Feisal Naqvi

Archive for October, 2011|Monthly archive page

The myth of multi-tasking

In Uncategorized on October 25, 2011 at 4:39 am

Most of us like to think that we are good at multitasking. Most of us are wrong.

The most dramatic illustration of the ‘myth of multitasking’ was provided by the recent three-day BlackBerry outage in the Middle East. In the UAE alone, traffic accidents fell by 40 per cent during that period.

I mention the myth of multitasking because I think it is one way to understand why our political parties and their leaders are so bad at what they do.

Our political parties are all led by people who think that they are exceptional at their jobs. In addition, they are extremely suspicious of all others (with the exception of their bachpan kay dost and their own children). Finally, they are constantly surrounded by people telling them that (a) they are extremely intelligent; and (b) various others are plotting to take power away from them.

The net result of all these factors is that our leaders are genuinely convinced that the good of the country requires them to make all decisions themselves. This in turn has fairly disastrous consequences because our leaders — like most people — turn out to be fairly lousy at multitasking.

It is also important to note that our leaders are multitasking in different ways.

In the first case, there are instances where single individuals are handling more than one provincial or federal ministry. This situation is most pronounced in Punjab where the entire cabinet consists of nine ministers. Some ministers are holding as many as seven or six different portfolios. Mian Shahbaz Sharif himself is apparently handling 12 departments.

I bear no malice towards Shahbaz Sharif: if anything, I admire the man. But the point being made is that he is a man, not a superman.

A recent news story applauded the efforts of Shahbaz Sharif in combating dengue in Lahore. One person quoted in the story observed that if the problems of Pakistan had been tackled with the same spirit of devotion that SS had brought to dengue eradication, Pakistan would not be in the mess that it is today.

Fair enough, I say. But can the dengue approach really be applied across the board?

Let us start with the fact that Shahbaz Sharif is also the health minister of Punjab. There is a meeting on dengue every morning at 7:00 am that is attended by the chief minister, the chief secretary, the additional chief secretary and a whole host of other functionaries, including presumably the entire senior staff of the health department. Even the agriculture secretary gives daily briefings! Furthermore, the 7:00 am meeting is not the only time when dengue is the main topic. The entire senior bureaucracy of Punjab spends the rest of its time either checking up on dengue at hospitals or preparing for the next day’s dengue meeting.

The point to note then is that the ‘dengue approach’ requires the undivided attention of the chief minister, the chief secretary, the additional chief secretary, the health secretary, the rest of the health department and the agriculture secretary to deal with one problem affecting one city. Unless each of those gentlemen can be cloned, this approach self-evidently leaves no time whatsoever for any of the other problems that a government is meant to be dealing with.

In addition, there is a separate problem arising from the fact that under Rule 12-A of the Punjab Rules of Business, no order involving any important policy or any departure from important policy can be issued without the approval of the chief minister. This means that the only person competent to make policy in the entire province of Punjab is the chief minister.

It needs to be remembered at this stage that Punjab is a large place: it covers an area of more than 200,000 km sq and is home to approximately 81 million people. If it was independent, the population of Punjab would make it the fifteenth largest country in the world — roughly the same size as Germany. And yet, it is all run by one man.

Think of the human brain as a camera with limited width and limited depth of field. If you focus on one person, you cannot see anything to the left or the right of that person. If you focus on the foreground, the background becomes fuzzy. And if you focus on the big picture, things that are closer disappear.

Much the same applies to governance. If you focus your perspective on Lahore, the rest of Punjab fades into oblivion. And if you focus on practical aspects of policy, then long-term planning stops being important. The problem though is that good governance requires both foresight and oversight, that too in relation to all areas of a territory, not just its capital.

There is an obvious answer to this conundrum, which is to share the burden of governance. This doesn’t only mean that Shahbaz Sharif needs to find competent ministers. It also means that provincial governments need to share their burden with local governments. In other words, it makes sense to let union councils worry about roads and sewers and to make the provincial cabinet worry about which industry to encourage and what policies to adopt.

Presumably, the chief minister’s defence to this column is that he would happily share his responsibilities if only he could find suitable people to share them with. My answer is that the lack of suitable colleagues is his problem, not mine. I don’t vote for a chief minister so that he can fix my drains. I vote for a chief minister so that he can find suitable individuals to oversee the people who are supposed to be fixing my drains. If Shahbaz Sharif can’t do that, he shouldn’t have sought the office of the chief minister.

