Feisal Naqvi

Archive for March, 2016|Monthly archive page

Why we lose

In Uncategorized on March 29, 2016 at 3:16 am

The first edition of what is now known as the Cricket World Cup was held in 1975. Including that event, there have been a total of 11 World Cups so far. Pakistan won in 1992 and made the finals in 1999. In the past 16 years, Pakistan has not made it to the finals of any World Cup.

The first ICC World T20 was held in 2007. Pakistan was a finalist. In 2009, Pakistan won. Since 2009, there have been four T20 championships (including the one currently going on in India). Pakistan has not made the finals of any of them.

Since 1988, there have been 11 world cups for under-19 cricket teams. Pakistan made the first finals back in 1988. Since then Pakistan has won twice (in 2004 and 2006) and has also made the finals twice (in 2010 and 2014).

In case you don’t see a pattern, let me spell it out. We have talent. We suck at technique.

I remember many, many years ago reading an interview of Mark Calcavecchia, the 1989 British Open golf champion. What he said, to the best of my recollection, was something like this:

“When I was young, I used to beat everybody because I had talent and they didn’t. And talent beats no talent every day of the week. Then I turned pro and I started losing because everybody else didn’t just have talent, they also had technique. And talent plus technique beats pure talent every day of the week.”

Our (men’s) cricket team’s problem is the same problem faced by the young Calcavecchia: we have talent, and we have grown accustomed to winning on the basis of talent alone. What we face on the international level though are people with both talent and technique. And talent plus technique beats pure talent every day of the week.

The issue here is not the lack of technique. The issue here is giving a damn about technique.

The most brilliant piece of sports writing I’ve read in recent years is Osman Samiuddin’s ‘The Haal of Pakistan’. If you haven’t read it, please go do so now. In it, Osman describes the propensity of Pakistani cricket teams to rescue victory from the most improbable of situations, to create a desperate magic out of thin air. The analogy he gives is that of a state of ‘haal’, when qawwali listeners are so carried away by the music that they are, quite literally, in ecstasy.

But as powerful as that piece is – and I repeat, it is brilliant – it is also scary as hell. There is a quote in there from Waqar Younis about how “We’ve never given importance to coaching. We were never analytical, or scientific.” What, might you ask, is Waqar’s job today? He is the coach of the Pakistan cricket team.

My point here is that waiting for ecstasy is not a strategy. At least not one that pays in the long run. Sports is not just big business, it is a big deal. Representing Pakistan at cricket is more than playing a game: it means carrying the hopes of millions. And those millions deserve more than a strategy based on a wing and a prayer.

In his book ‘Moneyball’, later a movie starring Brad Pitt, Michael Lewis wrote about how the manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team used statistical analysis to identify the most productive players and to then hire them on the cheap. What sticks in my mind from the movie is the unassailable arrogance of the old guard. They know. Or at least they think they know. Things have always been such. And things will always remain such.

One of the many bright aspects of the PSL was that it finally introduced Moneyball-type statistical analysis to Pakistani cricket. And while there were many reasons why Islamabad United won the inaugural PSL, one of those reasons was the fact that the Islamabad team owners engaged cricket nerds like Hassan Cheema to bring some degree of science to bear on the complicated question of how to put together a winning team.

I spoke to Cheema immediately after the loss to India to try and get some idea as to what had just happened. I wish now that I had recorded that interview but, in pith and substance, what he had to say was that Pakistani cricket is run by dinosaurs, and that too dinosaurs of a whimsical bent.

His first point was regarding team selection. Pakistan’s opening combination in the World T20 has been Sharjeel and Ahmed Shehzad. Yet barely a month before the tournament, neither had been part of the team! Sharjeel was unilaterally added to the Asia Cup squad by Shahid Afridi after he battered the Peshawar Zalmi with a century in the semi-finals of the PSL. And Ahmed Shehzad was added after the Asia Cup when it was evident that Khurram Manzoor was not cut out for T20 cricket.

