A disaster foretold


- Photo by Arif Ali

– Photo by Arif Ali

It was August 6, 2013, and the data had just been processed.

Dr Kristofer Shrestha, a research scientist, sat in his third-floor office in the environmental sciences and technology building at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia, and opened the Indus river basin dashboard on his terminal. Two maps sprang up on the screen, both of them showing Pakistan along with some parts of its neighbouring countries.

The map on the left showed the country covered in a blue-and-green blot — evidence of a rainy weather system moving in from the east. The map on the right showed the Indus river system and its tributaries, with small blue dots to mark the location of each barrage and dam. The first map told Shrestha about the expected rainfall for that day and the second told him how much water was expected to flow through each blue dot on the same day.

Underneath the maps was a forecast slider, marked Day 1 to Day 10. As his cursor hovered over each forecast day on the slider, the maps changed colour, corresponding to the amount of rainfall expected on each day. On Day 8 and Day 9, the model he was operating showed heavy rainfall over the northern parts of the Indus. He quickly clicked on the link marked “Accumulated Precipitation”. The map changed colour showing how much water was expected to accumulate in different parts of Pakistan during those days. As he moved from Day 1 to Day 10, the map turned red, showing sharply rising levels of water accumulation across many parts of Punjab and Balochistan.

Shrestha might have been the first person in the world to see that Pakistan was just about to face a flood. After studying other data related to water flow forecasts in the rivers and water inflows at major dams, he wrote a short email to the principal investigator of the Indus river basin flood forecast project, alerting him that the model was showing “a high likelihood of elevated streamflows” 10 days down the road.

The principal investigator, Dr Peter Webster, has a quarter century of experience of working on predicting monsoonal floods in northern parts of the subcontinent. His office was down the hall from Shrestha’s. Webster opened the dashboard on his computer and, after a brief discussion with Shrestha, made a call to his contact in the World Bank to ask them to alert the Pakistani authorities that heavy rains and floods may be coming their way in 10 days’ time.

Here in Pakistan, his alert fell on deaf ears. “There is complete disinterest in our work in Pakistan,” he says in a telephone interview. The floods came as predicted. The Pakistan Meteorological Department described the August rains in 2013 as “exceptionally on higher than normal side” and the “ninth highest monthly rainfall since 1961”. Statements issued by Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), as reported in the press at the time, said more than 1.5 million people were affected by the resultant floods.

Five floods in five seasons

With flood waters having caused large-scale destruction in the first two weeks of September this year, Pakistan has just had its fifth consecutive year of monsoon-related floods. Each of the five floods was predictable with a ten-day lead time. In the case of the ones in 2012 and 2013, the forecast was actually made and an alert sent to the authorities in Pakistan by Webster’s team.

Why have there been five consecutive years of heavy rainfall followed by flooding in Pakistan? This year, Webster and his colleagues have published a large, analytical paper in which they take a close look at the storm structures that produced three consecutive years of flooding in Pakistan between 2010 and 2012.

“Striking similarities between all three floods exist,” they write, adding that the “flood-producing storms exhibited climatologically unusual structures” in all three cases. So, we had three consecutive years of highly unusual storms, each of which bore striking resemblance to each other. This suggests that the monsoon systems that have governed rainfall in northern India for millennia might be undergoing a structural change. “If these were natural phenomena, you would have seen this sort of thing occur in the past,” says Webster. “Clearly the climate has changed.”

What was so unusual about these storms? And what were the similarities between them?
Under normal conditions, weather patterns that produce rainfall in northern parts of the subcontinent differ between the eastern and western ends of the monsoon system. Over the Bay of Bengal, where the monsoon system originates, a depression sucks in high levels of moisture from the ocean air, and creates layered clouds, one on top of another, known as “stratiform clouds”, spread over a large area. The resultant storm system is “less intense, but much more widespread and productive of precipitation”. Hence, the rains in the east are gentler than they are in the west, but in both regions they cover a large area and last quite long.

In each of the three years the authors of the paper studied, large stratiform clouds “embedded with wide convective cores, rarely seen in this region” somehow travelled from the Bay of Bengal, where they are normal, across the subcontinent and unloaded their enormous cargo of moisture in a short, intense burst over Pakistan. In 2010, this system was pushed northwards, into the indentation formed by the meeting of the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush mountain ranges. Once the storm system collided with the mountains, it was pushed upwards, causing it to cool rapidly and thereby offloading its moisture in a short burst over northern Pakistan, causing flash floods.

The dashboard for the Indus river basin flood forecast model, developed at Georgia Institute of Technology, shows the forecast created on August 6, 2013. Note the forecast slider below the map, where Day 10 is highlighted. The red areas on the map show the extent of flooding forecasted in 10 days.

The dashboard for the Indus river basin flood forecast model, developed at Georgia Institute of Technology, shows the forecast created on August 6, 2013. Note the forecast slider below the map, where Day 10 is highlighted. The red areas on the map show the extent of flooding forecasted in 10 days.

But, in the subsequent two years, the same storm systems veered southwards instead, due to an absence of a south-to-north wind, appearing over Punjab and Sindh. The intensity of the rains was lower in those two years and much of the rains fell outside the Indus basin. As a result, the swelling of the rivers was also not as intense as it was in 2010.

The shifting of these Bay of Bengal storm systems towards the west is one common anomaly in each of the three flood years. Another puzzling anomaly in these three years is a link between the storms in Pakistan and an intense heat wave in eastern Europe which created a high pressure trough above the Himalayas. This high pressure system, rarely seen before, served as a natural barrier, a massive atmospheric wall running from Tibet to the northern reaches of Afghanistan, that apparently deflected an otherwise important wind that always blows over Pakistan from the Afghan plateau. That wind is dry and warm, and usually caps the moist winds coming from the Arabian Sea where the western fringe of the subcontinent’s monsoon system primarily draws its moisture from. Because this moist air is capped on top by the dry and warm air from the Afghan plateau, the moisture does not coalesce into large storm structures. But in each of the three flood years between 2010 and 2012, “[w]arm air from the Afghan plateau did not flow out over Pakistan”, reads the latest paper by Webster and his team. “Rather, a deep layer of moist air flowed into the region from the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. The high pressure trough above the Himalayas, therefore, played a crucial role in the storms of all three years,” it says — first by creating the wind patterns that caused the Bay of Bengal storm system to travel westward, then by blocking the warm dry air from the western Afghan plateau which caps the moisture the seas blow into our weather. Large moisture-laden clouds, therefore, arrived over Pakistan during each year from across the Gangetic plains and freely joined with those coming from the Arabian Sea to form gigantic storm systems over the Indus basin.

The volume of rains that fell over Pakistan in a short period of time was staggering in 2010. Cumulatively, up to 6,000 millimetres of rain fell over much of northern Pakistan that year. In the next two years, this amount declined somewhat — exceeding 2,000 millimetres in some areas in 2011 and just touching 1,000 millimetres in 2012.
In their papers, dating from one written in February 2011, Webster and his colleagues have pointed out another common theme between the three flood years: The storm systems that resulted in the floods may be highly anomalous but they were all predictable with high levels of confidence up to ten days in advance, in some cases even more. In the February 2011 paper, titled Were the 2010 Pakistan Floods Predictable?, they find that “the July 28 [2010] event was predicted almost eight days in advance with a probability larger than 60 per cent”.

Their latest paper extends the scope of the analysis further. The storm systems, that produced the floods in each of the three years studied, arose from a combination of global and regional weather patterns. The global climatic patterns can be very accurately modelled because the data required for that exercise is readily available in databases like the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), an intergovernmental organisation supported by 34 countries, and located in the UK. Forecasting specific regional storms “is not possible at this time”, although “the large-scale environments conducive to the development of [regionally directed] storm systems that produce flooding in South Asia” can be forecast with “considerable accuracy”.

To underline this point, Webster built a model for the Indus river basin. The model draws more than 40 million meteorological readings from the ECMWF database every day and runs them through a series of computational processes so complex that they require a computer server with 64 cores and a processing speed of 2.3 gigahertz to operate. The model couples these computations with river flow data from Pakistan – or whatever of it is available – and computes water flows into the Indus river as well as its tributaries that will result from the rainfall being forecast, the absorptive capacity of the terrain, the spread of vegetation, the solar energy signature over the entire Indus basin and more. It takes the system four to five hours, every day, to ingest the data and process it, before yielding a detailed forecast for the next 10 days.

The model then tells you how much rain to expect where, how much accumulation of water will occur in what region and what river flow will be at each hydrological station on each forecast day. The model began providing its first operational forecasts in August 2012. In the first few weeks of its operation, it forecast large floods in Sindh. Daily forecasts made from August 31 [2012] onwards “consistently predicted main-stem flows in the Indus to peak between September 11 and 13”, says Shrestha. They alerted the authorities in Pakistan.

