Archive for the ‘Leadership’ Category

Where Are the Experts?

April 16, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

How one wishes there was a team competent modellers in Pakistan who could present the worst-case (do-nothing) scenario, the most likely response given the existing state of affairs, and the best-case outcome if appropriate measures were put in place. 

I say this after the model run by London’s Imperial College became decisive in drastically changing public policy in the UK. Unfortunately, it is not the case, one to which we are addicted, that a foreign model can be imported and run here to determine our choice of public policies. Too many parameters are different and would need to be normalized to our circumstances.

Take the most obvious one first. The degree of compliance with directives is much lower than in the UK — I walked past a padlocked park where the ground staff were huddled together under one canopy sharing a cigarette. Citizens don’t trust the government for any number of reasons. If asked to be tested their first tendency is to run as far away as possible for fear of what might be done to them. This trust deficit now runs so deep in our society that no one takes anything at face value. Add to that the many who consider themselves answerable to an authority higher than that of the state and wish to pray together at any cost. 

The age pyramids of the two populations are entirely dissimilar making a huge difference in expected mortality risks. Then there is the specificity of the labour force. There are virtually no footloose workers in London; there were many migrants in Wuhan but they were adequately housed and in no need to flee home — in any case they wouldn’t dare disobey state directives. Here, millions work in cities while their families are in villages. Many literally sleep on the streets. How they would respond is apparent from what happened in India, something policymakers were either oblivious to or not bothered about.

Given all such unique conditions what does a lockdown, that can be leaky, yield? What does social distancing mean when two-thirds of the urban population lives in houses with six to eight persons per room? How does personal hygiene work when there are people who cannot afford soap and don’t have access to more than two cans of clean water? The modellers would have to cater to all these peculiarities before they could give us any sense of what to expect in Pakistan. 

In addition, it’s just not enough to run a model once. It needs continuous recalibration based on cumulative data. Is April really going to be the cruellest month — Italy with a lag — or is something actually going on that is different, with infections, however flawed their measurement, growing exponentially, while deaths, much harder to hide, showing a flatter trend?    

Right now, we are not even clear about the primary objective of our policy. Is it to minimize the number of deaths at any cost — in which case a model made by epidemiologists virologists, and behavioral scientists might be enough? Or is it to minimize the number of deaths at least cost, in which case public health models need to be complemented by ones that match each scenario with estimates of the accompanying socioeconomic impact?

This tradeoff is not as simple as it seems because of complex interrelationships — saving the old from infection can mean sacrificing the young to starvation. We have heard from the government that 25% of households cannot afford two full meals a day. There are certainly just as many who can barely achieve that luxury which immediately raises the question: How long can a lockdown be sustained in these circumstances before more people die of lack of food than from an infection? Already there are reports of societal fracture with people pushed to begging and stealing..

Once again, this suggests that a Wuhan type lockdown, no matter how desirable, might not be the affordable choice for Lahore or Delhi and better adapted solutions might be called for. Given that, unlike the flu, Corona infections are concentrated in clusters, the experts might suggest selective lockdowns of hotspots like Raiwind and Bara Kahu. The at-risk elderly might, on request, be protected in empty hostels instead of crippling mobility across entire cities. To mitigate the incremental risk, the experts might stress universal use, through free distribution, of masks whose production can generate employment while being decentralised.

In any case, a lockdown is not a solution because the virus does not disappear. It only buys time in which other necessary measures need be put in place. If they are not, the virus would spread again once the lockdown is relaxed and probably wreak worse havoc on a desperately stressed and famished population with depleted resistance. These other measures include extensive free testing, identifying hotspots, rigorous tracking, isolation, and quarantine. Experts in GPS techniques and information retrieval could help in guiding these tasks.

This is a truly unique situation in which no one really has all the answers. The last thing we need is for everyone to turn into an expert and start doing what appeals to their guts. Like gynaecology or oncology — in which no one would allow lay persons to interfere — public health and systems analysis also have their own specialists. We owe it to the people to get the best scientific advice possible and tackle this crisis in a way that makes sense in our country.

There is no reason that local institutions with relevant expertise, like AKU, LUMS, ITU and NUST, cannot put a team of experts together not just for this emergency but for the continuous surveillance of all infectious diseases, and there are many, that still plague this country. The huge number of preventable deaths in Pakistan at which no one bats an eyelid is a damning disgrace for which our governments are accountable. The ongoing tragedy should sensitize us that we can’t sustain much-needed lockdowns because of the conditions in which the majority is condemned to live. The injustice cannot be tolerated any longer. 