His second point was regarding preparation. Apparently when Pakistan had toured South Africa some years back, the joke was that South Africa had at least 17 hours of video footage for each Pakistani player, Pakistan didn’t even have 17 hours of footage for the whole South African team.

His next point was regarding the importance of picking not just the right team but of then handling those eleven players in the right way. More specifically, his point was that the batting order could not be treated as set in stone. Instead, one had to take into account the particular moment in the game and then decide who would be the best batsman for the moment. In the India game, for example, the ball was turning square from the first over onwards. And yet Pakistan’s best players of spin (Hafeez and Sarfaraz) came in at six and seven.

I could go on and repeat all of his criticisms. But the point here is not to find fault with specific games and specific choices. Instead, the point here is to note the following: (a) cricket is important; (b) relying on talent-driven ‘haal’ for the odd victory is a lousy strategy; (c) there are better strategies available; and (d) Pakistan keeps on losing because Pakistan keeps on refusing to change.

My further point is that refusal to change is a common Pakistani problem and that it is infuriating in all contexts. Take, for example, the recent pronouncement by the chief justice of Pakistan that “there is no imperfection in our existing judicial system as the same system is working quite well in other parts of the world.” No Sir, the truth is that our existing system is rotten. It does not provide justice to people. Instead, it takes decades for an ordinary case to get decided.

More importantly, we do not have ‘the same system’ as other countries except in the trivial sense that other countries also have judges who decide cases. Other countries have functional administrative and regulatory systems which prevent title disputes from arising.

Our system of land title has remained essentially unchanged for almost a thousand years and is the single biggest source of litigation in Pakistan. It is a hideous anachronism and needs to be discarded.

Similarly, other countries have functional systems of court management. The average lawyer in London or New York knows a year in advance as to when his cases are going to be argued. I find out my schedule for the coming week on the Saturday before that week starts. Yes, this is ‘a system’. No, it is not a good system, let alone a system free from imperfections.

Pakistan needs to change. Its systems need to change. There are better alternatives available. It is time we adopted them.

This column appeared in The News on 27 March 2016


Leave him be

In Uncategorized on March 29, 2016 at 3:15 am

Pakistan’s recent baby steps out of the wilderness of mullah-dominated lunacy have rightly received much acclamation. But one aspect of this development has been the concern of some liberals (and even centrists) that the departure of General Raheel Sharif will result in the loss of the gains so painfully made. Hence the posters in Karachi (and elsewhere) beseeching General Raheel to stay. Or as the posters say, “jaanay ki baatein jaanay do.”

I respect the concern. I do not respect the proposed solution. For the good of the country and for the good of the institution he so clearly loves, General Raheel Sharif should retire gracefully, just like he has already indicated. It will be the best thing he ever does.

The handwringing over General Raheel Sharif’s departure is perplexing given the example of his immediate predecessor. General Kayani spent his first term being hailed as a saviour. Hardly a week went by without an adoring profile of the general and how Pakistan was lucky to have the taciturn chain-smoking strategist as its military leader. Then came the second term. Suddenly the profiles were less adoring and the grumblings louder. Why wasn’t he taking on the Taliban, muttered the liberals. Why wasn’t he reining in Zardari, muttered the others. And behind the questions swirled rumours of corruption.

The unspoken assumption behind the calls for General Sharif to stay is that institutions don’t matter; all that counts is the man on top. In other words, had it not been for Raheel Sharif, Pakistan today would still be playing footsie with the fundos, still turning a blind eye to the terrorists, and still calling for negotiations with our misguided ‘brothers’ in the tribal areas.

With all due respect to General Sharif, that theory is bunk. Yes, he made a huge difference. But behind his decision to reorient the army were some fundamental truths, the most important being the fact that once the army was ordered into the field (first in 2009 in Swat, and then later in various agencies), rank and file soldiers were increasingly unhappy about their comrades being slaughtered by the TTP. At the end of the day, the primary constituency of the COAS is made up of half a million ordinary soldiers. The difference between General Sharif and General Kayani is that General Sharif listened to them.