As if on cue, the rains began on September 8, 2012, and turned into a deluge in a matter of days. The hardest hit part of the country was Sindh, as shown by the model 10 days earlier, where up to three million people were affected, according to the NDMA. By the end of the month, Pakistan was asking for international assistance to fight the floods.

The model can predict rain very accurately, even when it is dealing with anomalous storm patterns. But, in order to predict streamflows at precise locations, it needs river flow data from each of the hydrological structures on the Indus river system. The creators of the model, however, have found that the government of Pakistan is not willing to share this data with them. They, therefore, have developed a system to download daily reports from the Pakistan Meteorological Department website which contains some of this information.
In 2013, they updated the model further by including river flow data in it, and this is when it yielded the flood forecast in August that year, giving detailed streamflow figures as well. As a rule, the more data you can feed into the model, the more precise the results it will give. “It needs to be upgraded every year,” says Webster. As data from an outgoing year is fed into it, the model better understands the relationship between atmospheric events and the hydrology on the ground.

So how does advance alert help? The model can tell you the likelihood of a flood, its location and intensity and effects on each individual river of the Indus river system. The real game actually begins after an alert has been issued. With advance warning, embankments can be strengthened, dams can be emptied out, barrages can be reinforced, breaching priorities for embankments that lie along the path of the flood can be drawn up in time and residents can be alerted so that perishables and livestock can be moved to higher ground.

Pakistan is blessed with a highly developed river management system which can be effectively used to mitigate the full impact of a flood. For a clearer idea on how this would work, consider the floods of this year, which began due to unusually high rains over the catchment areas of the Chenab and Jhelum rivers. The first flood alert was issued by the Pakistan Meteorological Department on September 3, 2014, just over 48 hours before the flood peak arrived in Pakistan from India. When the alert was issued, water level at Mangla Dam reservoir stood at 1,227 feet (this same level had been obtaining since mid-August, at least). The Indus River System Authority (IRSA), responsible for overseeing the distribution of river water among different parts of Pakistan, had been releasing water from the dam very slowly since July 28, anticipating rains. Inflows at the dam were around 20,000 cusec during those days. Then, suddenly, on September 4, the first surge arrived, with inflows jumping to 95,000 cusec. The IRSA responded to the flood alert issued a day earlier by raising outflows only slightly — to 30,000 cusec.

The flood peak arrived on September 5, when inflows jumped to 310,000 cusec but outflows on that day were brought down to 15,000 cusec — presumably, in an attempt to arrest the floodwaters. In a single day, water level in the dam rose by eight feet – a staggering increase for a reservoir of Mangla’s size – and the water level in it touched 1,236 feet. On September 6, 2014, the inflow of water rose to 413,000 cusec and water level in the dam rose to almost 1,240 feet. Since top water level that Mangla Dam’s reservoir can reach is 1,242 feet, further increases in the water level could not be accommodated, so the dam’s spillways were opened. Outflows jumped from 15,000 cusec to 282,000 cusec on September 6, 2014.

The resultant surge in the Jhelum river combined a few days later with a similar surge travelling down the Chenab, at the confluence of these two rivers just upstream from Trimmu headworks [see diagram on pg. 57]. Trimmu is where the majority of the breaches had to be made to prevent the headworks from getting washed away. Three breaches were made, including at least one in the embankments around the barrage itself. This is where most of the flooding occurred.

With advance warning, Mangla could have been emptied out much sooner, making it possible to absorb the floodwaters surging down the Jhelum river. With no additional water flowing in from the Jhelum, the peak flood in the Chenab could have been relatively better managed at Trimmu, possibly without significant breaching of dykes. All downstream structures – Panjnad, Guddu and Sukkur – could also have easily handled the floodwaters. The flooding would not have been nearly as damaging as it has turned out to be.

Pakistan’s water managers frequently ask for more infrastructure – dams and barrages – as a flood control measure. But how will they operate this infrastructure in the absence of lead time in flood alerts, given the current state of flood forecasting in Pakistan? Without advance warning of a major flood event, along with attendant streamflow forecasts, hydrological infrastructure will only be a silent spectator to any flood, at best, and a liability to be protected by breaching embankments, at worst.


dukhtar 1

Publicity Photo

At the outset, it appears that the title Dukhtar (meaning daughter) refers to the mother-daughter relationship between the film’s protagonists, Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) and Zainab (Saleha Aref). The film, indeed, follows their story as they flee their house in northern Pakistan to stop Zainab’s father from marrying her off to an elderly tribal leader, Tor Gul (Abdullah Jaan). But director and writer Afia Nathaniel’s debut film uses the word to explore the mother-daughter relationship on multiple levels.

Right at the beginning of the film, Zainab and a friend have a secretive discussion about where babies come from. “When a woman looks at a man and the man looks back at her, she gets a child in her belly,” Zainab’s friend discretely informs her. It is insightful in the way these characters – very young girls — discuss their own future role as mothers and how a woman becomes a mother.

dukhtar 2


From the get go, Nathaniel’s film is sensitive, yet unafraid of saying things not openly discussed in Pakistan. As a bride-to-be, Zainab admires her mother’s wedding dress but she also inquires why there is blood on it. Allah Rakhi then says she will tell Zainab some ‘grown up’ things she wishes her own mother had told her before her marriage. Zainab coyly replies she already knows those things, whispering in her mother’s ear her recent discovery about where babies come from. This triggers something off in Allah Rakhi, and it is apparent that she will not let her daughter face the things she herself faced.

Dukhtar’s story is simple. There are no major plot twists and surprisingly – considering the subject matter – no melodrama. Even the problems presented by the tribal chief’s men following Zainab and her mother get resolved organically as the film progresses.

Dukhtar’s strength is how Nathaniel tells the story and the devices she uses for storytelling. Cinematography of some dream sequences, for instance, helps the audience look at the character’s subconscious and experience a dreamlike state of mind. Nathaniel is also helped by the fact that the film is set against the picturesque landscape of northern Pakistan.

dukhtar 3
Cinematography, however, is not always perfect. Many shots which could have been beautiful are out of focus. The mountainous landscape makes for demanding shooting conditions, which sometimes shows in the camera work. This is especially apparent in scenes within a moving truck. As Allah Rakhi and Zainab take refuge with a truck driver Sohail (Mohib Mirza) and the truck moves through mountainous terrain, sometimes the camera shakes so much that it is disorienting, even possibly off-putting for some in the audience, to watch.

These technical issues are more than compensated by the way actors assume their roles within the story. Aref and Mumtaz offer honest portrayals of a daughter and a mother respectively. During the course of the film, Allah Rakhi also meets her own mother (Samina Ahmad) who she wasn’t allowed to meet since her marriage at the age of fifteen. These small encounters add layers to her character both as a daughter and a mother. As the film closes, Nathaniel’s dedication note adds yet another dimension to it. The screen at the end reads: “For my mother”, which then changes to “For my motherland.”

This review is part of the Herald’s October 2014 issue.

Showcasing Pakistan


In 2001, a few months after 9/11, I was in Washington DC with some teenagers who asked me if Pakistan was a country in Eastern Europe. Within a year, however, Pakistan would forever lose that sense of anonymity and, rather than being ignored, it would be covered endlessly by hordes of foreign correspondents.

book coverCordoned in expensive hotels, limited largely to Islamabad and meeting only taxi drivers and super-elite hosts, these correspondents produced pieces (and later books) on Pakistan which were relentlessly critiqued and satirised for how clueless they were.
Yet recently when I was asked to mention my favourite books on the country, my two choices were both written by foreigners. Rahul Bhattacharya’s Pundits from Pakistan and Alice Albinia’s Empires of the Indus are based on very disparate topics – one is about a historical cricket tour and the other a history of a grand river – yet their outsider status allows both authors to see coherence to Pakistan that we often fail to see ourselves. What they also seem to have in common is a genuine love for the country, which doesn’t seem to dull their objectivity as serious authors. The books have lovely anecdotes such as Bhattacharya telling former Pakistani cricketers about their own records and legends, and Albinia explaining to tribesmen how Alexander the Great  travelled down the same valleys they are traversing. In effect, they display the ability to show Pakistan to itself.
Peter Oborne, the author of Wounded Tiger — A History of Cricket in Pakistan, is certainly similar in having crafted a wonderfully original narrative of the history of Pakistan, one underpinned by a meticulous approach to research but motivated by a passionate desire to reframe how the cricketing world looks at the country. A small, and immensely satisfying, glimpse of this approach can immediately be seen in the preface, where Oborne tackles the rather Orientalist views espoused by Indian diplomat and politician Shashi Tharoor in an earlier book, Shadows Across the Playing Field. Oborne’s deconstruction of Tharoor’s claims is done using facts rather than opinions, and his detailed rebuttal feels definitive, and long overdue.
The book is divided into four separate parts. The first two, The Age of Kardar and The Age of Khan, follow events in a chronological manner. The latter two, The Age of Expansion and The Age of Isolation, are organised thematically, with essays on topics such as Reverse Swing and Match Fixing which go back and forth across time to tell the story.
I found the part covering the period from Independence to 1975 most enjoyable and revelatory. At first I thought this was a consequence of the fact that I knew little of that era before this book, but this is also the longest part (more than a third of the book’s 624 pages) and the one where Oborne spends considerable time in developing the socio-political context of cricket in Pakistan.