Note: Listen to this discussion of modelling of the Covid-19 epidemic in India.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on April 13, 2020 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. Dr. Altaf was dean of the school of humanities and social sciences at LUMS. He has degrees in Economics and Engineering-Economic Systems from Stanford University. 

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A Test of Leadership

April 11, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

Every single person is at risk — Prince Charles and Boris Johnson have tested positive — which makes this a crisis unprecedented in living memory and a supreme test of leadership. No one will get everything right but no one can afford to get everything wrong. Where leaders come out on the spectrum will determine how many live or die in each country. And the number of days it takes to arrive at the right decisions will determine the quantum of avoidable deaths.

Regimes can be characterised by a set of attributes — integrity, transparency, competence, legitimacy, authority. An ideal regime would possess all — it would be honest, transparent and competent, trusted by citizens and with the authority to get things done. In the real world we have to make do with some mix that allows countries to muddle through for better or worse in normal times.

It is in times of great crises that the relative balance between these attributes stands out with striking salience. It is no use having an honest regime that is incompetent. It is only a little better to have a competent regime distrusted by its citizens. Amongst the attributes, competence clearly commands centrality — without it all is lost — but it needs be accompanied by either trust or authority to translate policy into action. 

Consider the response of various countries to the current pandemic in this perspective. The Chinese regime was non-transparent, trying to cover up the problem till the number of deaths made that impossible. A study claims that if the same interventions had been made three weeks earlier, infections could have been slashed by 95%. Even so, once it decided to act it did so with competence backed by the authority, if not the trust, to compel compliance with draconian measures.

South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore were high on almost all attributes and have positive outcomes to show for it. In these countries, as well as in China, the key was decisive action. Transparency enabled an early start to prevent avoidable deaths. Trust helped to avoid recourse to coercive authority for compliance. 

It is not the case that there was only one right remedy to follow everywhere. The above-mentioned countries adopted varying paths depending on what they felt would work best in their context. What was common was that the action was decisive, even when it was delayed as in China. It also comes across very clearly that in each country there was an overall strategy and a tightly coordinated plan to guide the implementation. 

This raises the crucial question: How does leadership arrive at the strategy to be followed, convince the citizens of its logic, and arrange to have it implemented? One would assume it would elicit the best advice possible from credible domain specialists to determine the strategy, communicate it honestly to the public, commit the government to its implementation, and appoint the most competent administrators to do so.

The last thing one would want is for the leader to assume the role of the expert and choose strategy based on gut feelings, hunches or personal faith. Even less would one want implementation to be parcelled out to friends no matter how honest or well-intentioned they may be. Consider, as an example, the path followed by Donald Trump as a result of which the USA is now the centre of the pandemic with all the resources of the richest country insufficient to contain the damage.

The USA is fortunate that there are competent experts and administrators who are valiantly trying to mitigate the damage caused by their President. But what is to be done in countries where people are neither appointed nor promoted on the basis of competency, where leaders feel they know everything that needs be known, where the population does not trust the leadership, where the authority to implement is weak, and where administrators can’t distinguish between a holding pen, a quarantine and an isolation ward? 

Some remedies need to be found in a hurry if the worst-case outcome is to be avoided. The first step is to assemble a panel of credible domain specialists and introduce it to the citizenry.  

The panel would recommend a home-grown strategy considering not just the nature of the virus but that of the population that has to be convinced and protected. It would weigh, for example, how much a lockdown will buy if mosques remain open while parks are padlocked or if mandis have to remain functional to ensure essential supplies? How long can a lockdown be sustained where millions survive on what they earn every day? What does social isolation mean where many live eight to a room? How do those lacking water and money wash their hands frequently with soap?

All these answers have to be found quickly which is why there is need to locate the most qualified experts whether from home or abroad and whether politically acceptable or otherwise. This is not the time for settling scores, doling out favours, or applying ideological litmus tests. Too much is at stake for business as usual.

In this spirit, an off-the-wall choice to implement the consensus strategy in Pakistan could demonstrate the seriousness with which the ongoing crisis is being viewed and the extent to which parochial interests can be set aside for national welfare. What would it take to making Shahbaz Sharif the Corona Czar in the Punjab? There is no one in the province the public considers more decisive and capable as an administrator. Notwithstanding his misplaced vision and priorities for development, given a well-defined task there is no one else who inspires more confidence in the ability to get things done. 

