Governing the ungovernable

Governance is all about how best we are able to manage our lives in different public domains

Tariq Mahmud February 22, 2018
The writer is an author, a public policy analyst and a former interior secretary. He teaches at LUMS

Till the early 1970s, political systems the world over were typified into the left and right. There were no grey areas, with this division cutting across different domains of society and propelled by a moral fervour. With greater interdependence, connectivity and implosion of information, these divisions have now not only been blurred but there are times when it seems that they have altogether disappeared. Success of a political system, its organs and societal nets is now judged at the touchstone of one magic word: governance.

Governance is all about how best we are able to manage our lives in different public domains. It, therefore, provides us with a way to think ahead, perceive early signals and avoid turbulence, in a bid to make life simple and livable. In an effective governance system, management of different public domains is through a self-propelling and self-correcting mechanism, while leadership is provided by example. There are numerous success stories of countries which have excelled in this area and which are now streets ahead of us.

Dr Ishrat Husain, former governor of the State Bank of Pakistan, as a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, Washington, DC, has now come up with a seminal work on the subject: Governing the Ungovernable. This is primarily a case study of Pakistan, which is both diagnostic and prescriptive in nature.

Governing the Ungovernable has a fairly vast canvas as it discusses multiple themes of public life. It dilates on the economy, polity, society, state organs, judiciary, civil-military relations, clergy, militancy, extremism, jihadism, and above all, the civil service. It also takes pains to suggest ways out of the various problems plaguing us and deftly links disparate themes, weaving them together and connecting them to the one overarching theme that the book focuses on: governance.

For the purpose of analysis, Dr Ishrat divides the nation’s journey into two time zones. The first spans over the first 40 years or so of the country’s independence when it sustained an average growth rate of 6% while the second phase starts from 1990 onwards when the process of irreversible decay in public life crept in. In the earlier period, Pakistan was ahead of India and China while in the latter phase, its social and economic indicators began to decline. The Indian economy, which used to be five times bigger than Pakistan’s, is now nine to ten times bigger. Pakistan used to be a favourite destination for tourists and overseas students, but now is considered too dangerous to visit by many.

Dr Ishrat disaggregates the causes of the slide that has occurred in different domains. He is of the view that Pakistan now needs a sustained trajectory and an assured rate of growth in order to come out of the morass it finds itself in. The implication in his postulation is that this kind of sustained trajectory is contingent upon the presence of stable political conditions, institutional revamping and regional certainty, with there being peace both within and around the country.

Dr Ishrat is a consistent proponent of devolved governance where local government institutions are given the space and autonomy to address the issues of delivery at the grassroots level. While commending General (retd) Musharraf’s system of local governance, he however concedes that abolishing the offices of the commissioner and deputy commissioner was a setback as it weakened the system of governance and compromised the regulatory functions of provincial governments.

The author vividly brings out the innate strength of Pakistan, its geo-economic location and its youth bulge. This potential now needs to be harnessed. We need a massive investment in the rearing and training of our youth, as well as in the upgrading of their skills and in making them productively employable. What all this needs is the right eco-system and that can only be established if the government makes the right moves. Dr Ishrat also pins hopes on CPEC. I am, however, of the view that when it comes to CPEC, we need to be extremely prudent in our execution designs to avoid time and cost overruns.

Dr Ishrat’s discourse on the role of religion in public management is quite engaging. He points out that during the last 30 years this role has been a divisive one, pitching people against one another on the basis of religion and sect. He also dilates on the bane of extremism, militancy and the threat posed by jihadism. This sordid state of affairs has indeed been a drag on the advancement of the country and is now raising questions about us as a responsible state. Dr Ishrat examines how withering of the state and its institutions has led to the monstrous growth of religious extremism. He also talks about the proliferation of non-state actors, some of which now even hold their private courts. This is indeed a societal failure where social space is provided to both violent perpetrators and non-violent facilitators. There is a need to deny spaces to these elements so that we can break the supply chain of militancy.

Governing the Ungoverned also shines a spotlight on the institution of the civil service in its historical perspective. The importance of this institution both as a catalyst and as a constraining influence in the sphere of governance cannot be denied. He is of the view that modern management practices with well-laid out performance indicators can improve efficiency and effectiveness of the state apparatus.

While focusing on civil-military relations and the judiciary, Dr Ishrat believes that each institution should stay within its bounds. He does not subscribe to the practice of seeking the military’s assistance on different matters at the drop of a hat. This is an advice worth considering as our experience shows that the summoning of even the civil armed forces in the aid of civilian administration, if too frequent an occurrence, not only harms the former in the long run, but also has a paralytic effect on the latter. Karachi presents a vivid example of this phenomenon where dependence on the Rangers has now become a systemic necessity. This not only calls for building the capacity of civilian institutions but also self-belief within them.

Talking about the steady institutional decay that the country has witnessed in recent decades, Dr Ishrat feels that we need to proceed incrementally without causing too much political noise. He is of the view that key institutions, once reformed, will develop in-built linkages and a demonstrative effect. One cannot agree more with his point of view when he observes that economic accomplishments without political legitimacy, more often than not, turn out to be elusive and transient. One wishes to add that we need to lift politics from the rut that it is stuck in where it finds itself in a perennial transactional state. Reforming our politics, however, is indeed a tall order considering the current vitriolic political environment prevalent in the country.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 22nd, 2018.

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