Mohammad Ali/White Star

Mohammad Ali/White Star

Famous stories from partition, like Fazal Mahmood’s near escape or the Mohammad family’s travails, are important ones that needed repeating. But it is tales such as the intrigue which led to Pakistan’s first captain getting replaced before the country played its first official Test (Mian Mohammad Saeed replaced by A H Kardar) which are both wonderfully recounted and furnished with exhaustive research. It is also a very enlightening section, since there are some stunning similarities between the chutzpah and daring of Pakistan’s early successes and their latter moments of glory. From inspired spells and match-winning centuries to dropped catches and humiliating collapses, Oborne works hard to establish the genesis of the legend of Pakistan cricket as a whole. He shows how the ‘mercurial’ tag that came to define Pakistan is a result of luck, difficult political conditions and a ferocious desire to prove doubters wrong.
Interestingly, for an author who contributes to some of the UK’s most conservative newspapers, Oborne’s other theme in this section, and for much of the rest of the book, is an evisceration of British condescension towards Pakistani cricket. His recollections of the shameful ‘ragging’ of a Pakistani umpire by a touring Marylebone Cricket Club side in the 1950s ends up taking more space than later discussions on match-fixing and the 2009 terrorist attack on Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. While some international reviewers have seen this as proof of Oborne’s bias, it is also indicative of the shameful way Pakistan was and is treated and written about on the world stage.
The remainder of the book unfolds at a more hurried pace, as there are a huge number of matches and events to cover and the author cedes the control of the narrative to these. The quality of research remains just as exemplary, but the narrative becomes drier. The switch over to the theme based essays helps address some of these problems, but it doesn’t quite reach the reading pleasure of the first part, where Oborne takes more time to draw out characters and establish subtexts.
And that perhaps is one thing I would critique about the book. After having established the early history so wonderfully, the reader is left asking for more in the latter pages. Events such as the 1992 World Cup are not quite done justice to and often seem to rush past without being fully appreciated. Yet that could be a conscious decision, since so much literature already exists on these subjects. The same logic could be extended to issues such as fixing and terrorism, which (thankfully for me but perhaps disappointingly for others) he gets through quickly, even if assiduously.
Ultimately, Oborne’s triumph, and strength, is to shed light on the lesser known areas. The essay on Women’s Cricket in Pakistan – to give one example – is not only revelatory, but dramatic and disillusioning in equal measures.
In the end, perhaps the greatest testament to Pakistani cricket is Oborne himself. Reading the book and his impassioned appeals for the country to be viewed differently and more sympathetically, you come to realise that he made all this effort to understand our society purely because of the love and excitement Pakistani cricket generated within him. It is a noble and romantic effort, and makes you wonder why more of us can’t do the same.
cricket furtherreading

The politics of Anti-politics


PTI supporters at the protest sit-in in Islamabad - Photo by Tanveer Shehzad

PTI supporters at the protest sit-in in Islamabad – Photo by Tanveer Shehzad

Perhaps, it is true that Pakistani population is fed up with country’s political system or democracy, the word we use to describe our political structures. The disenchantment is rampant. Everyone is talking about corruption prevalent in the system and cronyism that political class promotes after coming to power. The word “democracy” is losing its allure and gloss. Drawing room chats start with the theme of failure of democracy to solve basic problems and end at the conclusion that old guard such as Zardaris and Sharifs have again joined hands not to protect the system but to start looting and plundering country’s wealth anew.

Social media is full of discussions that label democracy as a system of the corrupt and for the corrupt.  Watching the video of a new song (that one friend has posted on his Facebook page) that blames every ill in the society on democracy left bitter taste. The video shows singers singing a song that is punctuated by a refrain, “And democracy goes on”, after the lyrics describe with relish the rampant corruption in government’s ranks, killings in Karachi and terrorism and militancy in North Western part of the country, as if directly accusing political system – that was revived only six years back after a military rule of nine years – for all these problems.

I have tried many times to convince the people holding such views that had there been a continuous political process after the enactment of 1973 constitution, our society would not have been afflicted with these problems. My main line of argument in these discussions have been to advocate that Zia’s martial law was directly responsible for corrupting the political class, and it was during his reign that the war in Afghanistan introduced Kalashnikov culture in Pakistani society.

But at the end of every such discussion, I came back home with the realisation that perhaps I am not a very good orator, or perhaps my sense of recent Pakistani history is flawed as every time I have failed miserably to impress my companions, who are otherwise fairly educated people. Or perhaps a more plausible explanation for this indifference could be that these people are focusing on the present condition of the country (which is undoubtedly miserable) while remaining totally detached from history and its impact on the present situation.

Supporters advocating this view are quite vocal on mainstream media while social media sees them opining in shape of blogs, facebook statuses and tweets, bulldozing the views of those defending democracy. Their slogans and mottos are blunt: democracy is corrupt, political system is flawed (because it brings Maryam and Bilawal into power) and political class is both inept and corrupt. This “anti-politics” position now has two fine gentlemen – Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri – as their chief spokesmen.  In the initial two and a half weeks of their sit-in, both Tahir-ul-Qadri and Imran Khan adopted a highly anti-politics position in their rhetoric.

Both of them were not simply attacking the Sharif government, but were critical of the whole political system and the way politics was being carried out in the country.  Tahir-ul-Qadri was more aggressive in this. He wanted all the representative institutions to be dissolved immediately and not even once took the pain to explain what would replace these institutions in case his demands are met. Imran Khan was more circumspect, but, nonetheless, he was no less anti-politics in his rhetoric.

PTI leader Imran Khan

PTI leader Imran Khan waving to his supporters at his Azadi march in Islamabad last month – Photo by Tanveer Shehzad

For them, politics is simply unimportant. Goals are important. They want corruption free Pakistan. They want to put an end to hereditary politics. They want that no one should be allowed to be disrespectful towards the army and its leadership, all commendable objectives, no doubt. But the problem is how to achieve these goals? Sometimes, while listening to anti-politics views in mainstream media, one gets the feeling that these are completely apolitical people and groups, who want to achieve high goals, but are not interested in the processes, legal, constitutional and political processes.

To demand the end of hereditary politics is fairly modern and liberal ideal. One way of achieving this objective is to engineer an army intervention (I am making purely hypothetical argument) and get an ordinance promulgated that Maryam Nawaz and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari are barred from holding public office for the rest of their lives. But will this solve the problem? No, it will not.

For instance, let’s assume that everyone in Islamabad’s power corridor agree that the popularity of Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in Pakistani society are evils. Even then there is no way these “evils” could be removed with the power of an executive order. Zia-ul-Haq and Musharraf issued thousands of executive orders to remove the “evils” of
PPP’s popularity and Nawaz Sharif popularity in their respective eras, but failed miserably.

After Zia died in a plane crash in 1988, the military and its intelligence agencies tried their best to prevent Benazir Bhutto from coming to power, but she emerged triumphant in 1988 elections, in the face of opposition from Pakistan’s state machinery. Similarly, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) emerged as the second largest party in the parliament in 2008, despite the fact that Musharraf’s intelligence forcibly hijacked his party in the wake of October 1999 coup.

This is the lesson of politics. PPP has deep roots in Pakistani society (if somebody has any doubt, he should take a cab and travel through Punjab and Sindh). If somebody or some groups dislike this reality of Pakistani politics, they should jump into the arena, and try to convince the people that PPP is “corrupt”, that it is a party of a family, that you are facing the danger of being enslaved by the third generation of Bhuttos. Nawaz Sharif has a popular vote bank in urban areas of Central Punjab. If somebody dislikes this reality, they should go out and te1ll the people that if you vote for Nawaz Sharif you are facing the danger of being enslaved by the second generation of Sharif.

I am not sure, but it can be a very powerful message. But all this has to be done while remaining within the ambit of existing rules of the game. The problem with this “anti-politics” group is that after coming face to face with this juggernaut of Pakistani politics, they still try to look for short cuts. The short cut is simple: Assemble a few thousand people in D-chowk of Islamabad and wait for Army intervention (then army comes into power, waste nine to eleven years of nation’s precious time and then either Maryam Nawaz or Bilawal Bhutto would come to power, riding a sympathy wave).

