies remained subject – both de facto and de jure – to the orders of the DC. For example, Section 156 of the Local Government Ordinances of 1979 provided that “if in the opinion of Government, anything done or intended to be done by or on behalf of a local council” was “against public interest”, the Government could “quash the proceedings”. This power of the “Government” was then further delegated to the Divisional Commissioners (for urban areas) and to the Deputy Commissioners (for rural areas). The only level at which the bureaucracy was actually subordinate to elected governments was at that of the province in that the provincial secretary of the department of local government was technically subordinate to the provincial minister for local government.

The devolution reforms of the Musharraf regime marked a decisive break with this history of executive dominance. In simple terms, each district was given financial autonomy and an elected legislature (along with elected sub-legislatures at the tehsil and union council levels). More importantly, the head of the district legislature (the Zila Nazim) was placed above the head of the district administration in much the same way as the chief minister of a province was placed above the provincial bureaucracy. Furthermore, the last remnants of the unified judicial and executive powers exercised by the DC of yore were wiped out so that judicial power became exercisable only by judicial magistrates.

The current consensus against the reforms introduced by the Musharraf regime therefore draws strength from two main sources: the first is the long repressed frustration of a still powerful bureaucracy which feels that its rightful role has been taken over by bumbling amateurs; the second source is a genuine frustration with the problems and delays inherent in a system designed not to maximise executive efficiency but participatory democracy. How genuine then are these concerns?

To answer the above question first requires appreciating the fact that there are two dominant perspectives from which to examine the performance of the post-2001 local governments: service delivery, and law and order.

From the perspective of delivery of services, the general consensus has been that the devolved local governments are a huge improvement over their predecessors. In simple terms, the fact that local governments are both locally elected and locally accountable has lead to significant improvements in the way in which development projects are both identified and executed.

The problem instead for the post-2001 system has come from the law and order perspective. Under the 1979 dispensation, the many hats worn by the DC allowed him immense discretion in dealing effectively with local problems. When the role of the DC was divided up between executive and judicial functionaries, the inevitable result was a loss of efficiency.

The last element behind the current outcry against the devolved system is the simple fact that the district legislatures in the Punjab are dominated by the PMLQ while the provincial legislature is dominated by the PMLN. Since the district legislatures and the zila nazims wield substantial authority at the local level, it has resulted in a diminution of the power available to provincial legislators as well as to the provincial executive. Members of the provincial assembly do not like being told that their wishes are being frustrated by the zila nazim and neither does the chief minister. The inevitable demand therefore has been for a repeal of the local government system as introduced by General Musharraf.

The devolution of power from the provinces to the districts is a complicated subject which evokes strong emotions. There is no doubt that the current system is flawedand that in particular, the mechanism for maintaining law and order under the devolved system needs to be strengthened. There is also no doubt that a system in which all powers are concentrated in the hands of one person or one office will always be more efficient than a system where powers are separated and exercised by separate bodies. The question, then, is one of values.

The problem with efficiently concentrated power is that it can be efficiently used to oppress one’s opponents. The problem with a powerful bureaucracy is that it can easily smother and override local concerns. The debate between values is not one that can be resolved easily. However, in the instant case, there is one key factor that militates against the DC-based model – the fact that we have already ditched it.

To explain, the transition from the old DC-based system of local government to the current multi-tiered, multi-body muddle was not an easy transition but one that came with significant costs. In the long run, there can be little doubt that we as a nation need to move in the direction of greater participatory democracy as well a system of separated powers. Whether or not we should have taken the leap in 2001 to such a complicated system is now irrelevant because having taken that leap, it makes no sense to revert to an increasingly archaic system. Instead, the sensible thing would be to try and work with the system so that its flaws can be overcome.

Sense and sensibility, though, tends to be in short supply in Pakistan. We can only wait and see whether good sense prevails or whether the remnants of empire succeed in resurrecting their privileges.

This article appeared first in The Friday Times issue dated January 30, 2009


Tanks and Think Tanks

In Uncategorized on January 22, 2009 at 5:12 am

Getting elected is only one half of politics: the other half is coming up with competent policies after you get elected. Our politicians are very good at the first half. But if they make no advance preparation for effective governance, they will remain forever like dogs running after a car, confused even after they succeed in latching on to the bumper

Many people wonder — and will probably always wonder — how a relatively sophisticated country like the United States elected an unmitigated idiot like George W Bush. One answer to that conundrum comes from Oliver Stone’s new movie, “W”.

