Take a look at any of the major storylines from the past week, and you’ll notice that they all boil down, essentially, to one thing: government not being able to govern.
Let’s take the case of the Rangers’ versus the Sindh government. How does a subordinate organisation of the Sindh chief executive get away with parading the alleged misdeeds of his government on national television? Easy. Almost the same way that his government gets away with the parade of broken, dysfunctional governance of the province, month after month, year after year, election after election.
The anti-corruption hordes had a full eight years in Sindh to clean things up. Between 1999 and 2007 the Pakistan Army was the boss, with no challengers in Karachi or Sindh. Let’s take a quick peek at what the army did.
To rule over the ‘interior’, the army adopted, via the PML-Q, a diverse assemblage of establishment sycophants that wear ajraks and speak Sindhi, led by the son of Tharparkar, Arbab Ghulam Rahim. To rule over Karachi, the army resurrected the MQM, after it had more or less run out of oxygen, due to its own predilections for street crime, and neighbourhood-level mafiosos.
The sum total impact of those eight years on the electorate was virtually zero. When Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto came back to Pakistan in 2007, she was welcomed the way a hero is welcomed. Did she have to make amends for the widespread corruption and dysfunction of her rule during the 1990s? No. The welcome she received was as though she was as pure and innocent as she was in the mid-1980s, when she really was. Terrorists killed Shaheed Mohtarma not long afterwards, but Sindh forgot the PML-Q faster than a bullet leaves a gun, and the PPP was back in the saddle in Sindh.
Karachi was a slightly different story. After having cultivated it back to life, the army may have expected Mohajirs to be more servile supplicants. The MQM meanwhile discovered two wonderful things that, like Red Bull, gave it wings. One was television, and the other was the honey-laced oratory of some of its younger, post-1999 leaders. Both combined to come to be seen within the MQM as huge force multipliers for the party. Being in the opposition would have given nothing to the MQM and so it chose to be part of the PPP package in Sindh and at the centre.
All of this took place under the Musharraf-Kayani regime that ruled the aspects of Pakistan that really matter. Now that there is a new regime in place – let’s call it the Sharif-Sharif regime – the rules are changing. The only problem is that the arena, the game and the players are not. And the one lesson that the GHQ and Punjab seem to never be able to learn in this country is that it doesn’t matter how much love you have from China, or America, or Saudi Arabia, and it doesn’t matter how much deep consensus there is in Lahore, or Gujranwala, or Rawalpindi. You cannot make the rules all by yourself. When you try to, things break. And when things break, you have to rush back to the same villains that you once pledged were going to be cleaned up and put away forever.
Does this mean we should lie back and allow the PPP’s worst instincts to plunder through Sindh without challenge? Does it mean we should embrace the criminal mafia that underpins the MQM’s dominance of Karachi? Absolutely not. It simply means that we should reconsider the short-term chalaakian and jugaarien, the tweaks and tricks, we are employing to fix Sindh and Karachi. It isn’t the Rangers’ mandate to conduct anti-corruption raids, and it isn’t the media’s job to prosecute criminals. We have a police system and courts for those functions. Just because we think it is too hard and it will take too long to fix, is not an excuse for seeking shortcuts that have a track record of breaking down soon after we’ve put them to use.
This use of shortcuts, small tricks and innovations is not unique to the Sindh and Karachi situation. Let’s take the INGO situation.
Some people within the establishment want there to be a purification of our national discourse from ‘foreign’ agendas. This is short for wanting people to shut up and not bother Pakistan whilst we build the CPEC. This is fine. All countries’ ‘deep states’ want things like this. What is not fine are the clumsy shortcuts our deep state keeps trying to take.
Shutting down and then relenting on Save the Children was not some grand scheme that went off swimmingly. It was a classic illustration of the incompetence and incoherence of 21st century governance in Pakistan. How do competent states control their narratives? First, they aren’t dependent on foreign donors for basic functions, including security, health, education, polio and social protection. Second, they are more vigilant about who is doing what, and where they are doing it. If you wanted to control the possibility of NGOs being used as covers for foreign intel ops, you would work with the NGOs, not against them. Third, they think through the ramifications of demonising organizations with decades of experience and tons of global goodwill, and they think through the ramifications of backtracking from red lines – even poorly defined ones.
The Rangers in Sindh and the Save the Children fiasco – both of which are storylines that are far from over – are not alone. Some people mistakenly think every problem is rooted in the civil-military divergence of the country. Most are, but not all.
Let’s take the loadshedding in Ramazan story. For months, we have been hearing ruling party ministers, advisers, MNAs, MPAs and friends in the DMG/PAS rave about the brilliance that is Water and Power Secretary Mr Dagha. Yet on the second day of the Holy Month, it was Dagha who was front and centre,the guy that the prime minister was upset with. Why? Because after having promised the nation loadshedding-free sehri and iftar, the PM has been embarrassed by a tsunami of power breakdowns across the country.
Whilst many problems can be solved by showing the prime minister a fancy powerpoint presentation, fixing distribution, revenue collection, and generation requires bold structural changes to the entire system of electricity and power in the country. Fancy powerpoint solutions, even when made by the most competent civil servants, cannot fix a system that is rotten down to its very core.
Among perhaps the most tragic of stories in a country with a surplus of tragedy was the protests by North Waziristan’s displaced persons in Bannu over the weekend. As the biggest victims of terrorism in the country, one could rightly ask how it is possible that they were not cared for adequately. How did the state allow this to happen? How did it come to be that these poor, helpless people had to come out and protest, and worst still, end up with two coffins as a result of the protests?
For anyone who has been watching closely, however, the right question is not how this happened, but rather, what miracle is it that keeps this kind of thing from happening more?
The myth of the coherent, cogent and capable Pakistani state is corroding right before our eyes, in real time, every day. The prime minister, whose first brush with executive power was in the late 1980s when the executive remote controls, buzzers and phone calls to DCs used to actually work, is now tapping away at his iPad and his Blackberry furiously. He’s trying to get things to work from Islamabad. When they do work, the sycophants he has assembled around him tell him it is due to his brilliance. This single lie is more cancerous than all the corruption at SCBA put together.
The truth? When things work, they work because of the individual brilliance of linemen and district officers toiling away in the heat. And finding those is mostly a function of dumb luck. When things work, they work because the system has short-circuited. That’s what the powerpoint presentations will never say.