The reality of army’s dominant role in country’s power structure provides fuel to the politics of anti-politics groups. The hope of army intervention is always at the back of their minds, when these people with anti-political views come on the streets. Army’s more than conspicuous capacity to dislodge any representative government give a push to the anti-politics groups in Pakistani society to keep degrading the political system in public discourse.

The argument that army could put the things right gets oxygen from the flawed understanding of history of military rules in Pakistan. I still remember the first speech of General Musharraf on the night of October 1999 coup in which he vowed that he would promote inter-provincial harmony, and when he resigned from his office in 2008, there was full scale insurgency raging on in Balochistan and the Baloch rebels were killing Punjabi settlers even in Quetta.

“Anti-politics” views are surely the invention of Pakistan’s third military ruler, General Zia-ul-Haq, who, throughout his tenure went out of the way to curb usual political activities in the country. Newspaper censorship was imposed, political parties were banned and right to assemble for political activities was prohibited. The only general elections that were held in his tenure were on non-party basis. He held a local body election to raise a political class, imbued with anti-politics thinking and immersed in patriotic feelings that see army as the center of gravity in Pakistani society that would rival the traditional political forces in the country.

When he came face to face with the political reality that PPP was still the most popular party in Pakistani society, he invented the theory that the society has a ‘silent majority’ which is fed up with the traditional politicking and this ‘silent majority’ is solidly behind his military rule. This theory of ‘silent majority’ was continuously put to use in the intervening period between two martial laws. The file titled ‘Silent majority’ was still lying in GHQ gathering dust, when Pakistan’s fourth military ruler, General Musharraf picked it up and started harping along the similar themes.

General Musharraf and his cronies were as eloquent as their predecessors in convincing the world that there is a mysterious ‘silent majority’, which is not only “anti-politics” but is fed up with the antics of traditional politicians. This silent majority, however, did nothing when Pakistani voters sent PPP back into power corridors in 2008, which, in turn, forced Musharraf to resign from the office of President.

Since the ouster of Musharraf, there is, however, a qualitative change in the way politics of “anti-politics” is being conducted in Pakistani society. In the past the political forces which acted as military’s proxies were, however, not wholly anti-politics in their attitudes. The religious right, which Zia co-opted into his regime, may be an exception to this rule. Jamaat-e-Islami’s religious ideology and the way it wholly supported Zia regime in the process of Islamisation of Law could be described as anti-politics. However, rest of the political forces, which allied themselves with military governments in the past 30 years, remained committed to their political constituencies, while serving the interests of military governments.

Tahir-ul-Qadri at his Inquilab march in Islamabad last month - Photo by Tanveer Shehzad

Tahir-ul-Qadri at his Inquilab march in Islamabad last month – Photo by Tanveer Shehzad

The advent of religious maverick like Tahir-ul-Qadri and his relatively more secular partner Imran Khan has introduced the qualitative change in the system. Qadri is staunchly anti-politics. He attacks the very basis of this system which provides legitimacy to the state and the governments. Ironically, Imran Khan is not lagging far behind as his frustrations reaches saturation point. In the initial period of his political career, Imran Khan did support military government, but most of the serious political analysts agreed that he showed strong signs of transforming into a traditional political party with stakes in the system over the years.

What compelled Imran to change his natural trajectory of political development is not very difficult to discern. He was frustrated with the system that provided him no remedy against the alleged ‘election fraud’, which, he honestly believes, led to his defeat in the last parliamentary elections. So the people witnessed Imran Khan attacking the very legitimacy of political institutions. The main reason the ten political parties represented in the parliament so easily reached a consensus to support Nawaz Sharif and oppose Imran Khan’s sit-in was that the tone and tenor of his (Imran Khan) speeches was so familiar to what they have been hearing about politicians from Musharraf’s military regime in its nine years tenure.

Is there an alternative to politics? The question will appear frivolous to any one belonging to a society which have vibrant political institutions. To Pakistanis this question appears as natural, primarily because they have been led to believe that the military governments are an alternative to “filth” of politics in the society. They believe that when military ousts a civilian government it puts an end to politics. Generally, people believe inter-party rivalries, electioneering, holding of rallies and protest marches are all that they need to know about politics. To them, politics is optional and any society could opt out of it, if it wants to.

This is not surprising as famous historian of political ideas, Francis Fukuyama in his recent book the Origins of Political Order narrate the brief history of how people around world fantasise about a situation where they will be no state and no politics. Pakistani version of this fantasy is military government. Like so many other political thinker, Fukuyama so aptly describes in his book that absence of politics is always chaos and anarchy, and not utopia of any kind.  So the question before us is not whether to have politics in our society or not? Because politics is not optional, instead the question is how to organise politics in our society?

In our context, two available options for organising politics in our society are, a) Through constitutional means: in which power is vested in a person or a group of persons who contest elections and legitimately assume power, b) Through barrel of the gun: in which two or three generals take control of the army and the country in the dark of the night. It’s not that army generals don’t indulge in politics after staging coups. Politics is primarily about distribution of resources in the society and this is what every government (whether military or civilian) has to decide after coming to power.

In the past, economic policies of Ayub Khan’s military government led to regional imbalance in economic development between East and West Pakistan, which eventually resulted in the secession of the former. Military takes decisions in a non-transparent manner behind closed doors and for social stability they co-opt part of traditional and corrupt political elite.

Ironically, army, this time, did not have to put together an “Anti-politics” coalition, as they have always done in the past. This time they had ready-made options available to them. The latest assertion of “anti-politics” attitudes in country’s politics has been a forceful one. There is every chance that the politics of “anti-politics” will become a permanent feature of Pakistani political scene. After all, popular figure like Imran Khan and a powerful orator like Tahir-ul-Qadri are now two of its most vocal spokesmen.

I think the government should not misjudge their strength by the small number of people they have been able to attract to their sit-ins, in front of the parliament house. Their strength should be judged by the nature of the discourse that it taking place in the streets and private drawing rooms. Economic hardships, which are increasing by every passing day, will increase the disenchantment with the political system, thus swelling the ranks of anti-politics groups. If democracy does nothing to solve people’s economic problems, there is not even slim chance that they will turn pro-politics.

The funny side of…inventing history


Illustration by Fahad Naveed/Herald

Having been around the country, I have heard tales and tales of which I have a few favourites.
The most recent, gleaned in Ormara on the seaboard, is also the most preposterous — simply because naval officers are passing it off as gospel. Since everyone has heard Alexander of Macedonia passed through Makran (and no one has read any history), they have forced that poor man to posthumously march along the beach. Ormara naturally fell on his route.
Now, Ormara is a strange name that they could not attribute to anyone else, so a local historian has created a general in Alexander’s army who answered to the name of Ormur. Funnily, the letter r in both syllables of this famous general’s name are palatal — a sound that does not exist in Greek! But who cares as long as the place name can be explained.
I have heard that dignitaries visiting the naval base are ‘briefed’ by an officer about the exploits of General Ormur. On the last trip there, I was told that the navy plans on erecting a statue of an equestrian General Ormur, raised sword in hand, at a crossing inside the naval base!
Then, there is the story at Agor, east of Ormara. On a small hillock, smack by the Makran Coastal Highway, there is a group of ruinous Chawkandi style burials that date to about 300 years ago. Some idiot has put up a large sign by the highway for all to notice. The sign informs passing ignorant masses that these are ‘Tombs of Soldiers of Mohammad bin Qasim’. Where on earth did some moron get this information is what I would like to know.
And damn the historical evidence that neither Alexander nor MbQ travelled this way. It is of no consequence that they both used the route between Turbat (Kech), Awaran and Lasbela.
Then, there is my old pet about tunnels under every freaking fort in Pakistan. In Lahore, ‘tourist guides’ have tunnels going to Delhi and Srinagar; in Derawar, tunnels to Bikaner and in Rohtas and Attock to everywhere else in the world. I tried to reason with every teller of tunnel tales that we never read, in any history, of kings travelling by tunnel — but no one believed me.
So, I decided to have some fun with the self-proclaimed and acclaimed ‘guides’ of the Lahore Fort. In true cloak-and-dagger manner, I took one aside and, offering him a few thousand rupees, told him to show me the tunnels. The money he was to get after we had been inside.
Why, he asked. Well, said I, we all know the tunnels went in every direction, right? The man nodded excitedly. Putting my arm around his shoulders, I drew him closer still and told him I had found the opening of one tunnel at its other terminus in London.
The man was incredulous. I said I was as serious as death and, being a manpower exporter, I hoped to set up business sending illegal immigrants to old Blighty by the tunnels. The man became more sceptical. If he showed me the tunnel under Lahore Fort, I said, he could be a 50-50 partner with me. Why, imagine him and I stuffing future Britons into the tunnel at Lahore Fort and they popping out in Marble Arch and Hackney and Slough, from the sewers, like a whole bunch of cockroaches.
I think I did not use the right word for future British nationals because now he was totally untrusting. But then his colleagues, who I until then had kept at bay, mobbed us to know what we were about and the whole spiel fell to pieces.
As I was leaving, I told them that the Mughals were technically simply incapable of digging tunnels of any length. If digging tunnels hundreds of kilometres long was such easy work, why on earth was it taking us forever to build a few kilometres under the Lowari Pass to Chitral?
But we don’t think. We only manufacture history.