In the scene that I am referring to, the young Dubya is on his knees going through the initiation rites of a Yale fraternity. The challenge facing the inebriated pledges is to remember the names of as many frat brothers, and while others falter, the young Bush excels. Fast forward to the White House.

I am not suggesting that the ability to remember names is enough to make you President of the United States. But it is an indispensable prerequisite. Running for office, any office, is a tough job. Getting people to vote for you takes serious people skills and people skills are real skills, not just trendy psychobabble. Remembering people’s names is perhaps the most elementary of people skills. Getting people to like you is a higher-order people skill. Without these skills, you can be as smart as you like but your chances of getting elected will be vanishingly small.

The problem though is that while being a successful politician requires certain very specific skills, governance requires a very different set of skills. Getting elected requires charm. Governance requires analytical ability, the capacity to analyse competing points of view and a basic knowledge of economics and law, not to mention whatever area of policy you have been given responsibility for.

In this regard, many of the learned members of Pakistan’s parliament unfortunately share far too much with George W Bush. Like him, many of them are brilliant politicians, people capable of charming both a cocktail crowd and the hookah-smoking denizens of a rural dera. Like him, many of them will know who’s connected to whom, who’s got his finger in what pie, and who is pushing what angle. And like him, many of them know diddlysquat about anything else.

The point of all this is not to lament the flaws of our politicians. Yes, the United States has just produced Obama but taken as a whole, our politicians are no better and no worse than politicians in other countries. What handicaps this country is not a lack of Obamas but a lack of supporting institutions.

Understanding the above point requires a detour into military history.

When World War I started, it was widely believed that it would be over, one way or the other, in a few weeks. However, as time went by, people made the grim discovery that modern technology had made it a lot easier to kill people. The result was that the battle lines which were drawn within the first few weeks of the war remained there for the next four years.

Each general thought that the solution lay in the application of more and more force. Battles used to be preceded by a few hours of shelling. Those hours became days and then finally weeks. All to no avail. When the shelling stopped, the other side would emerge from its trenches and happily machine-gun the attacking troops into oblivion. Even if the charging troops managed to take the first line of trenches, resupplying them was next to impossible with the result that no permanent gains were made by either side.

Pakistani politics — in its non-dictatorial phases — resembles the trench warfare of World War I. One side succeeds for a short period of time in capturing the high ground but cannot hold on against the withering assault of the media and the Opposition. The other side then occupies the heights only to retreat a few years later. In the meantime, the battlefield gets converted into a bloody mess.

The eventual solution in World War I to the stalemate of trench warfare came from two sources. The first was the gradual exhaustion of the Axis forces; the second was the introduction of tanks. Because tanks could withstand small arms fire, they allowed troops to advance past the entrenched positions of their opponents and into open ground, turning a static war into a war of movement.

In the case of Pakistan, the shift from trench warfare into a war of movement will also come about because of tanks, but in our case, they will have to be think-tanks.

To return now to the United States, Barack Obama has spent the last two years running for president: he has not spent the past two years worrying about what he will do once he takes over. That job was outsourced to a freelance network of think-tanks and NGOs who did nothing else but think about what to do when the time came. The result is that Obama will not have to put together a plan after getting sworn in: instead, he already has a plan.

Let us compare this now to the situation in Pakistan. From what I understand, the PMLN is under the impression that it will win the next election. Ok, but where is the PMLN policy unit? What are their ideas? Because if they have no ideas now, they will have no ideas later.

Being in elected government is all about fire-fighting, rushing from one crisis to the next. If you only start thinking about policy issues after you get into government, it’s already too late.

Getting elected is only one half of politics: the other half is coming up with competent policies after you get elected. Our politicians are very good at the first half. But if they make no advance preparation for effective governance, they will remain forever like dogs running after a car, confused even after they succeed in latching on to the bumper.

Save Pakistan, save the world

In Uncategorized on January 2, 2009 at 5:49 am

International attention has focused on Pakistan like never before in the weeks following the Mumbai attacks. To quote Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and adviser to President-elect Barack Obama: “All of the world’s nightmares come together in Pakistan.”