I understand that one obvious argument as to why General Sharif listened is that he is the kind of sensible person one wants to continue as COAS. But an equally obvious answer is that: (a) General Kayani’s views about the Taliban and the TTP were perhaps guided by his experience as DG ISI, an experience which tends to leave an individual somewhat callously disposed (see eg, General Asad Durrani’s response to Al Jazeera that the 50,000 odd Pakistanis killed by terrorists were “collateral damage”); (b) General Sharif’s viewpoint is perhaps guided more by his experiences in the field and by an empathy with the troops. In other words, General Sharif is not a lone ranger or an outlier in the army: instead, he represents a generation of soldiers who have personally experienced combat against the TTP and its aftermath.

The bigger picture point is that the December 16, 2014 assault on the Army Public School in Peshawar wiped out the remaining pockets of sympathy in the Army towards the TTP just as much as it stymied the political forces asking for negotiations with the TTP. Whether or not the Army was gung ho for a fight with the TTP before APS is a matter of speculation. But after APS, no army chief could have resisted going after the TTP.

The further point is that we need to get over our Zia obsession. General Zia’s decision to overthrow ZAB and his decision to then clothe himself in Islamic garb were unrelated. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was overthrown because the establishment hated him and because he had destroyed his own electoral legitimacy by behaving like a tinpot dictator. On the other hand, General Zia went full-on fundo because, having decided to mount the tiger, he had no way of dismounting without getting eaten.

In simpler terms, General Zia needed a basis to govern. He could not rely on the judiciary because that had only given him 90 days. He could not rely on popular opposition towards ZAB because: (a) that opposition was interested in coming to power itself; and (b) ZAB was himself still incredibly popular. General Zia’s ‘road to Damascus’ moment, when he declared himself on a divine mission to bring Islam to Pakistan, was thus driven by necessity as much as by conviction.

Today’s army is not General Zia’s army. Today’s era is not General Zia’s era. Four decades have passed since General Zia was appointed as the COAS and three decades have passed since he died. In institutional terms, this is a completely different country. Our judiciary is fiercely independent today in a way that it never was in the 1970s. We have an equally fiercely independent media. The establishment, as it then was, is no more. Yes, the DMG wallahs retain the ability to wreak havoc with a government’s plans. But the days when pipe-smoking babus would plot the dismissal of the prime minister over chota pegs at the club are now long gone. Yes, the army is still the strongest political force in the country. But it is now only first among equals.

But suppose I am wrong. Suppose the army really is completely docile, as unguided as a weathervane. Suppose that the next COAS can make the army do whatever he wants, even to the extent of mounting a coup and governing through an assortment of bearded gentlemen. What then?

My response is that even if the army has not institutionally changed, we have no option but to act as if it has changed. The army is what it is (at least in part) because of the way we, the citizens of Pakistan, respond to it. If we treat the COAS as a minor deity, he will probably respond like one. If we treat the leader of the army as a sensible person who heads the largest political force in Pakistan, he will be more likely to respond sensibly.

My point is simple: today, the story is not Raheel Sharif as much as it is about the jawans fighting at the front and giving up their lives for our sake. If General Sharif decides to change his mind and accept an extension, the narrative will no longer be about the fight against extremism. Instead, the narrative will be about General Sharif himself and how he chose personal power over the institution he heads.

An extension for General Sharif would therefore be the most effective way to sabotage and destroy all that he has achieved since his appointment. This country deserves better. The army deserves better. And General Raheel Sharif himself deserves better. He has made the right decision. Leave him be.

