Reform without reforming

A fair number of us are very upbeat about the fact that a local government election was held in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Say what you will about the PTI, and I have said some pretty harsh (and I believe, true) things about it – the party represents a force invested in reform. It may not be alone in this, but compared to the PML-N, PPP, ANP, MQM, PML-Q, JI and JUI-F it literally is on another planet.

The problem with the PTI is that it cannot tell the difference between getting really angry and getting things done. Still, it is the reform instinct of both Dr Malik’s National Party in Balochistan and Imran Khan’s PTI that is the reason they took the lead in conducting local government elections in those two provinces, much earlier than the others.

Here’s the thing about angry reformist rhetoric. It sure does a great job in getting the ball rolling. It was 1996 and Imran Khan was still shaven and perfumed with the musk of both the ’92 World Cup win and the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital. In came Khan to begin a new spell in his life. He took a long, classic run up and delivered fiery pace. The kind that was incredibly potent in the late 1990s. Corruption, corruption, corruption.

Till then, corruption had been a frequent word for underemployed academics and NGO types, but it had little potency in the political realm. Suddenly, Imran Khan made it a political buzzword. Within a few years the old accountability infrastructure, already decrepit, was relegated totally to the back office vacuum of governance I like to call ‘outside-the-room. Up went shiny new organizations. Who can forget Nawaz Sharif’s legendary Ehtesab Bureau? Oh, what heady, glorious days they were!

Tabdeeli had arrived. In scale, it was certainly no tsunami. Yet with a few well-timed spitballs, Imran Khan had managed to excite urban influentials in the country so deeply, that our pop culture started belting out hits like Awaaz’s Mr Fraudiyay. This is the era that emboldened artists like Sajjad Ali to write and perform songs like Chief Saab. Always the most subtle of his peers, Salman Ahmad’s junoon with the Great Khan manifested itself in the anti-corruption anthem ‘Ehtesab’. We were off to the races. Corruption was about to go down. Way down.

In almost twenty years since then, much has changed. Imran Khan has evolved dramatically. Pakistan has gone through a lot, some good, a lot very bad. One area in which things are exactly as they were in 1996? That pesky corruption. Let’s not be bashful. Our anti-corruption rants are still as well-articulated and passionate as ever – maybe even more than ever before. Yet somehow, corruption continues to suckle at the teet of the republic. And it isn’t shy.

During the Musharraf era, the Ehtesab Bureau was dismantled and the National Accountability Bureau was built. Were these dramatically different organisations? I suppose if you like the idea of the military getting to catch and release crooks, instead of the ‘civvies’ doing it, sure. Very different. But after the short term that Gen Muhammad Amjad enjoyed at NAB, NAB became a replica of the Ehtesab Bureau, which was an exact national replica of the provincial anti-corruption establishments. What was it that made all these organisations so similar? They were all terrible at doing their job.

The story of corruption is relevant to the local government elections in KP in some very significant ways. It is a textbook illustration of the enduring problem of supply and demand in Pakistani governance.

The supply and demand problem is, at its core, very simple. Pakistan is producing ever-higher levels of demand for good governance. Pakistan is concurrently producing ever-lower levels of supply of good governance. The gap between the two is not just any shortage. It is a shortage in governance. When you have a shortage in petrol or gasoline, as we just did earlier this year, you basically go out and buy more petrol or gasoline. You may obviously pay a premium, because those selling it to you may know of your predicament, but you can beg, borrow, steal or print the money you need and basically meet the demand and fix the shortage.

It isn’t quite as simple when you run short of governance. Let’s take these local government elections, for example. There is a normative, legal, democratic and empirical case for local governments. So, in short, the judges, the academics, the op-ed writers, the political parties and the data all suggest that local governments are good. What to do? Well, let’s go out and ‘make’ some local governments!

The problem is: you are trying to make something without a full understanding of what is needed to make it. You cannot ‘make’ local governments without a comprehensive and unapologetic demolition and reconstruction of the existing administrative infrastructure of the state, most importantly, its civil service system.

These aren’t the first local government elections in KP. Two rounds of local governments were in place during the Musharraf era. What happened to that system? It was taken down by the meticulous handiwork of the DMG and its various partners-in-crime (including PSP and Secretariat group officers). The DMG, which is now called the PAS, know that governance fads come and go, but the state machinery is virtually permanent. As long as the fads are obsessed with style over substance, and TRPs over KPIs, nothing is going to challenge the existing system of allocation and distribution of resources, or delivery of services.

The KP local government law was passed in 2013, but the local governments have no formal structure yet because the rules of business, necessary for the operationalisation of local governments, have not been written yet. (Guess who is supposed to write those rules of business). The combined pressure of Imran Khan’s reformist instincts and Supreme Court pressure have ‘produced’ the supply of “good governance” in the shape of local governments. But there is manufacturing defect. The local governments are disembowelled, before they have even had the chance to hit the ground.

The PTI’s reform agenda is incapable of being delivered, at least with the people and structures it currently has available to it, in KP. Partly, because the manufacturing defects in our organisations and institutions are not located in Peshawar, or Karachi, or Quetta, or even Lahore. They are all ensconced firmly and unapologetically in Islamabad.

Just like the anti-corruption discourse, a dead horse that is beaten for TRPs and cheap jalsa thrills, the establishment of local governments will not usher in a new era for our democracy. That the elections took place, in and of itself, is a great thing. That they took place in an environment of confusion, violence and manipulation is a most predictable thing. The only surprise for those familiar with the inner weaknesses of the supplier of governance, ie our state structure, is that there isn’t more chaos, confusion and violence.

Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan pretend to hate each other, but they have more in common than they realise. They are both raging against a machine that they can’t win against. What is this machine? It is this country’s parasitic administrative systems. Even if every single bureaucrat was an angel (and many truly are), they serve in a structure that is eating itself, destroying the very core of the Pakistani state. This isn’t a warning about the future. It is a statement of the present.

Without urgent action to arrest the terminal cancer caused by the tumour of a decrepit 19th century administrative edifice that afflicts Pakistan, no government – local, provincial or, federal – has any chance of meeting the demand for good governance in Pakistan.

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