All the king’s men

When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s new cabinet was appointed in June 2013, one common observation was that Pakistan’s newest set of federal ministers and special advisors did not represent a significant departure from the past, both in terms of the names associated with different ministerial portfolios, and in the underlying logic that seemed to govern most of the appointments. As is always the case in Pakistan, the decision to allot cabinet positions seemed to be driven more by broader political considerations than a desire to link expertise with particular administrative and developmental goals.

Column 1 Nawaz Sharif chairing the first cabinet meeting after becoming prime minister in June 2013

Nawaz Sharif chairing the first cabinet meeting after becoming prime minister in June 2013

At one level, this is not strange or even unique to Pakistan. Around the world, ministerial appointments are often the outcome of a variety of different factors. For example, aspirants to high public office can sometimes find themselves being rewarded for years of service to their party or personal loyalty to their leader. Similarly, individuals are often made members of the cabinet to ensure their continued support for the government, particularly when the recipients of such patronage possess the capacity to defect to other factions or parties, or even create some of their own, which could pose serious threats to the leadership of their original party.

A good contemporary example of this can be seen in the recent political history of the United Kingdom, where the three tenures of the Blair government were marked by continuous, often acrimonious, conflict between Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown. When Brown himself went on to become prime minister, it was arguably the result of the decade-long split within the Labour Party that had been papered over by the tacit understanding that, at some point, Blair would make way for his main rival within the party. Not unsurprisingly, Brown’s ascent to power brought with it corresponding changes to the cabinet, with Blairities being replaced by individuals who had long been aligned with Brown.

Following from this, one of the paradoxical features of cabinet appointments is that, quite often, the more important the position is perceived to be, the less likely it is that those selected for that position would have been chosen for their expertise in that field. This is partly due to the nature of the modern state; ministers are expected to act as administrators and agenda-setters, channeling the demands of their party leadership and voters through professional bureaucracies staffed with experts who undertake the actual work of policy making. In this context, expert knowledge is not a prerequisite for running a department, although it can be useful. Senior cabinet positions, however, represent tremendous rewards for loyalty and service, as well as incentives to not rebel or defect.

In the case of Pakistan, this would certainly appear to be true, as successive leaders have used cabinet positions as a means through which to reward allies and secure themselves against threats to their power, with capability and expertise arguably coming in as very distant, secondary considerations. General (retd) Pervez Musharraf leaned heavily on his supporters in the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam (PMLQ) when it came to assigning ministerial portfolios, and the same was true of the most recent Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government, run by a cabinet full of individuals aligned with former president Asif Ali Zardari and his supporters in the party, as well as individuals from parties in coalition with the PPP at the national level. The current Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) cabinet – with 19 members from Punjab, many of whom are staunch party loyalists personally tied to Nawaz Sharif – is no different.

Finance Minister Ishaq Dar with Dr Ahsan Iqbal on his right

Finance Minister Ishaq Dar with Dr Ahsan Iqbal on his right

Some of the choices that have been made by Nawaz Sharif appear more obvious than others. The presence of Ishaq Dar as finance minister, for example, is unsurprising; in addition to arguably possessing the expertise and experience for the post, Dar is widely recognised as being one of Nawaz Sharif’s closest confidantes, and is also related to him through marriage. The same is true for party stalwarts like Khawaja Asif, Chaudhry Nisar, Pervaiz Rashid, and Ahsan Iqbal, all of whom have been associated with the Sharifs and the PMLN for decades, and none of whom deserted the party during the Musharraf era. In addition to allegedly forming the core of Nawaz Sharif’s closest advisors within the party and the government, it is clear that placing them in charge of the country’s most important ministries is representative of an attempt to ensure that there is as little conflict and dissent at the highest levels of government as possible.

This is perhaps also reflected by Nawaz Sharif’s evident desire to informally involve Shahbaz Sharif in the workings of the federal government, despite the latter’s responsibilities as the chief minister of Punjab. Clearly, perhaps as a result of the military coup of 1999 and the mass desertions and defections that characterised the collapse of his last government (and the subsequent creation of the PMLQ), Nawaz Sharif appears to have placed a tremendous premium on personal loyalty in his current round of cabinet appointments.

The possibility that Nawaz Sharif may have learnt some lessons from the experiences of 1999 can also be seen in his decision to retain the portfolio of foreign minister for himself (with Sartaj Aziz acting as a special advisor) as well as, until recently, the defense ministry (now headed by Khawaja Asif). More than anything else, this seems to signal a desire to wrest control of these subjects from the military, which has long sought to dominate decision making in these areas. Given his past history with the military establishment, which essentially introduced him to politics in the 1980s before removing him from the political arena in 1999, it is not surprising to see that Nawaz Sharif would want to assert the dominance of the civilian government in areas that should, by all rights, have never been under the purview of the military in the first place. Whether or not this largely symbolic move will be able to achieve this outcome remains to be seen.

Khawaja Asif,  minister for portfolio of Water and Power, and Defence in a press conference with Abid Sher Ali, state minister for water and power

Khawaja Asif, minister for portfolio of Water and Power, and Defence in a press conference with Abid Sher Ali, state minister for water and power

Before analysing the remainder of Nawaz Sharif’s cabinet, it is necessary to pay some attention to the dynamics of electoral campaigning and competition in Pakistan. At present, the country’s politics continues to be dominated by entrenched, dynastic politicians who make use of their economic and social power, as well as linkages to the state and other influential political actors, to provide patronage to their subordinates, and to mobilise voters to ensure their success in electoral contests. Parties in Pakistan, rather than being vehicles for the aggregation, articulation and pursuit of popular demands through ideological and programmatic appeals, as well as efficient organisational apparatuses, are instead beholden to local-level politicians who can provide the parties with electoral support. While the reasons behind the power of such local actors are many and varied, the fact that they, rather than the parties, control the dynamics of electoral competition, gives them a disproportionate ability to dictate terms to their parties once in power.

The reality of local level electoral politics in Pakistan needs to be tied to another important point, namely the purpose of pursuing public office in the first place. Far from being motivated by civic duty or a desire for public service, campaign propaganda notwithstanding, most aspirants to positions in the government see their goals primarily as a means through which to extract rents. Starting from the lowest rungs of the revenue administration and police, and going all the way up to the highest echelons of the bureaucracy and elected office, individuals linked to the state in Pakistan possess the power and the means to make use of their position to further their own interests, and those of their supporters.

The ability to get things done in this fashion lies at the core of Pakistan’s patronage-based politics, and those who maintain an interest in holding on to their power necessarily continue to seek means through which to do so. More often than not, this involves a process of negotiation and bargaining, through which strong electoral candidates offer their services to parties and party leaders in exchange for some kind of tangible reward. Crucially, politicians also use their strategic position to extract greater concessions from different parties, shopping around for the best deal that can guarantee their post-election prospects.

In this context, the use of cabinet appointments to discharge political obligations becomes more evident. The fact that four members of the cabinet were formerly part of the PMLQ before joining the PMLN might be taken to indicate precisely the sort of deal described above, especially given that the ministers in question won elections in competitive constituencies where their support was crucial to the success of the PMLN. The same might also be said of Sikandar Hayat Bosan, who quit the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, defeated a strong rival from the PPP in Multan, and has subsequently been rewarded with the ministry of food security and research. Similarly, the few non-Punjabi members of the cabinet are all associated with parties explicitly aligned with the PMLN and, therefore, against its rivals in the other provinces. Interestingly, it is worth noting that, with the exception of Zahid Hamid, who was originally allotted the law ministry, former and current members of other political parties who have been given cabinet positions have all been assigned ministries that are of arguably lesser importance and significance, a fact that could be reflective of how the granting of ministerial portfolios has less to do with actual governance, and more to do with how the positions themselves accord benefits to those who hold them.

Prime minister Nawaz Sharif in consultation with his brother, Shahbaz Sharif who is also the Punjab Chief minister

Prime minister Nawaz Sharif in consultation with his brother, Shahbaz Sharif who is also the Punjab Chief minister

The observation that cabinet appointments are payments for services rendered can also be used to explain another feature of past and present Pakistani cabinets, namely their size. With 17 federal ministers, nine state ministers, and four special advisors, the current cabinet, while not the largest in Pakistan’s history (that dubious distinction goes to the previous PPP government, with a cabinet comprised of over 50 ministers), is still sizeable in its own right. While the existence of many cabinet positions is clearly necessary (for example, those of defence and finance ministers), others do not intuitively appear to be essential and could easily be folded into other departments. As has been the case in the past, the expansion and contraction of the Pakistani cabinet is in no small part due to the need to reward select individuals.

Comprising individuals personally loyal to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and strategically valuable to the PMLN, the current cabinet does not represent a significant departure from those that have preceded it. To the extent that it is possible to use his cabinet appointments as a means through which to discern Sharif’s approach to governance during his third tenure in government, it seems clear that he wishes to surround himself with faces he can trust while, at the same time, rewarding a broader circle of friends, allies, and opportunists. Time only will tell if this cabinet can deliver on the electoral promises made by the PMLN. For the time being, it appears to be business as usual in Pakistani politics.

Dr Hassan Javid is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He has a PhD in Sociology from the London School of Economics.

Is the Nato blockade helping or hurting Pakistan?

It all erupted in early November, when Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan vowed to block North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) supply routes to Afghanistan in a bid to end US drone strikes in the country. Prompted by the drone attack which killed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Hakimullah Mehsud at a moment when, Khan argued, peace talks seemed a real possibility, and with the support of its ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), the PTI led anti-drone protests which have since rocked parts of the country. But while Nato routes have so far been successfully arrested – amid US threats to cut billions’ worth of aid money – is the blockade helping or hurting Pakistan? Are we taking a stand for the human rights of our drone victims when the government won’t, or using domestic unrest to pursue foreign policy interests?

Pakistan NATO Blockade

The drone issue pits the moral with the practical: The senseless suffering of a population on the one hand, and the intricacies of negotiating an allied partnership, however toxic, with the most powerful country on earth on the other. The Pakistani state has long been accused of publicly condemning drones while secretly supporting them — perhaps, such duplicity and lack of clarity cannot but invite individualist and disunited approaches to the drone issue such as Khan’s. While the likelihood of protesting our way to the cessation of drone strikes is close to nil, especially given the alternative supply routes available to the US (however costly), the question remains: When the country cannot even unite around a single policy, what hope does the PTI have of single-handedly achieving its lofty goal?
“This is a tactical success for the party’s protest,” insisted Shireen Mazari, the PTI’s information secretary. “However, strategic success will come when the US commits to stop drone attacks on Pakistan.” Nevertheless, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif warned that isolation caused by the protests could only hurt Pakistan. “We live in a globalised world where no one can afford isolation at any level,” he said. Meanwhile, officials assured US Defence Secretary of State Chuck Hagel of “immediate action” to resolve the crisis during the latter’s visit to Islamabad.

Now, we are faced with numerous practical concerns: However unsavoury the realisation, Pakistan cannot afford to lose the billions in US aid that it receives each year. Moreover, transporting Nato supplies is an industry in itself. On December 19, 2013, PTI activists distributed gur and shawls to disgruntled truckers who complained about potentially losing their jobs. A forwarding agent involved in the Nato supply business told the daily Dawn on condition of anonymity, “Since [the] Nato supply business is stalled, the money circulation capacity of local businessmen has strained and foreign exchange has also stopped coming from foreign firms.” Trucking companies also charge up to 5,000 rupees per day for the number of days the trucks are delayed, and between 30 to 120 US dollars per container to the final recipient of the shipment, which is either Karachi or Afghanistan. In the case of the latter, Pakistan must front the Afghan companies’ fees until the supplies arrive there.

Yet, morally speaking, is one using economics to justify an occupation next door? Is one saying that the US dollars weigh more than civilian blood in drone-affected areas? The PTI may say so. But if human rights, justice and self-determination are what Khan’s party is fighting for, then it cannot continue to ignore the pandemic loss of life inflicted by the TTP, nor the oppressive militant rule so many Pakistanis live and die under. A life is a life; does it matter who fires the bullet?

Turning a blind eye to local killers and demanding an end to foreign ones (who are ostensibly after the same guys we are) obscures who our real enemies are. In fact, a recent report composed by 16 intelligence agencies across the US said that the Afghan Taliban and other militant groups will increase in strength by 2017, which will no doubt have implications back home. The inability to ask the right questions or develop a coherent stance on militancy proves that our blood is cheap — even to us. Are we surprised that the Americans find it cheap too?

— Compiled from news reports

Forum: Management Talk

Over the last few weeks, the federal government has made several key appointments, including those of the new Chief Justice of Pakistan and the new army chief. Yet, many other important positions like the Chief Election Commissioner and the chairman of Pakistan International Airlines remain vacant. Amid the debate about who suits these jobs best, other questions arise – does it really matter who runs an institution? Is ignoring merit in such appointments the only problem? What else should be done to improve the performance of state and government run institutions?

Adnan Qadir

Adnan Qadir

Ilhan Niaz

Ilhan Niaz

Osama Siddique

Osama Siddique

To discuss these questions, the Herald invited Adnan Qadir Khan, the acting deputy executive director of the International Growth Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Osama Siddique, associate professor of law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences and Ilhan Niaz, assistant professor of history at the Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.

Is institutional performance linked to appointments at high offices?
Yes 100%  No 0%  [Online poll conducted during the live discussion on Herald's website] 

Herald. What is a suitable criterion to judge the performance of a public-sector organisation, state institution or government department?
Osama Siddique. Essentially, their performance is to be gauged by determining if their actual output is in accordance with their stated purpose.
Ilhan Niaz. There are three key elements that can be used to judge their performance. First is the extent to which their internal organisational and administrative set-up is managed in a manner consistent with the law and basic principles such as merit or dedication to provide service. Second is the extent to which they are able to cope with the circumstances and policy demands of the government within their presumed radius of competence. Third is the public perception of a particular institution. If you apply these three elements to the police force, for example, you will find that its internal organisation is marred by massive arbitrary interference. Thus, it cannot manage itself. It is materially and psychologically ill-equipped to deal with ordinary criminal activity as well as threats of a more serious nature and is widely perceived as abusive by the public.

Herald. Can highly qualified and experienced individuals turn around failing institutions on their own?
Niaz. No, I don’t think that simply appointing qualified people is enough in itself, though it can be a good place to start.
Siddique. It is increasingly unlikely for individuals mavericks to do the trick. It has been tried before and does not work. This is because various institutional issues are deeply embedded, as are the mafias that support the inertia which fails individual reformers. Often times, laws and frameworks that govern these institutions are outdated. Also, a clash of culture takes place when a new entrant tries to make sweeping changes to an institution. I must also confess that, as Pakistanis, we seem to have a fascination for knights in shining armours, but in the real world there are no quick fixes that can be undertaken by one maverick.
Adnan Qadir Khan. Individual leadership matters to some extent but not too much since performance is constrained by the institutional context and the rules of the game.

Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani (left), senior judge of the Supreme Court, took oath as the new Chief Justice of Pakistan on December 24, 2013.

Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani (left), senior judge of the Supreme Court, took oath as the new Chief Justice of Pakistan on December 24, 2013.

Herald. What can then be done to improve these institutions?
Niaz. The basic reform needed is to entrust personnel management functions in state organisations, like promotions, transfers and discipline, to neutral bodies, thereby clipping the wings of both the political leadership and senior civil servants when it comes to interfering in the running of these institutions. The arbitrary exercise of power has brought Pakistan’s institutions to their present state of crisis.

Siddique. For a long time, public sector institutions have been used to provide jobs to political constituencies. They have become large, inefficient and ungainly as a result. It is important to ensure that those who want to continue working in these organisations are subject to some meaningful additional training and are required to pass certain hurdles so that some of the fat can be eliminated. Also, having stringent and transparent hiring frameworks will ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated and a new culture of merit is steadily introduced.
Khan. Traditionally, the discussion of institutional working has mostly been dominated by such questions as how to control the behaviour/performance of public/political agents, how to provide the right kind of incentives and how to hold public institutions accountable? However, lately the discourse has also highlighted the key role of individuals and how they are selected. This is a key question, in politics especially — how do you encourage the entry of good leaders and promote the exit of bad ones?

How can a neutral body effectively manage appointments?
Siddique. In principle, the idea of neutral bodies is a good one but one real problem is that such bodies are rare, and where they do exist they don’t have the required capacity. This makes me wonder if the idea of following corporate principles of appointing an objective board of directors is at all realistic for the institutions of the state and the government.
Niaz. Perhaps the best example of a neutral body is the public service commission. In Pakistan, as in India, initial recruitment to the civil service is based on competitive examinations. But once the recruitment is done, arbitrary interference and arbitrary management become so rife that performance is compromised.
The committees that the government has set up for choosing the heads of institutions and departments are all well and good, but unless they have fixed terms and statutory powers their recommendations, however wise, can always be undermined by executive interference.
Siddique. I visualise a body which is hands-off and involves many people with diverse perspectives on management. But these people should not be bureaucrats in the old mould. Selecting one rather than the other will still involve some political discretion, but the appointees will have to meet some basic and fairly high qualifications themselves.

Herald. Can there be a single criterion for appointments to offices as varied as the Chief of Army Staff and the chairman of the PIA?
Siddique. Well, some of these appointments are already visualised by the constitution and others are outside its ambit. So, obviously, any change in the process requires different approaches for different institutions. In principle, some appointments do justify greater political discretion than others. The army is different from PIA in this sense. For the latter, the expertise to run a large technical enterprise is the primary consideration; the criterion for appointments in the army, on the other hand, is not as simple as it is in the case of for PIA.
The foremost criteria should be relevant qualifications, relevant expertise and demonstrated performance in the field — all determinable on the basis of rigorous, objective and transparent evaluative indicators. While the first two are meant to ensure the technical knowledge and skills requisite for the job, the third is necessary to ensure suitability and ability to deliver good results.
Khan. The first issue in Pakistan is that the basic norms of governance are violated. For instance, if a supposedly neutral and meritocratic public appointee is perceived to have been selected on non-meritocratic considerations, this undermines trust in the system and subverts governance. This will more than outweigh any potential efficiency gain brought by the appointee.
I think we can use multiple criteria — one relates to the process of selection, another to outcomes or performance. The first one is covered if the right process has been followed in the appointments; the second one is covered if the performance justifies the selection. Still another way of looking at it is to see if, based on the information at hand, the selection is justified before the appointment is made. Selection should be based on merit and equity which I believe are good predictors for future performance.
Niaz. Going into our administrative history, different committees on institutional reforms have advocated the same thing – statutory neutral bodies modeled on the public service commissions to select people for high offices. Starting with the police committee of 1985, going on to the law and order commission of 1993 and again Zafar Iqbal Rathore’s note to the then interior minister in 1999 — everyone has said the same thing. But rather than thinking of a single mechanism, it would perhaps be better to strengthen mechanisms within each institution and minimise political interferences.
In Pakistan, it is rather difficult to apply any positive and coherent framework for managing the institutions of the state and government owing to the frequency of transfers in critical institutions, especially the police, taxation bodies and general administration. Unless such arbitrary transfer is brought under control, one cannot reasonably expect long-term improvement of the performance of our institutions and departments.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif sits with newly appointed Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif sits with newly appointed Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif.

Herald. How can the problem of political/executive interference in the affairs of state institutions, organisations and government departments be resolved?
Siddique. First, we must differentiate between necessary or desirable discretion and ad hoc or potentially problematic interferences dictated by malafides or in the pursuit of parochial interests. Committees and commissions – appointed transparently, on merit, with legal cover for their actions and prescriptions and comprising multiple members – are one way to ensure that collusion and interference is resisted. At the same time, additional steps need to be taken to empower people so that they can demand better performance. We need to be alert to the fact that committees and commissions are, at the end of the day, essentially also conglomerations of the same people who comprise the rest of society. They too can be hijacked and co-opted. Therefore, not only is the quality of appointments to these committees and commissions important but there also has to be some necessary accountability for those appointed to them. Once appointed, they will need some discretion in their decision-making while operating under a rules-based framework.
There has to be a multi-dimensional nature of performance evaluation. One analogy is academia. We can’t just look at publications or classes taught in a robotic and uni-dimensional way to evaluate the performance of a teacher. Really good academics also add to knowledge production, intellectual and democratic debates and the overall health of a society. But these are almost impossible to evaluate objectively.
Over time, the pendulum has swung in different directions as to how much interference political parties and the government can have in running a bureaucracy. For instance, the British model of managing state institutions, which became the basis of most colonial and post-colonial administrations, is based on legal-rational authority exercised through a politically neutral bureaucracy. The American model currently in vogue is one of an administration which is aligned to the political ideology of the ruling party.
I agree with the idea of having a neutral and powerful commission to select top appointees. But at the same time, we should also have a forum to evaluate their tasks. Performance of top appointees is multi-dimensional and not easy to measure, so subjective assessments are as important as purely objective criteria. But usually the members of commissions and committees set up for hiring people for key jobs are selected by the powers that be on the criteria that they will abide by the rules of the game and not rock the boat, while adding legitimacy to the decisions that have already been made.

Herald. Has the current government handled appointments to high offices in a correct manner?
Niaz. The current government, given that it enjoys a stable majority in the lower house of parliament, has moved very slowly in making appointments. Even the ones that have been made do not seem to have considered merit as the overriding concern. It seems that the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) made no serious effort to identify a pool of talented persons with the potential to head key institutions — persons who have the credentials to ensure that their appointments do not arouse controversy — in spite of ruling Punjab from 2008 to 2013 and having the resources of Pakistan’s largest province at its disposal.
The leisurely pace of decision making regarding senior appointments and the fact that such appointments end up causing embarrassment to the government (such as the recent fiasco over the appointment of a new foreign secretary) indicate a lack of homework done on the part of the ruling party’s central leadership.
Siddique. Constitutionally speaking, there is nothing wrong with the appointment of the army chief and people need to be clear on that. Secondly, we also need to note the role of the Supreme Court over the past five years vis-à-vis key appointments. On the whole, no clear framework has emerged out of the court’s involvement — what really has emerged is essentially media sensationalism. Thirdly, I don’t see any clear intent or concrete steps taken on the part of the current regime to make transparency and quality of appointments a priority. What is also jarring is that the ruling party has filled up various appointments based on pure nepotism. Some of these may not be key positions but the symbolism and signals it sends out is very wrong.
Khan. It seems like top appointments are made after enough internal deliberation but the grounds for selection are not made clear.

Pakistan’s national carrier remains without a chairman since July 2013

Pakistan’s national carrier remains without a chairman since July 2013

Herald. Are internal deliberations within the ruling party a correct mechanism?
Niaz. Internal deliberations should have taken place prior to the day of election and shortlists of qualified individuals should have been ready so that the prime minister could start making appointments from day one.
Khan. It is not necessarily an incorrect mechanism since the constitution provides discretionary powers to the government over certain appointments. The key question is: has discretion been rightly exercised? One should look not only at the process of appointment-making, but also at the eventual performance of those appointed.
Siddique. Political parties all over the world have such deliberations and that in itself is perfectly kosher. What is important, though, is that the nominees that thereby emerge are then open to institutional examination and public scrutiny. See, for instance, the process of appointment of judges to the Supreme Court in the United States and the massive scrutiny exercised over and attention paid to the nominees over the past several years. The current government has not done its homework and seems rather hapless on this front, as well as being short of suitable names. Perhaps the concept of loyalty is deemed more important than eligibility.

Herald. So, are institutional performances then linked to the way appointments are made?
Niaz. Yes, but there are other very important variables. If you appoint brilliant, hard-working individuals to a top position and then undermine them by transferring their administrative secretaries every six months, it won’t quite matter how good thier own appointment is.
Siddique. Indeed, institutional performances are linked to the method of appointment to key positions, both because of the quality of people appointed and also because of public perceptions of these institutions and people’s faith in their performance.
Khan. While institutional performance is linked to the way appointments are made, this is only one of the factors, important though it is. The popular press and public imagination only focus on this, often underplaying all other factors. There are structural constraints to the performance of institutions that should not be ignored.

Are committees and commissions appointed on merit?
Siddique. I do not want to generalise, but largely they are not. Quite often members of the committees and commissions are insiders with clear agendas or else the usual suspects in favour with the government. Look at the Pakistan Cricket Board, for example.

System analysis

VP Corruption

The recent stunning electoral gains made by the Aam Aadmi Party in India as well as several attempts at winning popular support in Pakistan with anti-corruption slogans demonstrate that the public is not only negatively affected by corruption but has very strong feelings on the issue. From petty bribes paid to policemen to scandals involving men in high offices making massive fortunes, corruption appears to be not merely endemic but, in an ironic sense, omnipresent. Nearly everybody laments the rise in corruption and some political parties, it would appear, have made the drive against corruption their central campaigning slogan. On the flip side, several elected governments have been, rather unceremoniously, dismissed on charges of corruption in the past. In sum, the issue of corruption has always been front and centre in Pakistani politics.

What exactly is corruption? How do we define it? And how do we control it? If one examines the discourse in journalistic and political circles, the word “corruption” has almost become a catch-all word. However, in its narrow definition, corruption means “the inducement to wrong by improper or unlawful means (such as bribery)”. In short, paying bribes to make illegal gains or receive unlawful favours is corruption.

Corruption is measurable. 
Not really

The insurmountable problem with scholarship on any illegal activity such as corruption is that, given the clandestine character of the activity, it is impossible to document it. Imagine your own response if a pollster showed up at your doorstep and asked you the amount of money you exchanged in bribes the previous year.

In order to measure corruption, therefore, one needs a proxy. Transparency International, that puts together the most widely cited index on corruption, utilises “perception” of corruption as a proxy, the tenuous assumption being that the perception of corruption is based on real and objective happenings. To put it simply, where there is smoke there must be fire.

Pakistan’s ranking on the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) has always been very low. In 2012, we ranked 139th out of 175 countries. In 2013, we are at 127. But how is this ranking put together?

The perception of corruption is a very broad category. Broad questions such as “do you trust the government” or “is corruption a big problem in your country” are part of a survey that gauges perception. Such questions are more indicative of the general confidence in the government, or lack thereof, than about actual levels of illegal exchanges of money in return for unlawful favours. The formation of public perception on corruption depends on many factors, including the narrative in the mainstream media, successful or unsuccessful resolution of corruption cases, social networks, actions of the state and political parties and so on. In our own context where the term “corruption” has become a catch-all category to describe any activity, whether lawful or unlawful, which is disagreeable to various interests, it is inevitable that such broad questions may elicit an affirmative answer. In other words, while perception may be a proxy for the reality of corruption at the very general and abstract level, the degree to which this proxy correlates with the reality of corruption is influenced by the political context of each country.

The Corruption Perception Index has been criticised by many scholars as being an unreliable source, not only as far as the comparison of different countries is concerned but even as far as the analysis of an individual country from year to year is concerned. Transparency International, too, is aware of the limitations of its methodology. “Year-to-year changes in a country’s score can either result from a changed perception of a country’s performance or from a change in the CPI’s sample and methodology. The only reliable way to compare a country’s score over time is to go back to individual survey sources, each of which can reflect a change in assessment,” the organisation explains on its website.

It is, therefore, clear that the use of survey data collected by a third party and changes in methodology strongly limit the conclusions that one can draw from such data. These nuances, however, are often lost whenever a Transparency International report is discussed in the mainstream media.

The police in Pakistan is perceived to be among the country’s most corrupt institutions.

The police in Pakistan is perceived to be among the country’s most corrupt institutions.

Corruption always has a negative impact on economic growth.
Yes, to an extent

According to Transparency International, there is no demonstrable correlation between higher CPI scores and long-term economic growth. Part of the reason why corruption may not necessarily impact long-term economic growth is that the tendency among people in power to extract illegal monetary benefits from their position (called rent-seeking in economic jargon) may become part of the usual business practices. In such a situation, rates of corruption become well established and do not hold up business transactions. But the money that flows into rent-seeking is obviously lost to the recorded and, hence, taxable income of the government. It is also lost to the project, or department, from which it is taken away. But it may not necessarily be lost to the economy as a whole. Money earned from corruption inevitably finds its way back into the economy through purchase of real estate, goods and services.

On the other hand, one can make an equally strong case that slow long-term economic growth leads to disenchantment with the government which in turn leads to high incidence of negative response on broad questions such as “do you trust the government?” The factors that may cause a slump in economic growth are also many a time perceived as being related to corruption. This, however, does not mean that slow economic growth necessarily causes the CPI to rise or that an increase in corruption necessarily causes the economy to slow down, though the two are closely linked to each other.

But even though corruption’s impact on the economy may be subject to debate, there are certain areas where corruption does have a visibly negative influence. For instance, corruption can be extremely damaging to large enterprises where rent-seeking behaviour results in a loss of crucial resources that may lead to the failure of that enterprise.

Exclusive focus on corruption obscures real problems.
Yes, it does

The amount of emphasis that some politicians put on fighting corruption as a panacea for the ills of society obscures the simple fact that many of Pakistan’s most important problems are not activities that are undertaken illegally. On the contrary, the problem lies with activities that are entirely legal.

If one accepts the view that the most important decisions for any society concern the allocation of resources, then it becomes important to endow such decisions with legal legitimacy. Under the neo-liberalism ideology, characterised by the market economy and elected parliamentary model of government, the vast majority of these decisions are made in the private realm (by which, of course, is meant the realm of the economic elite). Now this could be politically and economically undesirable in a country such as Pakistan where such decisions have traditionally benefitted a small minority at the cost of a vast majority, but it is not illegal. The only problem with it, and it is a big problem, is that there has never been any public consensus on leaving all such vital decisions to any one class.

Even in the public sector, we see abysmally low levels of capital being spent on social services, such as health and education, but this is still in the purview of the law. Or take, for instance, the decisions made under the military regime of Ayub Khan to include representatives of the wealthiest families of Pakistan on the board of directors of state organisations in industrial and financial sectors. That these organisations channelised the vast majority of their assets to these very families is part of the country’s economic history but nobody deems it illegal. Or one could speak of the artificial barriers to entry created by the state in order to boost the profitability of certain hand-picked industries. None of this comes under the category of corruption (since it is not illegal activity as such) but it has a huge impact on Pakistan’s economic development.

This form of state capture or institutional capture either by an elite or by a section of the elite is known as “institutional corruption”. The exclusive focus on treating corruption only as illegal exchange of money for illegal gains obscures the impact of institutional corruption on resource allocation within society and consequently on economic and social divides that it generates and exacerbates. Institutional corruption potentially is much more damaging to the development of a democratic and prosperous Pakistan than bribery. The fact that all of it is occurring within the ambit of the law necessitates a serious debate on the laws and the socio-economic and political system that creates and sustains them. Focusing on bribery takes the attention away from tackling such systemic issues.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, the fact that anti-corruption drives in Pakistan have been time and again used to justify the destruction of democracy is arguably the strongest basis to reject anti-corruption slogans as a panacea for all the country’s troubles.

So, what do we do to end corruption?
Spread democracy

What a society most requires for the elimination of corruption is democracy. Only the most comprehensive, most inclusive democracy can lead to the elimination of bribery as well as of institutional corruption.

Ayub Khan, under whose regime representatives of the country’s wealthiest families were granted decision-making powers in state organisations

Ayub Khan, under whose regime representatives of the country’s wealthiest families were granted decision-making powers in state organisations

Unfortunately, in Pakistan, we have restricted the concept of democracy merely to elections to national and provincial assemblies. The entire apparatus of the government remains, as always, insulated from public opinion as well as from public accountability. In essence, at the grass-roots level and where it really matters, we have a neocolonial bureaucracy that is completely insulated from the people.

Nothing illustrates this better than what is arguably one of the most corrupt institutions in the country — the police. Given the colonial structure of our police, it remains under the control of strongmen in all parts of the country. Unlike a system where the local police chief is elected by the people and hence, is also accountable to them, the police are nominated through a bureaucratic process. That is why they are unable to enforce the writ of the state and the rule of the law, specifically in checking corruption, and, instead, spend most of their time protecting the interests of the rich and the powerful, who facilitate their appointments, transfers and promotions.

Reforms in the police should be the number one priority in order to curb corruption. The police must be entirely free of any political influence; they must be accountable to the people; they must be educated and knowledgeable about the law, and their activity must be open to scrutiny by the public.

Similarly, the judicial system must also be open and accountable to the public. Only public accountability can ensure that the courts remain above political interests or the interests of strongmen. In certain countries, judges also are elected by the people and, therefore, can be held accountable by the people. A case can be made that the election of judges will result in the politicisation of the judiciary and that vested interests will come to dominate the election of judges. But this argument rests on the mistaken assumption that the judiciary is not politicised as it is, or that vested interests do not play a role in the nomination of judges in the current system. In other words, judges must face their own judges and those can only be the people.

There, in fact, is a need for reforming all those institutions of the state which suffer from colonial insularity and lack of accountability by the people – not just the police and the judiciary. The democratisation of state and society is certainly premised on the election of the representatives of the people but this should never be restricted to elections to parliament alone.

Dr Taimur Rahman has been teaching political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences since 2002. He is also the spokesperson for the band Laal and a grassroots political activist in the labour movement. 

Striking a discordant note

According to this new review by Waqas Khawaja for our Annual 2014 issue, “Any new work by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, be it a scholarly essay, literary criticism, fiction, poetry or translation, is always eagerly awaited by avid and informed lovers of Urdu literature and scholarship across the world. Here is a person whose erudition sits lightly upon him even as his output is breathtakingly prodigious and multifarious.