Perverse structures
BY M O E E D Y US U F | 4/28/2015

BASHING politics is our national pastime. There is always something wrong.

Almost inevitably, that something boils down to individuals: it is about corrupt, selfserving, insincere leaders. Convenient, but simplistic. I sometimes wish the problem was really about despicable characters in leadership positions. The fix would be simpler.

In reality, the rot is far beyond that. We are up against deeply embedded structural impediments to good performance. We are dealing with perverse political and praetorian incentive structures that often throw up less-than-desirable characters. But the more structural concern is that they also force the desirable ones in the system to behave as despicably to survive.

Let`s examine recent leaders. Those who feel it is about individuals blame Musharraf for giving it away by allying with Punjab`s Chaudhrys. If only he had gone for cleaner people! But ask why a military strongman, supposedly sincere and financially above board, would make such a compromise and you`ll realise that his constraints were not unique. The illegitimacy of every military ruler is innate but in him burns a desire to correct it. Not just because he wants to. But also because he belongs to an institution whose self-image is of the one and only `legitimate` arbitrator of national interest.

His illegitimacy, to his mind, is a poor reflection on the institution and also affects his credibility within it.

And when they look for legitimisers, the only ones available will always be those who are up for wheeling and dealing to get him the requisite numbers. Also, a by-definition politicised military at this point develops its own set of interests institutional and personal which create enormous pressure to maintain the status quo.

Once you fall for this compromise, you can be a military strongman all you like, but the strings are really in the hands of those who have legitimised you. Take Ayub, take Zia, take Musharraf, you`ll find the same thread running through each one`s tenure.

What of political leaders? With Zardari, it was easy to make the `worthless leaders` argument. Zardari seemed to have a knacl< of finding the most irrelevant and corrupt (at least perceived to be) individuals for key cabinet and related spots. But not Sharif.

Take a look at his cabinet. Key positions are in the hands of the well-educated, analytically sound, and mostly competent individuals. Nope, not kidding.

Draw up a list of senior cabinet positions; list their educational and professional backgrounds; and point out how many are incompetent or perceived to be openly corrupt.

Compare this with any peer country, including India. Sharif`s men will come up trumps.

Even so, if you`re a sceptic, you`ll point to the prime minister`s centralising tendencies and his family`s interference.

You`d be right. This is precisely my point.

The current dispensation has shattered the myth Zardari left intact: that a good group of individuals is the answer. Sharif has proven that even a stellar team is no good if the overall political incentives are perverted.

Sharif knows the merits of his cabinet. He also knows he hasn`t empowered them. He can see he is berated for letting his family and some bureaucrats run the show. Also that he is ignoring parliament and running the country through edicts. Hasn`t he learnt from Zardari`s fate? He did. And he did, in fact, come into office with preparation and design to change things.

But before he dared to test them, political realities hit. Attempting to be messiah wasrisky and promised no returns in a system where the bread and butter remains patronage, responsiveness to financial patrons, and resistance to structural change that may weaken the leadership`s political hold over the party and control of their traditional vote banks. The solution: centralise power; keep it within the family; don`t allow genuine local government structures, especially not in Punjab. Be like you were in the 1990s. You may be ousted but the time in power would serve you well enough. And you`ll live to fight another day. We may feel this is ridiculous. For him, it`s politically rational.

Oh yes, to the hope that the kaptaan will be different. Study his recent moves. Look at how much influence those who finance him wield within the party; note that the KP government never resigned because it would have been too costly for local patronage; consider the unspoken deal the PTI had with PML-N in the Senate elections; see the fate of the intra-party commission investigating the party`s elections. Khan is having to contemplate the compromises he once loathed.

Individuals are easy targets. But Pakistan needs more than a messiah. How are we going to get to deeper systemic reforms? This question begs our attention.
The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, DC. He is editor of insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies in South Asia: Through a Peace building Lens.

Published in Dawn