Feisal Naqvi

Better the devil you know

In Uncategorized on July 27, 2013 at 6:16 am


The standard argument of the bright young people drumming up votes for Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party goes something like this: Asif Ali Zardari is a crook and so are the Sharif brothers, why waste your vote on people who are tried and tested failures? Khan is honest and he deserves a chance, they say.

I have no problem with the first half of the argument. The Pakistan Peoples Party-led government, which finished its five-year term in March, set new records for fecklessness. That is, for not giving a damn about the welfare of the nation. I hesitate to say that the PPP also set new records for corruption because there are countries out there over which we can still claim moral superiority. But I can say that I have never seen a collection of elected representatives who exhibited such open contempt for the welfare of the people they notionally represented. In years to come, people will talk of Zardari’s selection of Raja Pervaiz Ashraf to the prime minister’s slot in the same awed terms as Caligula’s decision to send his horse to the Roman senate.

What then about the Sharifs? Aren’t they also inveterate thieves? The answer: not quite.

Zulfiqar Balti

Zulfiqar Balti

Before I elaborate, let me first introduce a concept which Isaac Asimov called “The Relativity of Wrong.” Asimov’s point was fairly simple. People who think the earth is flat are wrong, and people who think the earth is round are also wrong. This is because while the earth is roughly spherical, it is actually flatter around the poles and therefore not perfectly round. At the same time, people who think the earth is flat and people who think the earth is round are not equally wrong. The flat-earthers are a hell of a lot wronger than the round-earthers. In other words, it is important to know not just whether a concept is wrong but how wrong it is.

Just like there is a relativity of wrongness, there is a relativity of crookedness. I hold no brief for the Sharifs, but so far as the last five years of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) government in the Punjab are concerned, their record is clean. I simply do not know of any major financial or corruption scandal involving the PMLN during this time. Yes, several of the projects on which former chief minister Shahbaz “Khaadim-e-Aala” Sharif lavished attention were economically dumb (the Sasti Roti scheme, for one), but there is a difference between dumb policies and policies designed only to enrich the policymakers.

Similarly, one can reasonably argue that the Metro Bus service is overpriced. At the same time, one also has to concede that Pakistan needs urban transport projects, that the Metro Bus project has been completed, and that it does function. The fact that this project could have been done better or cheaper should not take away from the simple truth that at least this project has been done, that it is beneficial.

Fine, say Khan’s Insafians, but can we not dream of something better? Why should we not aim for the stars; for an honest, competent, dedicated leadership; for a “New Pakistan,” and for a brighter future?

The problem is that while Khan certainly seems to have figured out how to hustle for votes, what he knows about governance can be fit onto a postage stamp—with space still left over for the PTI manifesto. Governance requires knowledge and experience. Khan has neither. Yes, I concede that he has the best of intentions, but, as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

I agree wholeheartedly that the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital is a wonderful achievement. But there is a huge difference between setting up a hospital with a staff of less than 2,000 and running a government with more than 600,000 employees. (Public sector corporations employ millions more.) More importantly, Khan does not run Shaukat Khanum. That job is done by a professional chief executive who is advised by a board of governors. Prime ministerial responsibilities, on the other hand, cannot be delegated. Asking Khan to be the prime minster because he inspires people makes about as much sense as asking him to conduct surgeries because he inspires people.

Khan’s supporters have compared him to Ronald Reagan in an attempt to show that administrative inexperience does not preclude greatness. The comparison is inapt. When Reagan became president of the United States, he had already served two terms as governor of California and been active in politics for decades. In any event, Pakistan is not the U.S. In America, a new president gets to appoint his own (top-level) administration and his own cabinet. In Pakistan, a new prime minister is highly restricted in his cabinet choices and has essentially no choices when it comes to administrative appointments. Given Pakistan’s history as an “overdeveloped state,” there are only two choices when it comes to administration: either you control the bureaucracy, or else the bureaucracy controls you.

I am going to vote for the PMLN this time. That doesn’t mean I support all their policies, because I certainly don’t. My disagreements with the PMLN regarding their playing footsy with sectarian killers,their tendency to grovel before the Taliban, their antipathy toward local government, and theircompulsion to centralize power are all a matter of record. Unfortunately, democracy means picking the least flawed option, not the perfect option. Right now, that least flawed option is the Noonies.

Five years ago I wrote a column in which I documented my very reluctant decision to vote for the PPP.The last two lines of that column read as follows: “This is your third time. For God’s sake, don’t f— it up.” Zardari chose not to take my advice. I certainly hope the Sharif brothers will.

This column appeared in Newsweek Pakistan on 7 May 2013


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