By Samia Altaf
There is a fascinating news report (Jinnah’s New Republic) in an American weekly datelined November 15, 1947 that puts its finger on Pakistan’s most critical weakness – the quality of its leadership.
Reporting from Karachi, the author comments on the country’s first cabinet: “With enormous problems, Pakistan has only a very ordinary set of leaders to cope with them”; barring a few “the other members of the cabinet are all mediocrities.” The exceptions identified by the author were the “brilliant” Mr Jinnah, the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister.
In 2008, the problems have become much more enormous and the leadership has become much more mediocre. Even the exceptions at the very top are conspicuous by their absence.
The quality of political leadership went into a steep decline after Mr Jinnah. This was exacerbated by the military’s interruption of the political process that serves as the training ground for new leaders. Instead, military leaders found it in their interest to pick pliable political faces to front for them. And political leaders, in turn, promoted military leaders whom they deemed safe. A process in which incumbents picked others less clever than themselves assured a rapid race to the bottom.
Insecure political leaders, civil or military, are also prone to choosing their key bureaucrats on the basis of loyalty. Mr Zia ul Haq added to a secular decline in critical thinking by making the social sciences subservient to an ideological education in Pakistan Studies. It was no surprise to read Strobe Talbott’s comparison of South Asian bureaucrats in his book Engaging India: “In general, our sessions with the Pakistanis, while occasionally more exciting than those with the Indians, lacked a comparable degree of intellectual engagement… While Jaswant [Singh’s] team was highly disciplined in every respect, some of Shamshad Ahmad’s colleagues tended to be querulous, surly, and sometimes abusive.”
By way of contrast, Ramachandra Guha’s new book India after Gandhi includes a description of India’s first cabinet in 1947. The thirteen-member cabinet included three who were not from the Congress party and three who had been life long adversaries of the Congress and had collaborated with the British, including the virulently anti-upper caste but exceptionally qualified Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Gandhi reminded his supporters that freedom had come to India, not to Congress, and urged “the formation of a cabinet that included the ablest men regardless of party affiliation.”
Since then, Indian educational institutions including the globally competitive IITs and IIMs have produced many generations of very competent personnel. The calibre of the key Indian political and technical leaders can be gauged by a review of the CVs of the Prime Minister, the Finance Minister and the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, all made available to the public on the web. The gap with their Pakistani counterparts is revealing and a pointer to Pakistan’s problems of governance and management at every level.
In an increasingly complex, globally linked, knowledge economy and with the magnitude of social issues facing the country, it is no longer enough to be very clever and street smart. Competence and training matter. Granted it is not possible to manufacture a new political leadership overnight but it is possible for the leadership to recognize its handicap. It should search for the most competent Pakistanis available to head all key institutions and agencies that have a bearing on national development including universities, public enterprises, and advisory boards. And this selection should be assigned to a professional recruitment agency subject to the approval of an independent Citizens Commission.
It is time for the political leadership to be humble and it is time to repair the decline of competence that has condemned the majority of Pakistanis to a life of unspeakable misery and degradation.
Dr. Samia Altaf is the 2007-2008 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, DC. This article appeared in Dawn, Karachi on March 27, 2008.