To the extent that the pro-extension brigade needs any further convincing, they need look no further than the ignominious exit by General Musharraf to Dubai on ‘medical grounds’. Like General Sharif, General Musharraf had no shortage of people telling him he was indispensable to Pakistan’s future. The difference is that he listened, first in 2007 when he chose not to walk off into the sunset, and second in 2013, when he chose to fly back to Pakistan.

I bear no malice towards General Musharraf. For what it’s worth, I’m glad that he has left. I’m glad that this daily posturing over how to crucify him has ended. The man’s tenure is ended and he is a spent political force. Gnawing at his withers is not going to save democracy. Only what our democrats do is going to save democracy.

This column was printed in The News on 20 March 2016

Not enough morons

In Uncategorized on March 29, 2016 at 3:13 am

It’s a conundrum that Pakistanis know quite well: how can so many people be so enamoured of a bombastic, big-talking leader with no political experience?

In the case of Donald Trump, answers fall into one of two categories: (i) the Republican electorate is made up of not very smart racists; (ii) white Americans are scared about their jobs and they don’t trust their political parties.

I have no idea whether Trump will win the election or not but I am greatly comforted by what Bill James, a noted statistician, had to say. As he put it, “A certain percentage of the American public is just morons; that’s the way it is.” On the other hand, his conclusion was that Trump couldn’t win the general election because “I don’t think there are enough morons to elect him.”

The reason I bring up Trump is because there is a big picture point that people need to remember: never take politics for granted. Times change and parties need to move on to stay relevant. Those who remember this basic fact will stay alive. Others will die.

Let’s come back to Pakistan now. Which way are the political tectonic plates moving?

The single most important factor in Pakistani politics is the rise of the youth vote. Our population is becoming younger and younger and as a consequence, so is the median voter.

What that means is that, first and foremost, delivery counts: parties will be increasingly judged by what they have built and what they have delivered, not by what their ancestors did. The fall of Dhaka today is about as relevant to the average voter as the sack of Rome by Attilla the Hun.

Second, ideology is becoming less important. Instead, people are voting on performance with respect to universal concerns like security, education, urban infrastructure and healthcare.

Part of the reason why less and less people are now voting for a manifesto or a vision is because they see too many interchangeable talking heads on television making pronouncement after pronouncement. Believing in a message is greatly helped by believing in the messenger. None of today’s politicians now inspires the sort of devotion which attended, for example, the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. We simply know too much about our current leaders, their private lives and foibles, not to mention their alleged misdeeds. This is a case in which the familiarity bred by television and cable news has bred contempt.

Let’s return now to Pakistan’s political space. What does it mean for the big three political parties, namely the PPP, the PTI and the PML-N.

In the case of the PPP, one is looking at a party that is increasingly irrelevant. It is a party that is not just governed from afar but one which is mentally in exile. The PPP’s social media presence, for example, is not defined by the party itself as much as it is by the tweets of the Bhutto-Zardari siblings. And what one gathers from their timelines is that they appear to be more excited about UAE National Day and the release of a new season of House of Cards than Pakistani politics. Who can blame them?

The PTI, by comparison, is still vibrant. At the same time, the PTI is also in the middle of an identity crisis, like a punk rocker trying to deal with the responsibilities of being a parent. Is it still the party of revolt and revolution? Or is it the party that has brought transparency to governance in KP? Neither the party nor its voters are quite sure as to the answers on those fronts.

The N League seems to be sitting pretty, rolling out one big project after another, the latest being the launch of the Green Line bus service in Karachi. But is that really going to be enough in 2018? Can it really afford to get complacent about its patented mixture of centre-right politics and ‘bricks and mortar’?

At least in my view, the answer is that the PML-N has the political space to expand its ideological horizons and, by implication, its voter base. Let me explain.

There are a million different ways to analyse the ideology of different political parties but I’m going to restrict my analysis of political parties to two different questions: Where does the party stand in terms of economic policy (ie free market vs state control)? Where does the party stand in terms of social freedoms (ie liberal vs conservative)?

