Apr 222008

ECONOMISTS almost never factor in politics in their attempt to understand how public policy is made. They consider theirs to be the superior science. “It’s the economy, stupid” James Carwell, Bill Clinton’s political adviser told his candidate as he was campaigning for the American presidency. Clinton got the message and when on to win the presidency.

If economists pay some attention to politics in understanding the making of public policy it is almost always ex-post, after policies have been made, seldom ex-ante, before policies get to be made. If they informed themselves better about the politics of economic decision-making, their advice to those involved in public policymaking would be much more pragmatic.

Economists, until recently, were also not inclined to show much interest in history other than their own. That has begun to change. Recently, Paul Collier of Oxford has begun to suggest that without understanding a county’s history we cannot develop a real appreciation of why it has developed more rapidly or, conversely, why it has remained backward.

The interface between politics and history on the one side and economics on the other has been much more profound in the case of Pakistan than in most other developing societies. This is not because the Pakistani is more of a ‘political man’ or a ‘man of history’ than an ‘economic man’; not because he was more inclined to respond to political pressures and the burden of history than to economic concerns. The reason is that Pakistan has always been a politically volatile society. Attitudes have arisen because of the way history has shaped Pakistani society.

This is a good time to reflect on these issues since the country’s leaders once again are confronted with some serious policy choices. The economy is in trouble and requires firm action by policymakers. Their ability to take decisions that economists believe will restore health to the economy will depend on their willingness to resolve old differences, to set aside narrow concerns in favour of national priorities.

A senior diplomat in Islamabad said to me the other day that she was surprised by how much of the political discourse was focused on settling old scores rather than moving the country forward on the basis of well-thought-out strategies. These were needed, she thought, for reforming the economy, the society and the political system in ways that would help the country gain the world’s respect.

At this point, she went on to say, Pakistan is more feared than respected. There is a fear that some parts of the country may become havens for terrorists who would disturb the western countries. There was no fear that Pakistan was about to become an economic giant that would challenge the rest of the world as China has done for so many years and as India is beginning to do. The policymakers in Pakistan should be working to create the second fear rather than helping to perpetuate the former one.

She also made one additional point, as interesting as the first. She thought it is not only the persistent economic backwardness that pushes people towards radicalism — any radicalism, not just of the Islamic variety — but also political conflict. Stable political systems develop institutions — if they don’t already possess them — to resolve differences among different segments of society. Pakistan is still struggling to bring stability to the system. It is only then that it will be able to turn its attention to the important question of institution-building.

History explains why in the case of Pakistan the national debate remains focused on personal vendettas rather than on national interests. Some of the differences that are determining the present discourse appeared on the day the country was born. They have shaped society and remain unresolved. The most prominent of these, of course, is the civil-military conflict. That is related to two conflicts; between those I once called the ‘outsiders and insiders’ and between those who are regionalists versus those who are nationalists.

Today, I will deal with the first; saving the discussion of the other two to next week. The common interpretation of the reason — or reasons — why the military keeps appearing in the political field is that while the initial thrust may have been for reasons of political ambition or disappointment with the way those who were in political power were going about resolving their differences, other interests were also at play.

Once power was gained, the military went on to develop strong economic interests which it would find difficult to give up. A recent book by Ayesha Siddiqa has documented how the military has built up its economic strength. While one may have some problems with the methodology used and the calculations made, the basic conclusion drawn is correct. The military now has a powerful presence in the economy. All this analysis may be right but it fails to look at the other side of the equation; how civilians have behaved when they were given the opportunity to govern.

Pakistan has seen its history interrupted by long years of military rule. After all, by the time the country celebrates its 61st birthday in August 2008, it would have been governed by the military for 481 months out of a total of 732 of the country’s life. This arithmetic holds if we count the period since the elections of February 2008 as a non-military one.

However, even when civilians were in power or shared power with the military, politics remained volatile. They fought their battles not within the institutions created to resolve political disputes but in the open. During the several periods of rule by the politicians, street politics prevailed over parliamentary debate. In fact, it was the politicians’ inability to resolve their differences that gave the opportunity to the military to force its way back into the political arena.

The civil side of the power equation can only assert its right to govern when it bases it on institutional support and not on the will of the people. People will want those to take power who will serve their economic interests. As they have shown repeatedly in the past, they will quickly change their allegiance if they find that the civilians are failing to deliver on the economic front. “It’s the economy, stupid”, after all. Today, it is economics that troubles the common citizens not how the disputes among several players presently occupying the political stage get resolved.
Source: Daily Dawn, 22/4/2008

 Posted by at 1:58 pm

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