Who rules Pakistan? -Express Tribune

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Tribalism in Pakistani political discourse obscures a wide array of dynamics that play a disproportionately bigger role in our daily lives. And yet you will hardly ever hear political pundits comment on them. That is precisely why blind tribalism is such a stupid thing. Instead of allowing scholarship to evolve organically, it sends you on an expedition to hunt for the facts that provide succor to your tribal worldview. An interesting case in point is of the perennial question: who rules Pakistan? If you are a Marxist-Leninist you may end up talking about the robber barons or a few dozen privileged families. If you are a supporter of that harsh mistress called civilian supremacy, you may point to the history of our troubled civil-military relations and claim that the army rules the country. And if you are the country’s most hated enemy, a ‘khooni liberal’ or a ‘laa-deen secular’ you may like to point to the state capture by a motley crowd of religious clerics. I do not dispute any of this. There is enough circumstantial evidence to substantiate all of these claims. But all these explanations merely scratch the surface. How deeper are you allowed to dig?

As any journalist who has worked his way up from the grassroots will tell you, the real power dwells in institutions that your minds instantly overlook. The real power vests in the country’s highly disciplined bureaucracy. I know your social conditioning or programming is compelling you to snort out loud in derision and stop reading but hear me out. When Nawaz Sharif was disqualified as the prime minister during the Panama Papers trial, for four days there was no chief executive or cabinet in the country. In such a situation power returns to the largely symbolic office of the head of the state. The president at that time, late Mamnoon Hussain, was a meek man. His health did not allow him to stay on his feet for more than 15 minutes. His concentration span was very short and he, at best, had a nodding acquaintance with the matters of governance. In short, he could hardly be accused of running the show. And yet functioning of the governmental machinery continued without a hitch. So, who was running it all? Army? Intelligence? Nope. Bureaucracy. To be more precise, the principal secretary to the prime minister, always a career bureaucrat. Need more evidence? In his time General Musharraf could not take a step without the assistance of his old buddy and bureaucrat Tariq Aziz. Similarly, Yousuf Raza Gilani’s dependence on Nargis Sethi is well documented. Politicians and military dictators can pretend to wield all the power, but only civil servants know how to fire up the engine of governance and shift gears.

Since the inherent tribalism programs you to ignore this important nuance, you are unlikely to notice how many attempts to restructure the civil services have failed in this country. If you want to know how perennial these issues are just read a 1974 paper titled ‘The Pakistan Bureaucracy: Two Views’ authored by Lawrence Ziring and Robert LaPorte, Jr. It is available on the JStor. Do not let the optimistic tone of the authors beguile you. The Bhutto government did institute some administrative changes. But scrutiny of the text reveals that the cultural aspects of power like ‘status distance’ precepts inherited from the colonial era and esprit de corps never went away. Iqbal Akhund’s ‘Trial and Error’ also sheds light on how this juggernaut practically took the mickey out of an ebullient and ambitious Benazir Bhutto. No wonder then that the National Reconstruction Bureau under STH Naqvi and later Daniyal Aziz, the Planning Commission under Nadeem-ul-Haq, and then Ahsan Iqbal and the institutional reform cell under Ishrat Hussain all failed. Recently, when I asked a retired senior government servant with the granular knowledge of these issues to explain to me what was driving the low-intensity insurgency put up by the country’s powerful bureaucracy he did not dillydally. I found no mention of the NAB, judicial activism, aggressive media, or pay structure. Instead, he pointed to the Imran Khan government’s unprecedented decision to appoint Arbab Shahzad, an accomplished but retired civil servant, as the adviser on the establishment. The establishment division is the human resource arm of the government of Pakistan. Usually ceremonially headed by the PM as the minister in charge it is actually run by the Establishment Secretary, a senior career civil servant, who single-handedly decides the transfer and postings of officials up to the 20th grade and seeks only ceremonial approval by the PM’s office. The decision to install a political appointee (go figure) as the adviser in charge was viewed as unnecessary interference in the bureaucracy’s domain.

Another remarkable example is of Daniyal Aziz. Lt Gen (retd) STH Naqvi was not a politician and consequently soon disappeared from the scene. Daniyal Aziz succeeded him as the chairman of the NRB when parliamentary democracy was restored in the country. As its head, he staked his career in support of the local governments meant to supplant the district management group of the civil service. In a short span of time, he was shunted out of the system. A morose Aziz sat outside the parliament for five years. When he returned to the system it was to be in the shape of his new party’s yesman and chief troll, and not the scholar with an incredible degree of domain knowledge he had become. And still, where is he now?

If you are an aspiring politician or a student of power, I highly recommend you watch every single episode of the British political comedy series “Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister”. I don’t think any cultural product has ever come this close to epitomising mimicking the Pakistani power structure. Likewise, if you pick up any biography written by a retired civil servant (regardless of his/her seniority), you will find it more substantive, illuminating and entertaining than most of the Pakistani politicians combined.

I am a practical man. I do not believe in revolutions or dramatic transformations. Reform is a multi-generational process. Whatever works today cannot just be dismantled. And let us be honest. Pakistan is blessed with countless highly gifted civil servants. But letting your tribalism and predetermined worldview cloud your understanding of real power dynamics only obstructs the natural evolution of institutions as all stakeholders stumble in the dark instead of engaging with them in a meaningful way.

From the discussions above I drew three conclusions. As the episode of Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification illustrates, the office of the chief executive is a merely ceremonial one. It exists not to exercise power but to draw attention away from it. Two, never mess with the bureaucracy. Three, stop pretending that you can reform something that you have no capacity to. Reforms will come but neither on your watch nor at your instigation.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 13th, 2021.