Assuming the world does not have the option of turning its back on the country, what can it do to help Pakistan?

The short answer is that Pakistan needs economic assistance. The militant extremists who wreak havoc are, for the most part, unemployed and frustrated young men.

If the Pakistani people – as opposed to the Pakistani military – were given tangible, visible economic assistance, it would go a long way toward winning over a suspicious populace. After all, starving Pakistanis cannot eat the F-16s sold to their armed forces.

With that in mind, here are three suggestions.

The short-term solution
The simplest and quickest way to help Pakistan’s economy is to reduce the tariffs imposed on Pakistan’s textile sector, which accounts for approximately 60% of Pakistan’s exports and more than 60% of its industrial workforce.

Pakistan has one of the world’s most dynamic and well-developed textile industries, but in recent years business has shifted to other countries with more favourable tariff regimes.

If the EU and the US, Pakistan’s largest textile importers, were to remove or reduce tariffs on Pakistani textiles, experts believe that Pakistan’s $7.5bn worth of textile exports would easily triple in value. Since the textile industry is generally labour intensive, the influx of business would immediately result in increased employment.

The medium-term solution
The world should help Pakistan focus on development in the north-west frontier province (NWFP) where problems with extremism are most acute.

The NWFP has tremendous potential for hydro-electric (hydel) projects. A heavy investment in the hydel infrastructure of the NWFP has the potential to almost triple the current total power generating capacity of Pakistan. However, international investors are reluctant to invest because of security concerns, while the Pakistani government lacks the necessary capital.

Providing the capital for hydel projects would have a number of benefits. Because civil works account for about 50% to 70% of the overall cost of hydel projects, these projects would provide jobs for unskilled labourers in desperately poor areas.

Additionally, each hydel project would provide the NWFP government with ongoing funds for development projects. Increased electricity production from hydel plants would not only help industries crippled by blackouts, but also reduce the huge cost of imported furnace oil.

The long-term solution
Provide financial support for education.

The Higher Education Commission (HEC) of Pakistan, set up in 2002 by General Pervez Musharraf, will likely be remembered as one of his most beneficial legacies. Between 2002 and 2007, annual funding for higher education increased from 4.3bn to 14.3bn rupees. Consequently, the number of university students jumped from 135,000 to 316,000.

According to a 2008 USAID report, HEC’s “progress to date has been remarkable – indeed, in terms of value added, better than any other developing country this team has reviewed over the last two decades.”

In absolute terms, however, less than 4% of college-age students in Pakistan are in higher education, compared to 11% and 20% in India and China, respectively. Pakistan, therefore, needs to spend a tremendous amount more, but it does not have those funds.

The Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) is recognised as the most prestigious college in Pakistan. Above its entrance is a plaque stating that the construction of the main building was made possible by a USAID grant of $10m.

The thousands of graduates whose education was made possible, in part by the generosity of others, may well disagree with American policies. But knowing the source of their education’s funding, they are a lot less likely to hate the US.

Why is it then, that since its investment in LUMS, USAID has made no equivalent investments in higher education in Pakistan?

Pakistan today is not just a nation on the edge but the tipping point in a global struggle against extremism. By giving the right help, the world can save a lot more than Pakistan.

This column was first published by the Guardian on December 26, 2008.

Lawyers’ movement in retrospect

In Uncategorized on January 2, 2009 at 5:47 am

The Year 2008 is out. Can that also be said about the lawyers’ movement?

From one perspective, the lawyers’ movement marks a watershed in Pakistan’s history. Lest we forget, March 9, 2007 was not the first time a Pakistani ruler tried to get rid of an inconvenient chief justice. Musharraf himself disposed of Chief Justice Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui through his 2001 PCO while those with short memories would do well to remember the farcical events of 1997 when the PMLN goons chased Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah out of his courtroom, subsequently to be displaced through a controversial decision.

But July 20, 2007 was the first time that a united judiciary took a stance in favour of its independence. Moreover, the Supreme Court’s decision had only come about as a result of the brilliant political strategy adopted by Aitzaz Ahsan to take the Chief Justice’s case out of the courtroom and into the streets, creating for the first time, a mass movement in favour of the independence of the judiciary. That movement, in turn, created the political space for the Supreme Court to reject the attempted ouster of its Chief Justice.

