Sep 25, 2010

Mantra of change

Babar Sattar
The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.
Pakistan is in dire straits and its decent into chaos needs to be arrested urgently, we hear. Is the Bangladesh model a solution, as some suggest, with the military cleaning up political stables in a short span of time and paving ground for 'true' democracy? But isn't that what all our dictators set out to do and instead multiplied the country's miseries by becoming part of the problem? And then the army is just not interested in an overt role in politics we are told, partly because it is still recovering from Musharraf and partly because such a role is unconstitutional. So then shouldn't the Supreme Court contrive a mechanism to oust the ruling regime -- the devil incarnate and root-cause to all ills in the land of the pure -- and save the skies from caving in upon Pakistan? And should the Supreme Court be unwilling to engineer regime change? Can't alliances within parliament be reordered to bring about an in-house change?
It is indisputable that we crave and need change. But what must this change look like? The Bangladesh model didn't do away the role of politics, political parties or civilian government. Its paramount focus was on reforming the election commission and creating credible electoral lists as prerequisites for acceptable elections. And thus after a brief interregnum the same old mainstream political parties were back in business duelling it out. The fundamental weakness in all reform models involving khakis is that these are transitional arrangements by definition that hope to fix deep-seated institutional and cultural problems within the realm of politics quickly, and with a stick. Even if we accept that formal statutory reform can be instituted in such fashion, behavioural changes and evolution of institutional norms and ethics is certainly not amenable to force.
Even other than this basic structural flaw in khaki-led models for change, expecting the army to cleanse the system amounts to a misdiagnosis of the problem. The civil-military imbalance in Pakistan has been a cause and not a consequence of our ailments. Despite the return of civilian rule, the military remains the most powerful institution of the state as well as the most resourceful political actor. A new army chief can make the institution more or less involved in representative politics due to a change of approach in securing the army's institutional interests. But such change at the top doesn't transform the fundamental nature of the institution's interests or the shared desire of its high command to continue to play a predominant role in defining Pakistan's national interest.
Given that our national-security policy, counter-insurgency policy and linked aspects of the foreign and economic policy fall within the exclusive domain of the military that it jealously guards, do we really expect a civilian government (even one with decent approval ratings, capabilities and intentions) to suddenly create a welfare state out of a national-security monstrosity? The point is that it is essential to determine the limits of authority and influence that a civilian government wields during times when the military has chosen to withdraw to the barracks. Should the civilian government be held responsible for handing over Pakistani air-bases to the US? Did it first authorise drone attacks across FATA? Did it start handing over nationals to Americans without regard for their fundamental rights? Can the civilian government singlehandedly end our reliance on foreign assistance without reviewing our defence budget or national-security policy?
It is true that we have a massive corruption problem, and the predatory rent-seeking behaviour of the ruling regime is excruciating. Consequently, we are auditing the wealth statements of our parliamentarians and the mushrooming of their assets, as we should. But where is an accounting of the assets of our generals and their reconciliation with their legitimate sources of earning? It is loathsome that university budgets are being slashed while the prime minister, the president and members of the cabinet continue with their egregious lifestyles. But do we even know how much it costs taxpayers each year to make possible the office, the home, the car fleets, attendants, guest houses and other amenities that are enjoyed by the army chief or even a corps commander? Two wrongs never make a right. But these questions and comparisons become pertinent when khaki-rule is presented as a preferred alternative to democracy.
The aspiration to see the Supreme Court emerge as a vehicle for regime-change is even more dangerous. Our judiciary has a chequered history not because it failed to stand up to corrupt civilian outfits, but because it eagerly condoned and endorsed khaki-saviours. Whenever required to choose between constitutionalism, rule of law and democracy on the one hand and doctrines of necessity, dictates of expediency and self-preservation on the other, our superior judiciary succumbed to the latter. Thus, if heaven forbid, the apex court was to painstakingly contrive a mechanism to engineer regime-change through creative interpretation of the Constitution (as opposed to across-the-board enforcement of law without concern for political consequences), it would merely amount to our sordid history repeating itself and not to the dusk of progressive political evolution or a golden era of judicial independence.
And then there is the talk of in-house change and need for a national government. Let's forget the numbers game for a moment. How would such a 'national government' be different from the one we presently have? All our mainstream and major ethnic parties are already in government in one place or another. Given that power-sharing within the executive is based on the number of ministerial slots allotted to a party and its access to means of patronage, how will inclusion of another party at the federal level change the character of government? Even if it is assumed for a minute that it is possible to reformulate the ruling alliance and replace the PPP with the PML-N at the centre, how will such a weak federal government bring about the transformational changes that are required to shepherd Pakistan out of the woods?
Pakistan has become a textbook case of state capture by corrupt and self-serving elites. The political power of the state is structured and distributed in such a manner that creates incentives (as opposed to hurdles) for power-wielders running the state to engage in predatory rent-seeking behaviours and interact with citizens as clients at the mercy of personalised systems of patronage. Consequently, the difference between the malgovernance practised by successive governments is only one of degree. We will need to change the way all branches of government are organised and interact with citizens as opposed to merely replacing one incumbent with another. Any change of fa├žade brought about by coercing and cajoling the same political actors, strutting around pointing fingers in all directions without taking any responsibility or producing an alternative vision and strategy capable of addressing our very serious problems, will serve no meaningful purpose.
The change that we need is one of mindset that reorders our national priorities, overhauls our national security and economic policies, reduces barriers to entry that prevent talent and ideas from entering the political field and builds capacity of the state to serve citizens while subjecting public-office holders across the board to a non-partisan system of accountability. But political parties will not democratise voluntarily and lower barriers to entry. Parliament will not fix and enforce electoral laws to wipe the electoral process clean of corruption and coercion until pushed, and the military will not limit the nonproductive use of scarce national resources if the demand is not backed by strong public opinion. Unfortunately there are no magic solutions. What is certain is that change will be incremental, bottom-up and a consequence of the demand generated collectively by society. So let us move beyond palace intrigues and get down to it.

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