Now the venerable New York Times has entered the fray with another bad analysis (Closer to the Cliff, March 12, 2009). Let us dissect it:
We are especially alarmed to see President Asif Ali Zardari repeating the excesses of his predecessor, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
Why alarmed, one may ask? What was the basis for the expectation that Asif Ali Zardari would act any differently? Is this a case, once again, of wishful thinking leading the analysis?
Mr. Zardari is dishonoring his late wife’s memory by following that same path.
So, the expectation is that Mr. Zardari’s prime loyalty should be to his late wife’s memory and not to his self-interest, as he perceives it. Is this a realistic expectation? Or is it a pathetic attempt at emotional blackmail – what would your late wife think Mr. Zardari?
Mr. Sharif is all too eager to manipulate this destructive drama for personal gain.
Surprise, surprise! Any basis for assuming Mr. Sharif would act differently?
The American ambassador in Islamabad spoke with Mr. Sharif, and an envoy, Richard Holbrooke, had a video conference call with Mr. Zardari… They need to press Mr. Zardari now to compromise on the dispute over Pakistan’s courts and to allow Mr. Sharif to run for office. And they need to press Mr. Sharif to work for peaceful political solutions. If there is any hope for democracy in Pakistan, a robust opposition must be allowed to flourish and participate fully in the country’s political life.
Here is the impatient solution – the bad boys have to be told to behave and fix the situation in no uncertain manner. There is no need to try and understand why they are behaving the way they are.
Otherwise: hint, hint!
Already, some Washington analysts are suggesting there might be worse things than a return to military rule in Pakistan.
This is typical of what passes for analysis at the New York Times. More than a year ago, we had highlighted this style of NYT analysis (Ah, New York Times) when the crisis under discussion was the electoral chaos in Kenya. Replace Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif with Kenyan names and note the similarity of the advice:
Mr. Kibaki should renounce that official declaration and the embarrassingly swift swearing in that followed. He should then meet with his principal challenger, Raila Odinga, to discuss a possible vote recount, election re-run or other reasonable compromise.
What is wrong with this mode of analysis?
Note that it is entirely top-down. It starts with a desired outcome (democratic governance in these two cases) and then works backwards impatiently to try and ensure that the outcome is achieved. It invariably ends up chastising the bad boys who are misbehaving, informing them that they are acting stupidly, and threatening them with worse consequences.
There is no attempt to understand why the boys are bad in the first place, why they are misbehaving yet again, and what may be the systemic causes that lead to this kind of repeated crises.
It is no wonder that the NYT joins the rising crescendo of lamenting voices from Pakistan who are surprised that Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif are behaving badly, who had expected them to have learnt their lessons while in exile, who had hoped that the ‘restoration’ of democracy was itself the solution, who had really lulled themselves into believing that there are dictators and democrats and that they behave differently.
Any meaningful analysis has to work from the bottom-up. It has to look at the forces that operate at ground level and then project what kinds of outcomes are feasible given the interplay of these forces and the changes in them over time.
A bottom-up analysis need not always be right but it creates room for meaningful discussion that can help lead to a better and fuller understanding and more realistic expectations.
This is how an analysis in The South Asian Idea (Helping Pakistan, November 2007) approached the issue with a bottom-up perspective:
Understand that in a deeply unequal society without individual rights, and with extreme dependence of the many on the few, the functions of political representation and social protection are inseparable…
Understand this is still very much a monarchical society in which the ruler, in whatever garb, believes he rules by divine right…
Understand this is a society at a stage of development where political parties are personal affinity groups with lifetime leaders…
And based on the reading of these and other attributes it predicted:
So what does a transition to “true democracy” mean in a situation like this? Understand that representative democracy is not going to emerge any time soon by pressure from below. Democracy will be the name given to a sharing of power amongst the elites holding the wealth, the guns, and the controls over rules and rituals. And, barring anything different, this democracy will go the way of previous democracies, each morphing from “true” to “sham,” each leaving the country more wounded and vulnerable than before. Has this not been the story of the last sixty years?
In 2009, this prediction elicits much less surprise and disappointment than Dalrymple, Mohsin, the NYT or the lamenting chorus in Pakistan. Why?
The bottom line is that one needs to determine the appropriate starting point for analysis. Starting with what one hopes for almost always renders the analysis useless. Starting with the reality that exists on the ground and working upwards may not always yield the correct prediction but it is the most promising approach to an eventual understanding of why things turn out the way they do.
And that understanding is needed as the real starting point on the road to reform. Without that we would continue to cycle endlessly between our rascals and our redeemers, between our unrealistic hopes and our betrayed expectations.