Death of an establishment?

Published: January 25, 2014
The writer is a partner at Bhandari, Naqvi & Riaz and an advocate of the Supreme Court. He can be reached on Twitter @laalshah

The writer is a partner at Bhandari, Naqvi & Riaz and an advocate of the Supreme Court. He can be reached on Twitter @laalshah

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.

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Reader Comments (14)

  • aaaaa
    Jan 25, 2014 - 11:06PM

    Exception that proves the rule is the stupidest argument ever made. Period. It won’t fly. I don’t agree with negotiations but thats the platform the winning party ran on. It was always going to be given a shot.


  • Parvez
    Jan 25, 2014 - 11:57PM

    A bit of a rigmarole but your message comes through.
    If the bureaucracy is dead or almost dead, its their fault and I’ll not be surprised if no one from the public comes to the funeral. Its high time the politicians got their act together otherwise they will go the way of the bureaucrat and then………the cycle starts all over again.


  • Jan 26, 2014 - 12:14AM

    Brilliant. And that is what frustrates me when I listen to the talk shows – a recent one on the American Pakistani relationship – was so unreal – the participants, an AVM (no less) and a non-resident pakistani who was on the John Kerry election committee – and not one mention was made about how much the pakistani establishment has unilaterally damaged this relationship. There was a mandatory reference to evil India designs, but there was no mention of the double game played by the establishment that has caused the normal Pakistani so much grief.

    Is it because the real audience for these talk shows is the establishment?


  • Jan 26, 2014 - 12:19AM

    Better dead than alive. When it was alive it did no better. Good riddance!


  • Toticalling
    Jan 26, 2014 - 1:26AM

    This is a very pessimistic article and if you read it second time, you come to the conclusion nothing has been exaggerated on any point. So we are doomed and yet nobody seems to care. In fact many think it is the fault of some funny outsiders who are destabilizing Pakistan. My worry is that this blame game will get us nowhere. On the other hand we have had doomsday scenario for a long time and it appears we are still surviving and more people are doing financially better than before.
    But one good news is that our democracy has matured, if nothing else. I wish this killing fields somehow stop in near future. I am not for talking to those who kill innocent people, but bigger worry is those who do not kill themselves, but have sympathies with those who do. And their number is not insignificant


  • F.S
    Jan 26, 2014 - 1:38AM

    Illuminating, thank you Mr Naqvi. Please write more often.


  • Billoo Bhaya
    Jan 26, 2014 - 1:57AM

    Love your article. I endorse it and add that its a bit of both; indifferent to the nation’s (means peoples) needs and don’t give a damn. This benchmark was established by all existing centers of power during the previous PPP Govt. Establishment – as we all take it is the Armed Forces – was and is badly damaged by Musharraf’s controversial stint and its involvement in Afghan war, now through his medical farce in the Court. Politicians see governance as a gravy train established by PPP and PMLN together – loot at will for their is no penalty and penance. The last two are enforceable by Judiciary and Police. However, to all intents and purposes, actions of the Superior Judiciary show their interest lies in wealth accumulation – hefty salaries and benefits, including plots, cars and promotion of progeny success in shady business ventures. Judiciary extracts its pound of flesh through suo moto motions against politicians and bureaucrats on largely frivolous issues to preempt any oversight of what the Judiciary is upto. Witness, not one verdict that Judiciary has enforced since its restoration. The Police have been influenced by corruption in both Politicians and Judiciary are following the loot without any oversight. They are into thuggery and exploitation of marginalized common man. Hence no governance. Will we see any improvement. Unlikely at best, for this requires an Oliver Cromwell type of character willing to chop of the King’s Head, offer justice to its people and set the nation on path of Constitutional governance. Presently PMLN and PPP are trying rope in the Usurper, but he has created a farce of the Law and the Courts. So no hope I predict.


  • Lal Din
    Jan 26, 2014 - 2:11AM

    Your assertions well taken, the concept of overdeveloped state has it origin in the writings of Ralph Miliband (New Left Review). Hamza Alavi, simply, applied it on Pakistan to make his point. He was criticized for this in academic circles as the Pakistani state was merely a post-colonial authoritarian state and lacked the potential to penetrate. It was its failure to penetrate that provided military an opportunity to stage a coup in 1958. The fact is that a coup had already taken place in 1954. Guillermo O’Donnell calls this type of development as bureaucratic-authoritarian state Argentina, Brazil, Peru).
    You are correct to point out that the current Pakistani state is in a state of constant denial, and lacks the ability to penetrate or coerce ( a prerequisite of Weberian state).Recommend

  • Feroz
    Jan 26, 2014 - 8:49AM

    Wailing that things are not fine will not help. A perfunctory reading of any Constitution will give a fair idea of where the State wants to go. What stands out in the Constitution of Pakistan is opportunism, not welfare of the people. Religion has been placed center stage and every kind of discrimination originates from it. People have exploited all the loopholes there to build a very unequal society. Using this document to oppress those they dislike has been the job of the Establishment.
    The problems go way beyond what Mr Naqvi visualizes. A nation that has lost its conscience can condone any atrocity and we can see it every day. When abduction and rape become instruments of conversion and the Judiciary does not act, situation is truly hopeless. Sure this descent in global standing and erosion of moral values has gone hand in hand.
    The Author must understand that it is very convenient to blame someone — Bureaucracy, Military, Politicians, Mullahs and Judges. That all have performed miserably and all are culpable is of no consolation to anyone. Normally we use the term “vultures are circling” to describe a near death situation. What I suspect is that the vultures have already started feeding on a living body, which resembles a corpse. The Nation cannot become so weak that even maggots start feeding.


  • Anonymous
    Jan 26, 2014 - 9:37AM

    Real establishment 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…………
    Sir this has not changed and will not change unless ou have another generation who is not fed on hatred of hanood and yahood. So for you talk to any one he speaks same narrative.
    Same people have not accepted that albadar and alshamas were mistakes committed by them even after 43 years how they can see mistake in this arrangement.
    Any way very good analysis.


  • Anticorruption
    Jan 26, 2014 - 11:33AM

    Interesting article. A related aspect of this is that whatever the flaws of the state, it does nevertheless protect people from anarchy (which would ensue if the state’s monopoly on violence were to give way to civil war). Yet, not many people seem too worried about this


  • Waqar
    Jan 26, 2014 - 3:31PM

    Loved it. The key takeaway is:

    “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.”

    We must be ready for the inevitable.


    Jan 26, 2014 - 8:29PM

    Let me correct your opening remarks. The Govt is that of Lilliputians and the Terrorists are the Gulliver. Unfortunately these are local Lilliputians therefore Gulliver has no problems.


  • Jan 26, 2014 - 9:03PM

    Establishment in Pakistan historically comprised the civilian and the military bureaucracy as long as the CSPs were alive and functioning. With CSPs’ demise, military became the ‘establishment.’ When we now call the ‘establishment,’ we mean the military, or more specifically, the army. Establishment is not dead. CSPs are dead.Recommend

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