Let this be Shahbaz Sharif’s path to redemption. With Murad Shah doing a credible job in Sindh, this could open a path beyond the acrimony and distrust that has crippled the politics of the country to the lasting misfortune of its people. We could move towards a saner, more hopeful, future and we may also save a lot of lives in the bargain.

This opinion appeared in The News on April 10, 2020 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. Dr. Altaf has degrees in Economics and Engineering-Economic Systems from Stanford University. 

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From Indo-Pak to Af-Pak

February 11, 2011

By Ibn-e Eusuf


I often think about the transformation from Indo-Pak to Af-Pak – from being part of a civilization to being part of a problem.

Nothing more needs be said except that the transformation was not accidental; it was deliberately engineered and therefore involved winners and losers. I will leave readers to mull over who won and who lost in the process.

I wish to focus in this essay not on the past but on the future, on the nature of the problem represented by this Af-Pak pairing. What exactly is it that is common to Afghanistan and Pakistan and what does it mean for the people living in the two countries? (more…)

The Peculiar Nature of the Pakistani Liberal

January 9, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Like no other political assassination in Pakistan, the recent brutal murder of Salman Taseer should throw into sharp relief the nature of the Pakistani liberal, a condition whose complexities and conflicts belie the simple narratives reflected in headlines like “Pakistani reformer dead” or “Setback for liberals in Pakistan.”

Salman Taseer reflected the essence of a certain segment of Pakistani liberaldom – liberals who are highly educated, articulate, erudite, dynamic, successful, affluent and well connected. It is from this group that the most could have been expected in the struggle for reform, but they have been marginalized to the point of irrelevance.  Seen through the lens of conflicted loyalties and aspirations, this phenomenon becomes less opaque: No matter how progressive, the stereotypical liberal harbors a visceral antipathy for the “enemies of Islam,” which leads to knee-jerk responses blind to what is progressive or retrogressive within the implementation of Islam itself or what is in the long-term interests of the majority of the population. (more…)

Jinnah, Nehru, and the Ironies of History

March 22, 2009

Varun Gandhi is reported to have said some strong things about Muslims in India. So, I am told, did his father.

Let me use this as a peg to say something about Varun’s venerable great-grandfather whose maturity Varun seems unlikely to emulate. But beyond that, let me speculate about some neglected dimensions of the political history of the subcontinent.

Two remarkable statements made around the time of the partition of British India continue to intrigue me:

Here is Mohammad Ali Jinnah, addressing the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan in August 1947:

You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State.

And here is Jawaharlal Nehru, writing to Chief Ministers of provinces in India in October 1947, pointing out that there remained, within India,

a Muslim minority who are so large in numbers that they cannot, even if they want, go anywhere else. That is a basic fact about which there can be no argument. Whatever the provocation from Pakistan and whatever the indignities and horrors inflicted on non-Muslims there, we have got to deal with this minority in a civilized manner. We must give them security and the rights of citizens in a democratic State.

How can we read these two statements given the history of which they were a part?

What intrigues me about them is the following:

Here was Jinnah, who had spent the previous twenty years arguing that Muslims and Hindus were separate nations, so completely different from each other that they could not live together. And here he was, on the creation of the country based on that logic of difference, saying all of you can now live together as equal citizens with equal rights.

And here was Nehru, who had spent the same period of time arguing the secular perspective that everyone was an equal citizen regardless of religion or ethnicity, still thinking in terms of minorities as special groups who needed to be dealt with in a civilized manner and given the rights of citizens.

I would have expected Jinnah to say something along these lines: I know it is going to be very difficult but we must now find a way to live together. And I would have expected Nehru to send out an unequivocal signal: We are all Indians now; there are no more majorities and minorities here.

It is time for some political psychology and this is my very idiosyncratic explanation:

I would argue that Jinnah’s innate values were secular. He belonged to a minority trading community from Gujarat where getting along with others was essential to survival and success. It is clear that Jinnah could never have believed from the outset that Hindus and Muslims were so intrinsically different that they could not live together. Had that been the case he could not have been the leading ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity till the 1920s.

It was something in the politics of the situation that must have convinced him that Hindus and Muslims could not live together in a constitutional arrangement in British India that would be acceptable to both communities. Based on that conviction (here we are not concerned whether that conviction was right or wrong) he fought his case and won. And once he won, and walked out of the courtroom, metaphorically speaking, the political imperatives for him disappeared and he became the secular Jinnah that he always was.