I concede that my schematic is hopelessly over-simplified and confusing. That caveat aside, even this basic analysis indicates one interesting point: out of the major parties, the choices are between parties which are both economically left-wing and culturally liberal (the PPP) and parties which are both economically right-wing and culturally conservative (the PML-N and the PTI). What is missing from this typology are two types of parties: (i) those which are economically left wing and culturally conservative; and (ii) those which are economically right-wing and socially liberal.

So far as I am concerned, an economically left-wing, socially conservative party would be the worst of all possible worlds. Accordingly I’m not going to spend much time on that option. On the other hand, so far as my personal preferences are concerned, I would welcome a culturally liberal, free-market oriented political party. And I don’t think I’m alone in this one.

Assume that I’m right on this one. If so, what changes should the major political parties be making?

I can’t speak for the PPP because so far as I can tell, the PPP is not just decaying but actually dead. Yes, I know, it still wins votes in interior Sindh. But as the saying goes, mara hua hathi bhi sava lakh ka hota hai.

As far as the PTI is concerned, its problem is that it has gambled everything on choosing to attack the PML-N from the right flank (hence the alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami). In theory, there is nothing to prevent the PTI from ditching the mullahs and choosing to go socially liberal. But there are limits to acceptability when it comes to schizophrenic behaviour, even in the case of political parties.

That leaves the PML-N. The problem with the PML-N is that its origins date back to the IJI, a crab-bag of conservative parties united only by their opposition to Benazir Bhutto. At the same time, it needs to be remembered that 1988 was a long time ago. By the time BB was thrown out for a second time, the PML-N had metamorphosed into a genuine party as shown by the fact that while the party suffered during the Sharif’s years of exile, it didn’t disappear either.

My further point is that the PML-N has sufficient credibility and history on the centre-right front that it can easily extend itself towards the centre without too much fear of losing its core voters.

More importantly, the additional benefit of liberalisation is that it will make it a lot easier to attract the youth vote. The voters aged between 20 and 30 in the next election will form a huge bloc, especially in urban seats. Between multiple cable channels, the internet and new entertainment options, today’s media culture has also made these voters extremely sophisticated in terms of political exposure. Simply selling them more of the same is not going to be enough.

2018 is still some years away. Given our past history, it may yet be optimistic to assume that elections will be held. But assuming they are, it will be interesting to see how our parties adjust to the new political realities of Pakistan.

This column was printed in The News on 6 March 2016

The case for privatization

In Uncategorized on March 29, 2016 at 3:12 am

The one question that gets asked most often in relation to privatisation is this: why can’t government-owned entities compete with private-sector entities? Let me try and answer that question.

Let’s first agree that it is theoretically possible for government-owned entities to do a great job. For example, when Syed Babar Ali ran the National Fertilizer Company in the mid-70s, the company did really well. Similarly, the late Shaukat Mirza did a good job of turning around PSO in the 1990s.

The problem though is that these exceptions only prove the rule. Yes, there are some people who are talented enough to tame behemoths like the NFC and PSO. But even in a world full of smart and capable executives, people of that calibre are rare. To give a different analogy, there are times when your lottery ticket will win. But the reason why lotteries make money is because the odds are heavily against the ordinary ticket buyer. Look at the NFC today. As Syed Babar Ali notes in his memoirs, the company is now practically defunct!

But is that really it? Is that why government companies fail?

While there are any number of possible answers, let me focus on two of them: speed and accountability.

The modern day is not an age that rewards the ‘slow and steady’ approach. Opportunities arise and disappear in nanoseconds. Government organisations, on the other hand, are constrained by rules and procedures to move with great deliberation. It takes a private company weeks to complete a deal. But if Pakistan Railways wants to buy locomotives, that’s a process measured in years, not counting the litigation that inevitably attends every major case of public procurement.

