The lethargy of our state was no longer open to dispute. Like Gulliver bound by the Lilliputians, our government seems helpless to do anything against an ostensibly puny adversary. The only question is why?
The standard response to this question is conspiratorial: the state isn’t doing anything because the state doesn’t want to do anything. And the state doesn’t want to do anything because our India-obsessed establishment (aka ‘the elites’) still feel that radical militants represent a ‘strategic asset’ in terms of Pakistan’s national security, one whose utility in terms of defending Pakistan’s interests against unwelcome developments in Afghanistan and Indian-occupied Kashmir far outweigh their attendant disadvantages (like their propensity to cause sectarian mayhem).
This narrative may have been true at one time. But it is certainly not true any longer. Our establishment has, in the words of a Lahore High Court judge, “since been died.” And like all dead entities, it is now incapable of intelligent thought.
But, you may ask, how is it that the state keeps on functioning? If the establishment is dead, who is running the state?
To quote Wikipedia, the term “the Establishment” refers to a particular “visible dominant group or elite that holds power or authority in a nation or organization.” In the case of Pakistan, the ‘establishment’ was generally presumed to refer to the upper cadres of the Civil Service, the descendants of the ‘heaven-born’ rulers of India. This is why because the legal and regulatory structure inherited by Pakistan upon its independence was one in which real decision-making power lay far more in the hands of civil servants than elected representatives. As Hamza Alavi put it, the state was ‘overdeveloped.’ And since much of Pakistan’s first 50-odd years passed under the shadow of either military dictators or weak civilian rulers, the powers of the bureaucracy became gradually diluted but never completely waned. That is, until now.
The Pakistani establishment, as we once knew it, is now dead. It is dead because the ability of even the upper levels of the civil service to take a stance on matters of principle has been reduced to a point which is immaterial. Every single senior civil servant is now fully aware that the path to advancement lies in the degree to which he (or she) can be seen as a reliable flunkey by the party in power. And with the odd honourable exception, the remainder have quietly parked their consciences and picked a star to hitch themselves to.
From one perspective, this is not a terrible development. After all, the whole point of democracy is that the people get to elect rulers and those rulers get to make decisions. More importantly, those rulers are accountable to the public in a way that bureaucrats are not. Theoretically therefore, it is a good thing for power to flow from the unaccountable hands of bureaucrats into the accountable hands of our elected representatives.
Unfortunately, our elected rulers either don’t believe that they are in charge or don’t really give a damn. Either way, their fundamental assumption is that the state operates on autopilot; that no matter what they do, roads will continue to be built, electricity will continue to be generated, and life will go on. So far as our elected representatives are concerned, actual governance is not their headache.
The problem with this approach is that it assumes a functional establishment to ensure that the show goes on. Except now, the establishment is dead. It is no longer capable of holding back the corrupt. And it is no longer capable of acting without direction. In short, nobody is flying this plane. Yes, there are a bunch of monkeys in the cockpit but they are busy raiding the pantry. And so far as the monkeys know, planes are magic machines that fly themselves.
I know I’m over-egging this pudding but there is a serious point here. Pakistan is currently in between different government models. The previous model of governance had decorative ministers and empowered bureaucrats. In the future lies governance by elected representatives assisted by bureaucrats subordinated to political will. What we have right now is the worst of both worlds: ministers who believe they’re decorative and a bureaucracy which knows it has been emasculated.
Lest I be misunderstood, I’m not arguing for a return to the days of decorative ministers and all-powerful secretaries. All I’m saying is that there is nobody in charge. Yes, our rulers may eventually figure out they need to do something. But it is anybody’s guess as to whether they learn that before we all crash.
As I put the final touches on this column, there are now distant rumblings on the horizon about the state taking action. From action vs. no action, the debate seems to have shifted to surgical strikes vs. a full scaled operation.
I don’t think that this development affects my thesis. Instead, it is a case of the exception proving the rule. What we are seeing is the civil state being forced to act against militants by a growing anger within the ranks of the armed forces. The political leadership has not decided to act nor has the civil bureaucracy forced the political leadership into acting. Instead, our leaders have dithered long enough to get what they want: i.e., to be forced into acting while being able to disclaim responsibility for their actions.
In 2001, we were told that Musharraf had no choice but to obey the dictates of the US. In 2014, the unofficial narrative is that the army is forcing the government’s hands. Yes, the army’s ‘friends’ in the media will do a better job of selling this war than the 2001 action in Afghanistan. But this is a dangerous game being played by our politicians and it is unlikely to end well for them.
Pakistan has become expert at playing lip service to global demands for action on terror while playing footsie with militants. If our new “leaders” adopt the same approach to the demands of our own military, they may find that the military has less qualms than the international community about enforcing its demands.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 26th, 2014.