Did Jinnah never see that there was a world outside the courtroom, that the forces that had been unleashed by the politics of separation would never allow the situation to go back to what it was, no matter what he wished or desired? It seems not.

Nehru, on the other hand, was a Kashmiri Pandit to whom the distinctions of caste and creed must have been second nature, a part of every act and practice. But Nehru, while not in the same league as Jinnah as a lawyer, was an intellectual steeped in Fabian socialism with the whole world as his observatory. For Nehru, secularism was not an inheritance by birth but a conviction that came from the exercise of intellect.

When framed in this perspective, one can expect that moments of stress could cause the templates of inheritance to exert some residual influence on how one sees the world. So, one can understand Nehru seeing Muslims, in the aftermath of the carnage of partition, more as minorities needing to be given equal rights and less as Indians who were entitled to them.

As we know from our own lives and times, it is not easy to overcome the prejudices and biases that one inherits at birth and to adopt radically different beliefs through an exercise of reasoned analysis. There seems little doubt that history will continue to accord Nehru the credit and stature that are his due for achieving what he did achieve given the tenor of his time.

But we can now push this psychological analysis further and note the complexity of the interplay between the beliefs inherited at birth and the convictions that are inculcated and sustained through intellectual endeavor.

Without the political imperatives that changed Jinnah’s beliefs, his descendants are avowedly secular. And without the intellectual rigor that characterized Nehru, his descendants are slipping back towards prejudice.

Contrary perspectives are welcome. For another analysis along similar lines, see The Tragedy of Jinnah by Simon Kovar. HM Seervai‘s book (Partition of India – Legend and Reality), written after the release of the Transfer of Power Papers, makes a similar argument.

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Pakistan’s Leaders

July 24, 2008

Ardeshir Cowasjee is the doyen of Pakistani opinion-makers having been around forever as the leading light of Dawn. For many years now, with great regularity, Mr. Cowasjee has been making a seemingly provocative statement on behalf of Mr. Jinnah. For some reason, this statement has sparked no discussion whatsoever.

Here is one version of the statement as expressed in his column of May 25, 2008:

“That man of great perception (there were no others to follow him) our founder and maker, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, once prophesied shortly after the making of his country, realising the calibre of men and women around and about him, that each successive government of Pakistan would be worse than its preceding one. This prediction, made 60 years ago, has been eerily correct, and continues to be so.”

Every time I have read this statement I have been plagued with doubts. Does Mr. Cowasjee really mean what he says or is he just trying to be provocative? How can Mohammad Ali Jinnah be a man of great perception if he realized only after the making of his country that the caliber of the men and women around him was such that each successive government of Pakistan would be worse than the preceding one?

Perhaps no one has picked up the argument because there is no way of knowing if the attribution to Mr. Jinnah is true or not. But either way, the statement is quite damaging to the reputation of Mr. Jinnah. If he led his troops into the battle knowing the poor caliber of his officer corps, it could be considered an act of irresponsible adventurism. If he did so believing the contrary, it was fatal error of judgment.

It was for the first time that I noticed the latter interpretation in Mr. Cowasjee’s column of July 20, 2008:

To repeat, and repeat, also ad nauseam, Jinnah once predicted, undoubtedly with sadness in his heart and a self-admittance that he had not got it all right, that each successive government of Pakistan would be worse than the preceding one.” 

From a man of great perception, Mr. Jinnah is portrayed now, for the first time, as one admitting that possibly “he had not got it all right.” Perhaps Mr. Cowasjee wanted someone in this massively populated country to reach that conclusion on his own and raise it as an issue to be discussed much like it would have been in any other country. Perhaps he is now convinced no one ever will and has decided to say so himself.

There could, of course, be a third possibility. It could well be that Mr. Cowasjee is wrong, that Mr. Jinnah never said any such thing, and that the “caliber of the men and women around him,” while not up to his own standard, was not all that bad on the average. It could well be that there is some completely different explanation for the subsequent decline in the quality of leadership.

This kind of a sharp decline is not unknown in history. One can take the 300-year Mughal rule as an example. Everyone knows the names of the six emperors who reigned during the first 150 years. It would be difficult to recall the name of any one of the almost two-dozen kings who sat on the throne during the last 150 years. Only the diehard fans of classical music would know Mohammad Shah (Rangile) and lovers of Urdu poetry would recall Bahadur Shah (Zafar), both with immense gratitude for the heritage they have left us.