Many of us believe that the only thing needed to fix Pakistan is sincerity. Unfortunately, we need not just sincere governance but smart governance. Otherwise, our destiny will remain in the hands of a driver typing out messages on his BlackBerry while simultaneously trying to avoid oncoming traffic. And in those circumstances, accidents are inevitable.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 25th, 2011.

With a kind word and a gun

In Uncategorized on October 18, 2011 at 6:06 am

In a recent column, one of Pakistan’s best-known writers has advised that both Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari should resign their positions in order to allow fresh talent to emerge from within the ranks of their respective parties.

There are at least two obvious problems with this view. The first is that if either of the two gentlemen were in the habit of taking sensible advice, well-meaning pundits would not be advising them to quit their day jobs. The second is that there is no reason to believe that somebody more desirable would replace either of the two.

Let me try to flesh out these observations.

Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif both stand at the peak of their respective political parties today. Both are around sixty years old which means that in the absence of unfortunate accidents and prolonged visits to Lahore during dengue season, each can look forward to at least two more glorious decades of active leaderdom. Why oh why then would either of them quit their posts? As Mel Brooks once pointed out: “It’s good to be the king!”

The hidden assumption behind the advice being dished out is that politicians should be in politics only to serve the national cause. As an ideal, there is nothing wrong with this assumption. But as a working explanation of what drives our elected representatives, it leaves much to be desired. Instead, the self-evident fact is that our politicians are in politics primarily to maximise their self-interest.

I don’t mean to imply that Mr Zardari or Mr Sharif actually don’t care about this country. In fact, I am quite sure that each of them — in his own way — cares deeply for Pakistan. Each of them probably also firmly believes that what he is doing is in Pakistan’s best interests. Merely telling them that their continued leadership is not helping the country is therefore unlikely to have any effect on them. How then does one proceed?

In Brian de Palma’s epic movie, The Untouchables, Al Capone explains to his slightly dimmer colleagues that “you can get further with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word”. Much the same secret of success applies to Pakistan.

Let me be very clear about one thing: I do not mean to condone or suggest any sort of violence against our elected leaders. Instead, my point is that like any other rational individuals, politicians will change when they are forced to change, not otherwise. More specifically, our leaders will change only when the consequences of their follies imperil their comfortable perches, not before.

Let me return now to the second flaw. As already noted, there is absolutely no evidence that the removal of either Mr Zardari or Mr Sharif will result in the ascent to power of the Pakistani equivalent of Marcus Aurelius. I concede the point that the ranks of both the PPP and the PML-N are full of would-be saviours (not to mention those saviours who have already had their 15 minutes of fame). However, none of those guys has a plan for rescuing this country. Instead, their argument is that if by some miracle they were placed in power, they would exercise all powers for the good of this country and somehow, magically fix everything, because they are “good people.” And if you believe that, I have a nice one-bedroom minar opposite Badshahi Masjid to sell you; has a fabulous garden view.

What then are we left with? Should we all just throw up our hands and join the serried ranks looking elsewhere? Well, that’s a personal call. But if you want politicians to behave more sensibly, don’t just write columns: instead make sure that they get punished for behaving stupidly. And if there are no mechanisms in place to punish them, then fight for the establishment of those mechanisms. And if the mechanisms already in place don’t work too well at punishing politicians, then fight to fix those mechanisms.

Let me be clearer. The primary mechanism for punishing lousy politicians is to vote them out of power. In order to do that though, you’ve got to have a viable democracy. Which in turn means that you’ve got to keep your democracy functioning long enough to vote people out of power rather than pressing the reset button after every failure and distributing sweets when the 111 Brigade comes marching in.

I’m not just being flippant here. Those of us who do not have the option of running for office still have the option of helping establish democracy in multiple ways. One way is to grit our teeth and not join the chorus asking for midterm elections. A second way is to push for elections in those areas where elections are not being held; like, for example, in the case of local government bodies. A third way is to participate via the media in exposing those government shenanigans which do come to our notice. A fourth way is to participate via civil society in those social causes which we believe in so that politicians are at least under some pressure to respond to the issues which are truly important.

I could go on but the object of this column is not to write a primer on civics. Instead, the object of this column is to argue that we should keep our “is assumptions” separate from our “wish assumptions” and not confuse facts with fantasy. Our politicians are self-interested individuals: that is a fact of life. If we want them to be different, we will have to force them to be different: merely expressing a desire that they should be different is no help.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 18th, 2011.