So, in one go, the lawyers’ movement seemed to create not just a truly independent judiciary but also an enlightened and alert electorate, anxious to protect its civil liberties from being taken away.

Now look at events from the perspective of the cynic.

Almost 18 months after the famous decision of July 20, 2007, the once-vaunted forces of civil society have retreated to their customary apathy. The promised restoration of “all judges” has become a long-running farce which is not believed by anybody. The once united lawyers’ movement has splintered into various groups, with at least one large segment having decided that discretion is the better part of valour and the PPP cohorts having decided to accept senior positions with the government.

As for the activist component of the lawyers’ movement, the only activity which has occurred in recent weeks has been the cutting – amid considerable pomp – of a cake to celebrate the birthday of Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. Most of the other judges who had earlier taken a stand for principle have reluctantly – and understandably – returned to duty rather than face a dreary life of exile from the bench. Even the declaration of emergency on November 3, 2007 has yet to be set aside.

So far as the independence of the judiciary is concerned, the less said the better. One newspaper recently broke a series of stories in which it was alleged, in graphic detail, that the daughter of Chief Justice Dogar had been illegally admitted to medical school and, perhaps more importantly, that Justice Dogar had “pathetically” begged [the reporter] not to print the story.

Tellingly, no contempt proceedings have been initiated against the newspaper but stories have instead emerged of the reporter receiving death threats. The honour of the judiciary was also not burnished when a learned bench of the Islamabad High Court purported to stay the investigation being carried out by the parliamentary committee looking into the matter. Instead, the stay order resulted in a near-unanimous revolt by parliamentarians of all stripes and the Supreme Court subsequently had to vacate the stay order while the matter was attempted – so far unsuccessfully – to be discreetly hushed up.

Given these divergent – and perhaps equally justified – viewpoints, how is one to come up with a consensus view? Does the judgment of July 20, 2007 represent a high-water mark of judicial activism or does it represent the beginning of a new era? Will the events of October 2007 and the challenge to General Musharraf’s candidature be seen as a cautionary tale or as an heroic epic?

The short answer is that no one knows. We are currently in the middle of a three-act drama in which the first two acts have played themselves out but the denouement has yet to come. Having said that, the lawyers’ movement has lessons for both the judiciary and the establishment.

The primary lesson for the establishment is that independence of the judiciary is now an unassailable public virtue. Note, this does not mean that the independence of the judiciary must be established in actual fact. To that extent, business can continue as usual. Instead, what it does mean is that the independence of the judiciary has entered the pantheon of political virtues which must be publicly respected, just like patriotism and financial rectitude, and that failure to provide sufficient respect will result in an adverse public reaction.

And while that may not be a particularly severe constraint on the powers of the judiciary, there are still limits which it would be inadvisable to breach. For example, several newspapers have carried stories to the effect that one of the most junior judges of the Sindh High Court is likely to be made the chief justice of the province as a consequence of his friendship with the President. There is no way to tell if such reports are correct but it would be a singularly unwise step for the PPP to take: such a gross infraction of accepted norms would only give fresh impetus to an otherwise defunct lawyers’ movement.

On the other hand, the lesson staring the lawyer’s movement in the face is that there are limits to what any judiciary – no matter how independent – can achieve. It has become an established pattern in Pakistan that a judiciary embarrassed by its earlier acquiescence before an illegal power grab tries to atone for its sins by taking up the mantle of populism. The problem with such efforts is that they plunge the judiciary into areas which it often knows little about. An occasional foray into such areas can be carried off: repeated expeditions into unforgiving territory, however, tend not to be successful.

The appropriate model for the judiciary now is the period during which Mr Justice Ajmal Mian was the Chief Justice (1997-1999). He took over as Chief Justice after the removal of Sajjad Ali Shah in extremely dubious circumstances and with the prestige of the judiciary at a marked low. His tenure was not marked by any overt conflict with the executive and yet it was also marked by a firm stance against executive excess, the most notable examples being the Mehram Ali case (in which military courts were struck down) and the Farooq Leghari case (in which the declaration of emergency by Mian Nawaz Sharif was held justiciable and the suspension of fundamental rights was overruled).

Zhou Enlai, the great Chinese leader was once asked his opinion of the French Revolution. His pithy response was that it was too early to tell. Much the same applies to the lawyers’ movement.

This column first appeared in The Friday Times issue of January 1, 2009