Whatever the reason, and we should certainly search for an explanation, there is little doubt that the slide in the quality of leadership in Pakistan has been precipitous. It has been a very steep decline from a brilliant barrister with an international reputation who might have made one fatal mistake to most of those who have followed till what we now have is a veritable shipload of fools unable to get a single thing right.

Pakistan has turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory achieved at huge human cost to many who had to move to new homes, to most who became the ‘other’ where they stayed on, to those who had to suffer yet another partition, and to all who never made it or got caught in the continued cross-fire in Kashmir. To what point? To be inherited by a cast of bumblers who promptly began to run it aground, sunder it in many pieces, starve its people, and turn all the lights out?

The ship is headed for the rocks. We know that the leadership has failed; even to call it a leadership is a travesty. And there is not even a silver lining unlike the brilliant cultural renaissance, the age of Ghalib, that accompanied the decline of the Mughal’s but would outlive all its follies. Our present decline is arid and grotesque and painful. Mr. Cowasjee would do us a service if, instead of telling us the obvious, he would enlighten us on what went wrong. And why? And when? And what is to be done?

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It’s the Leadership, Stupid

March 31, 2008

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.

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Dynastic Succession: What is the difference between India and France?

January 25, 2008

In our last post (More on Dynasties and Modernity) we had made the point that “it was the mass of Peoples Party loyalists in Pakistan who were clamoring for the leadership to be passed on to a Bhutto after Benazir—hence the addition of Bhutto to Bilawal’s name.”

As if on cue, an op-ed appeared in The News (January 25, 2008) entitled PPP’s succession — not so flawed. The author, a barrister and human rights activist currently based in the UAE, had the following things to say: 

You will not meet a PPP supporter who will not tell you exactly this–that they want a Bhutto to lead the party. From the workers to the leaders, be they of any ethnic or religious background, all want a Bhutto as their leader.

Contrary to what the critics imply, the Bhutto family has not imposed its leadership upon the PPP, or in some clever way contrived to retain party leadership to hog power. Rather, it is a position that has been entrusted upon them by the people. Through years of struggle and sacrifice the Bhutto family has made a place in the hearts of the poor and downtrodden like no other party in Pakistan. The people believe in their sincerity to their cause and have faith in their leadership. They know that this family will do all it can to ease their problems.

The day before Benazir Bhutto was to arrive in Pakistan, Amar Sindhu, a writer who teaches philosophy to university students in Jamshoro, had gone to do some television interviews. She asked some nomadic women why they insisted on voting for Benazir. “She has been twice prime minister. You are still where you are, in your jhuggis [huts]. What has she ever given you?” They answered, “Allah will give us what we need. We just want to see Benazir happy. She is very dukhhi [sad]. Our votes will make her happy.” 

This fantasy-like, mythical relationship between the Bhuttos and the people baffle the intellectual mind. It defies its logic, spurns its theories and scoffs at its cynicism. It is not something to be understood…it is something that can only be felt. Anyone who has seen a Bhutto amongst the people would know what I’m talking about.

This is very much in tune with our own experiences. In the late 1980s, I once asked a rural voter why he continued to support the Peoples Party when it had completely changed its position on many issues. Because “Bhutto is our king,” he answered. Back in the city, I asked a young physician the same question. Because “Bhutto helped my father when he was in trouble,” was the answer.  

As we have been stressing in these series of posts, we are not taking a position for or against dynastic succession. That would be to lose sense of the context. What we are trying to highlight is the fact that in South Asia dynastic succession has the kind of legitimacy that it does not have, for instance, in France. That is not to say that dynastic succession never had legitimacy in France. But something has changed there—what was quite normal at one time comes across as totally bizarre to a French citizen today.

Whatever has changed in France hasn’t yet changed in South Asia. The ethos of South Asia is still monarchical. It is just that we live in the 21st century where we have to use electoral mechanisms to legitimize our dynastic rulers. And that creates a lot of confusion. 