Let me repeat a point I have just made: it is not impossible for government corporations to move with alacrity. But the net effect is the same as asking me to sprint. I can perhaps still finish a 100 yard dash. But if you ask me to run a mile, it’s not going to happen.

Economists make a similar argument on the basis of what they call ‘transaction costs’. In simple terms, every decision takes time and incurs a certain economic cost. The more elements in a decision, the more friction involved. Given the complexity of government organisations and the degree to which they are burdened by rules and regulations, transaction costs tend to be higher for them than in the case of private organisations. Government decision-making is like one of those assembly lines in which any worker can pull a chain and stop production. In the case of Toyota, this approach results in very high quality products. In the case of government institutions, the result is institutional paralysis.

To give a different analogy, government companies tend to be like the operating system on your PC. When you first install it, the system runs wondrously fast. But after a year, that same system has accumulated so much internal gunk that it crawls from operation to operation.

The second factor is what Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to as “skin in the game”. An employee of a private company knows that if he does a lousy job, he is liable to get fired. An employee of the state can be fired only in theory. In practice, golden handshake schemes notwithstanding, a job with the state is a job for life.

On the other hand, public-sector employees also know that there is no penalty for inaction, but huge penalties for taking even sensible business decisions. My favourite example pertains to Air Marshal (r) Waqar Azeem, the former MD of PIA, whose company received a loan from NBP to set up a business. This was during the first government of Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto. Between the time that the loan was approved and the goods actually arrived in Pakistan, that government was dismissed. NBP promptly asked for more securities. When the company failed to provide those securities, the goods were left to rot at the port and the air marshal’s business went bankrupt. A decade later, NAB came along. Not only was the air marshal thrown in jail but the banker who had originally approved his loan was also thrown in jail. As for the banker who was responsible for the goods going to waste, he was the star witness!

Imagine that you are a banker. Imagine that you know of this case. Can you also imagine how petrified you would be of the possibility of a single loan going sour? Do you think that any bank is capable of making intelligent commercial decisions with these incentives in place? Do you now understand why government-owned banks constantly make a hash of their balance sheets?

Beyond the issue of skewed incentives, the general point to note is that private corporations have to constantly reinvent themselves to keep up with the demands of the marketplace. Take, for example, the case of IBM. At one point, it was the most prestigious manufacturer of personal computers. But as Lou Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM details in his book, ‘Who says Elephants can’t Dance?’, IBM was on the brink of bankruptcy back in 1993. Gerstner took IBM out of the PC business and instead decided to focus on the consultancy side of the business. The result, IBM once again became one of the world’s most respected and admired companies.

Government companies can’t handle reinvention. They are set up at particular moments in time to handle particular demands. Quite often, they are initially successful. But when business realities change, they don’t. And that’s where things go wrong. To continue my previous analogy, getting a government company to move quickly is like asking a fat man to sprint. Neither is going handle sharp turns that well.

The final point to realise is that the international discourse on privatisation has moved on from the ‘sell and be damned’ ethos pioneered by Margaret Thatcher. There is a general realisation that privatisation is not a universal solution, but rather a delicate business which needs to be handled with care and sensitivity.

At the same time, we also need to move away from theoretical arguments and examine financial realities. When Pakistan Steel Mills was being privatised, the opposition argued that it was a national asset, that its sale was collusive, that only executive determination was required to make PSM profitable. Even today, the judiciary thinks of the Steel Mills judgement and gives itself a pat on the back.

The facts, on the other hand, are as follows: back in 2005, the winning bid for the Steel Mills was $362 million. The winning bidder had also committed to invest another $250 million. Since 2005, the federal government has been forced to pump in another $2 billion, losses are running at $20 million per month, the mill has shut down and the company needs $86 million just to get started. Even if the Steel Mills had been sold for one dollar back in 2005, the people of Pakistan would have been richer today by two billion dollars!

Nobody disputes that the government has to ensure the provision of public services. Instead, the question is: at what cost? And how?

This column was published in The News on 21 February 2016