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A dysfunctional state —Rasul Bakhsh Rais

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Rule of law; accountability of those holding public office; and an independent judiciary will provide a framework within which the state will be functional and efficient, with the capacity to deliver and transform our society for the better

No society can progress without a strong state and strength relates to a state’s institutional and political capacity to perform its primary functions — i.e., deliver essential services to the society and provide justice to help people improve their material conditions.

This is not just a theoretical strand but a practical requirement. Societies and states are interlocked. Every concerned scholar who has worked on Pakistan agrees that the institutional and political capacities of the state of Pakistan have declined very sharply over the past quarter century.

But why do state institutions and their capacities decline? There is one basic reason: public interest is sacrificed to promote private ends. The idea of public interest or public good in states weakened by predatory elites and their allies in different sectors of society doesn’t exist beyond political rhetoric.

Interestingly, the institutional decline of the state and the exploitative practices of those in power (and those attached to power informally) have continued uninterrupted under both civilian and military regimes. Regime changes have had no effect on this unholy alliance between those in power and those with money, meant to take advantage of state and society.

Military and civilian regimes blame each other for all that goes wrong, without ever holding functionaries of the regimes accountable. The reason is obvious: neither ruling group would like to hold the other accountable as they are guilty of the same offences.

The ordinary people, a majority of the electorate, that are hauled to the polling stations by unofficial local whips are the ones who suffer the most from the weakness of the state. They do not get access to justice, and their cases hang in the courts for years, if not decades. In some cases, land-related cases can go on for generations. Add to this the high-handedness of and extortion by the police.

Those familiar with the rural culture of Pakistan know how influential people connected to various power centres use state institutions to intimidate people towards the wrong side of the political divide.

State institutions have lost their ability to support the oppressed. They do not even have basic neutrality between local oppressors and the oppressed. The Pakistani bureaucrat today, at every level, willingly or unwillingly, has lost professional autonomy and hence does not hesitate in siding with the powerful.

The suffering of the people in a weak state can be gauged from the fact that millions of children are left uneducated. Even if there is a school in the neighbourhood, teachers are absent.

Providing quality public schooling would pull a majority of the underprivileged out of poverty. It would help the poor, even the ones at the lowest rungs, achieve respect and gain personal autonomy.

The decay of the public education system is but one example of many public sectors in decline. Those sitting pretty atop these ‘institutions’ are no friends of the Pakistani state, society and people.

Yet the political and military classes never hold them responsible. Why? Because these factions work for them by helping them maintain their power and influence.

In this and many other respects, Pakistan seems worse off today in terms of the rational-legal norms of the state than at the time of its independence. The traditional ruling classes have succeeded in bringing the bureaucracy — the institutions of government — under personal control by offering rewards and lucrative positions to aspiring bureaucrats.

Every party and government now has groups in the bureaucracy that it thinks would work for it. This translates into the ugly fact that bureaucrats are no longer impartial and do not defend the public interest; and instead are willing to act in a legally questionable manner to please their political masters. Nothing explains the decline of the state and its adverse impact on governance better than this situation.

The rule of law and an independent judiciary, under the supremacy of the constitution, are some of the guarantees that ensure that a state will not be captured by predatory forces. Both military and civilian governments — to be fair, the military more than the civilian — have continuously undermined these institutions and norms. All generals got rid of the constitution and the judiciary, the last one twice! In fact, undermining the judiciary and the constitution has been the first step for military regimes to consolidate their power. This was followed by a new constitution, framed by the coup-maker and endorsed by a new judiciary to legitimise the regime.

These power plays have time and again hurt the capacity of the Pakistani state to grow. It would be wrong to assume that these unconditional power plays and a subservient judiciary do not hurt the people. Accountability of the power syndicate for all the wrongs it has committed is a matter of great public interest. We must curb the pattern where such elements get away with their crimes against the people.

Terming Pakistan a weak state is a subtle way of stating that something is seriously wrong, and we need to do something about it. Many outside Pakistan are less charitable and label us a failed state.

What can we do to build a state that cares and delivers?

Three things will be required: rule of law; accountability of those holding public office; and an independent judiciary. These will provide a framework within which the state will be functional and efficient, with the capacity to deliver and transform our society for the better.

Dr Rasul Bakhsh Rais is author of Recovering the Frontier State: War, Ethnicity and State in Afghanistan (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books 2008) and a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at

Reproduced by permission of DT\11\18\story_18-11-2008_pg3_2


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