This is where we find fascinating the clues in Ramachandra Guha’s book that tell us how a new practice finds root in alien soil. One such clue is his reference to ethnographic accounts of the 1967 elections: “These show that elections were no longer a top dressing on inhospitable soil; they had been fully internalized, made part of Indian life. An election was a festival with its own unique set of rituals, enacted every five years.” (Page 418)  

And “The Indian’s love of voting is well illustrated by a cluster of villages on the Andhra-Maharashtra border. Issued voting cards by the administrations of both states, the villagers seized the opportunity to vote twice.” (Page 736) 

Of course, things are changing; Of course, Indians are spread across a spectrum with different perspectives on dynastic succession; Of course, the electoral space has generated major gains for many; Of course, people have exploited the space rationally for good and bad ends. We are not arguing against democracy or the electoral process here. We are making the point that South Asia still has a large residual monarchical ethos. And we are intrigued by the size of the residual and by how it is changing.

And, in the realm of the mind, the bottom line is that there is a difference between France and India in the perception of dynastic succession. That we know. But what exactly is the difference, how has it come about, and what is happening to it over time? That escapes us still. All we can say is that the old modernization theory with its thesis of convergence leaves us unconvinced.

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January 16, 2008

By Anjum Altaf

Professor CM Naim has sent us a unique news report on the creation of Pakistan from the Nation datelined November 15, 1947 (Jinnah’s New Republic by Andrew Roth).

Amongst other things the report remarks on the nature of leadership in the new Pakistan:

With enormous problems, Pakistan has only a very ordinary set of leaders to cope with them. The brilliant Mr. Jinnah, of course, must be excepted, but he is over seventy and has been in poor health since a severe pneumonia attack two years ago. His voice can barely be heard ten feet away, and he chose to become governor general rather than premier partly because it was an easier post. He has repeatedly told subordinates, “I have done my part of the job; I’ve given you Pakistan. It is up to you to build it.”

Premier Liaqat Ali Khan is a competent administrator with the conservative social views of a typical feudal landlord and a strong belief in a political and economic alliance with Great Britain. He had to choose a man of technical ability for his Finance Minister but the other members of his Cabinet are all mediocrities. So farfetched was the appointment of the Calcutta hide merchant, Fazlur Rahman, as Minister of the Interior and Education that an old friend, seeing him in a front seat at the Independence Day celebrations, cried out, “You’re in the wrong row; that’s for the Cabinet!” Top officials are in the main from the landlord class, with a sprinkling of lawyers and merchants. The sole modern-minded industrialist in the dominion, Hassan Ispahani, is being sent out of the way as ambassador to the United States. Provincial officials are of the same kind: the Punjab Premier is the Khan of Mamdot, the province’s largest landholder.

Coincidentally, we were reading Ramachandra Guha’s new book (India after Gandhi) and came across this bit on page 22 about India’s first cabinet:

Apart from Prime Minister Nehru, it listed thirteen other ministers. These included the nationalist stalwarts Vallabhbhai Patel and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, as well as four congressmen of the younger generation.

More notable perhaps were the names of those who were not from the Congress. These included two representatives of the world of commerce and one representative of the Sikhs. Three others were lifelong adversaries of the Congress. These were RK Shanmukham Chetty, a Madras businessman who was one of the best financial minds in India; BR Ambedkar, a brilliant legal scholar and an “untouchable” by caste; and Shayama Prasad Mookerjee, a leading Bengal politician who belonged (at this time) to the Hindu Mahasabha. All three had collaborated with the rulers while the congressmen served time in British jails. But now Nehru and his colleagues wisely put aside these differences. Gandhi had reminded them that “freedom comes to India, not to Congress,” urging the formation of a cabinet that included the ablest men regardless of party affiliation.

We will have more to say about this and will pick up on the evolution of leadership in the two countries at another time. For the moment, we jump ahead to take advantage of another coincidental find in a 2004 book by Strobe Talbott (Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy, and the Bomb) in which he recounts his experience as President Clinton’s point person in the dialogue with the two subcontinental countries following the tit-for-tat nuclear explosions of 1998.

Here is how Strobe Talbott describes his comparative experiences (pages 105-106):

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. On one occasion, early in our dealings, a member of the Pakistani delegation exploded at our observation that his country seemed always to react in knee-jerk fashion to Indian moves. He rose out of his chair and lunged across the table as though he were going to strangle either Bruce Reidel or me, depending on whose neck he could get his fingers around first. He had to be physically restrained.

For all these reasons, my team had to shift gears when we traveled from New Delhi to Islamabad. The danger with the Indians was that they would wear us down. They had their game plan and would stick with it, waiting for us to lose congressional support for the sanctions and give up on even the modest demands we were making with the benchmarks. 

