Feisal Naqvi

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.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: