Reflections on a Very Large Cabinet

By Samia Altaf 

I don’t really care if the cabinet eventually includes all 342 members of the national assembly. As an analyst, I am interested in understanding what the size and distribution reveal about the nature of politics in Pakistan. I want to explore why an Opposition, vociferous in its condemnation of the previous government’s excessively large cabinet, feels so compelled to go one better when it inherits power.

What is going on is obvious – a largely indiscriminate division of portfolios without matching qualifications to job requirements. Why it is going on is of greater interest. Mark first the discussion about who should get what. A lot turns on the ‘deservingness’ of the candidates. How unfair to deny X who spent the most time in prison while the leaders were exiled? How about Y who had her assets confiscated and was humiliated to boot?

This is the politics of reward. The spoils are distributed to supporters displaying the greatest loyalty in the greatest adversity. Next, it is the politics of appeasement – nobody important can be left out who would promptly switch loyalties to the other side. And finally, it is the politics of pacification – all those who might create problems in their home districts would be safer amusing themselves in the capital. Add up all those who can assert a claim on the state and it turns into a very large number.

Now think: How is this any different from the Mughal durbaar at Agra or the court of the Sun King at Versailles? Imagine all the favourites and potential troublemakers dallying at court under the watchful eye of the Royal Intelligence. And instead of going off for foxhunts in the Bois de Boulogne, large contingents fly off for the modern equivalent at Saks Fifth Avenue.

Understand I have nothing against democracy and this is not a brief for authoritarian rule – there is no difference in this regard between the two in Pakistan. And that is the point. It is the nature of our politics that drives this phenomenon and it is this nature we need to understand to intervene in a meaningful way. Simple homilies about the return of true democracy will make not one whit of difference to our fate.

Perhaps Pakistan needs a super-sized cabinet because it is neither fish nor fowl in terms of governance. A democracy doesn’t need to deal with loyalists and potential turncoats; an authoritarian state like China doesn’t need to please anyone as long as it delivers to its citizens – the number of ministries is down from 100 in 1982 to 28 and is to be reduced further to promote efficiency; and a monarchy can distribute jagirs to loyalists while entrusting governance to the qualified – Akbar’s nau ratan were truly nine gems.

Pakistan can best be characterized as a monarchy dressed up as a democracy, sometime less, sometime more authoritarian. In this state, ministerial and public sector portfolios are the only jagirs that can be distributed openly and without disapproval. It is an interesting irony of our mixed-up governance that there is much greater public outrage attached to the much less damaging distribution of the modern-day version of real jagirs, the allocation of valuable parcels of urban land.

There is no questioning of the huge cost to the efficiency of governance when three butchers are entrusted the job of one baker and the practice will continue until someone in civil society begins to push back. After the independence of the judiciary let us put this as the next item on the agenda.

Dr. Samia Altaf is the 2007-2008 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. This op-ed appeared in Dawn, Karachi, on April 11, 2008.

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