Pakistan’s crisis of the state-by Shafqat Mahmood

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Scepticism is growing in the West about Pakistan’s ability to face the challenges confronting it. A number of think tanks in Washington have recently compiled reports for the Obama administration in which words like failing or failed have been used for the country. Is there any truth in these assessments, or is this just another form of pressure?

Whatever the West might say, more important is how we view ourselves. Do we think we are okay and just victims of hostile propaganda, or are we concerned, deeply concerned, about our institutions and the direction that the country is taking?

The British writer Somerset Maugham once said that there is no advantage to growing old except that one may get to see the end of stories that began and grew in front of one’s eyes. The story of Pakistan will hopefully never end and it will last forever. But, seeing the changes that have taken place in the country since one first became aware of political realities in the sixties is, to say the least, unsettling.

Before pointing out the negatives, it is important to recount, indeed emphasise, the good that has taken place. It has been a long journey from being an underdeveloped country with very poor infrastructure, little access to education and minimal medical facilities. Now our cities and towns are better linked and have relatively improved public services. Healthcare and education is more widely available and technology has moved forward, bringing comforts, at least to some, that were unheard-of by earlier generations.

Our linkages with the wider world are also stronger, with a vast number of our people travelling to other shores to serve and earn and build better lives for themselves and their kith and kin. The better off amongst us have greater opportunities to travel and partake of the pleasures that this transient world has to offer. In sum, these changes, while less than in many other countries with similar beginnings, have their share of positives.

The depressive aspect is the massive deterioration in governance that has come about over the years. This includes all aspects of government, but principally the decline in the ability of the state to maintain order and enforce rule of law. If these two fundamentals are missing or are poorly enforced, the entire structure of the state seems hollow.

To this deterioration can be added the perpetual political crisis that has not abated since Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan’s murder in 1951. Power keeps oscillating between a weak and largely incompetent political order and competent-on-the-surface but deeply flawed military rule. It is a sad fact that there has never been one orderly transfer of power in our entire history. Various regimes have collapsed either through sheer incompetence or been forcibly removed.

The deterioration in governance and an unsettled political order have fed each other in a vicious cycle. Poor governance makes people unhappy and makes them yearn for regime change. And a shaky political order, whether run by civil or the military, has no real space to strengthen the system of governance. It is all ad hoc and transient and designed to serve short-term purposes.

The military has relatively greater space because its power allows it to ride out difficulties that would bring down a civil government. But it largely uses this to struggle for legitimacy and for creating spurious political entities. It is this that determines its focus on local bodies and on contrived political parties such as Muslim Leagues of various hues.

Occasionally these regimes blunder into disaster, as Musharraf did with his devolution plan. However weak and ineffectual the previous structure of governance at the district level, it needed reform and improvement, not surgical removal. By completely changing the bureaucratic structure, he threw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. The result has been weakened state power and an even more ineffective and corrupt district government.

Most civilian regimes have never had the luxury to get deep into structures of governance. They remain busy trying to survive, with their entire energy devoted to political wheeling-dealing. The situation today with the PPP and PML N leadership jostling for power is a case in point. Any real thought or design on improving the ability of the state to govern effectively is furthest from their mind.

When political scientists talk of stability they do not just mean the survival of one regime for a long period. What they mean is the essence of a political structure remaining consistent, continuity in mechanisms of governance, and the enforcement of laws by a functioning legal system. All these elements are inextricably linked.

Inconsistent political structures with frequent regime changes – and please note, not government change but regime change – hits the mechanisms of governance hard. To give a recent example, Musharraf’s arrival changed district governance to an extent that it was unrecognisable from what it had been earlier. With his departure, there already are signs of a revival of previous administrative arrangements. This up and down, without any system being allowed to settle, plays havoc with governance.

Rule of law also suffers greatly with frequent change of regime, and particularly under military rule. Musharraf left behind not only a decimated judiciary but also a minefield of legal complications that may take years, and an unprecedented political consensus, to resolve. A legal system so unsettled is neither capable of justice nor able to enforce the law. It contributes greatly to the deterioration of the state structure and unrest among the people.

It is frequently said that an important reason for insurgency in Swat is the crisis of governance, and particularly a non-performing judiciary. This may be an over-simplification because other factors may have played a more important role. But, it is difficult to argue that the state as currently organised is able to give, particularly the poor, any sense of security or comfort.

This feeling of alienation is not confined to Swat or the NWFP. In other places too, the state has failed to deliver to the poor. For example, the fact that state-owned educational institutions are in an abysmal state may be one reason why the poor gravitate to the madrassas. A simple desire for free education, with food and lodging thrown in, thus creates circumstances for exposure to a radical ideology. Has the state even made an attempt to compete?

If we have to change the image of a failing state we will have to give stability to the political order and devote serious energy to improving the system of governance. With regard to the political system, it does not matter whether it is parliamentary or presidential, directly or indirectly elected, centralised or decentralised—whatever, we have to stick with it and allow it mature. Abrupt changes are a disaster and one important reason for the crisis we face today.

Then, we need to devote all our energies towards the creation of an effective government that is able to enforce rule of law, maintain order, and provide essential services to the people. This seems like stating the obvious but, like common sense that is uncommon, obvious too escapes many.


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