The Pakistanis had no game plan. They always seemed to be either hunkering down, lashing out, or flailing about. 

Thus, it was apparent from the outset that the Indians were going to be hard to move, while the Pakistanis were going to be hard to help. 

Nothing much has changed since. 

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Dynasty and the Price of Politics: Do we really get the Leaders we Deserve?

January 4, 2008

By Dipankar Gupta

Just because we live in a democracy does not mean that we deserve the leaders we get. It is as unrealistic to believe that voters can choose an ideal candidate as it is for a consumer to get that ideal car, refrigerator, washing machine, or whatever. Till the mid 1980s our roads were clogged by historical throwbacks in the shape of Ambassador or Fiat 1100 cars. The car of our dreams, that ideal four wheeler, was nowhere on the horizon. Yet we bought, sold and drove these unwieldy monsters for only these junkyard machines were available in the market place. And there the matter ended.

The same principle holds in the political arena as well.

It is true we choose our leaders in a highly festive, often carnival like, atmosphere. In spite of the festoons and speeches, posters and ballots, charisma and chicanery, we are really constrained to voting for one or the other candidate that is up in the electoral market place. We cannot choose our ideal candidate for that person figures nowhere on the ballot paper.

Why is this so? There are frequent comments in the media and also among idle gossipers that good honest citizens should join politics and cleanse the democratic system of the accumulated filth of decades of administrative malpractice and misrule. Why don’t such people turn up? It is a democracy after all. Where are they hiding? And why? Don’t educated people have a sense of commitment to their country? 

True and false. We are in a democracy but this does not mean that anyone with a gold nugget for a heart can enter politics, walk on water and lead us to that promised land. Just as a monopolist raises the price of competition in a “free market” through advertising, among other things, politicians too raise the price of joining politics by introducing violence as a basic qualification. Anyone in this business should have the ability to control, inflict and resist violence. Without the attribute one cannot even think of taking the first baby step towards political activism.

It is just not money that makes the political mare go, but one needs a whip hand as well. This is particularly true of newly emerging democracies where the electoral spirit is willing but democratic institutions are weak. It is against this background that the rise of dynastic politics can be best understood.

Pakistan has a population of over 150 million, and India is famously a land of a billion people, and yet we constantly depend on certain families to provide us the political leadership. The reason clearly is not that we are lacking in drive and resources as individuals but we lack the wherewithal of violence to make the political grade. While India can boast of a million enterprises booming every year, this does not translate easily into the realm of politics for violence stands guard as the gate keeper to political fortunes.

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto could have resulted in the leadership of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) going to somebody outside the family, but this was not to be. If Bilawal has taken over the reins in spite of being a political ingénue, it is simply because his family can control violence, take violence and ride on violence. This is true of other political families too in the region. How many can rise after a cruel assassination of a loved one to enter the political fray and risk everything? It has to be somebody who has lived alongside violence, seen it from close quarters and is not alarmed by its entry into their private spaces.

When we hear of a father grooming his daughter or a mother her son or a husband his wife it is really to inure the initiate from a natural repulsion towards violence. I have heard it being said, not just in the case of Benazir, that those who inherit the mantle from their dead ancestor or spouse, have lived, breathed and thought politics for the better part of their lives. This is certainly true. But it is not as if they learnt the craft of administration, the skills of statesmanship, diplomatic finesse, or whatever, but it is rather the ease with which they can handle violence and live alongside it, that qualifies them for the job.

It is not as if dynastic politics only happens at the top. Take a look at political satraps in India. From Shard Pawar, to Karunanidhi to Maulayam Singh Yadav, to Deve Gowda everywhere, in every corner of India, we see the familiar sight of fathers pushing sons and daughters, and husbands grooming wives, to take to politics. The principle of open competition, so that the best get into politics, is easily subverted because only certain people of exceptional social upbringing can handle violence as calmly as taking in air. A mother dies, the son steps in, a husband killed and the daughter walks in, is such a familiar routine that it must depend on some exceptional qualities that these people possess. It is certainly not brilliance, foresight, erudition or heart, but rather the experience of living with violence- facing it and using it- that separates political families from the rest. 

It does not matter then if Bilawal is still under age and cannot vote, he nevertheless qualifies to be the Chairman of the PPP. What sets him, and others like him apart, is his upbringing in a political family where violence is a familiar intruder forever leaning against the doorbell. This is a rare background and does not come easy. Politics is not for the faint hearted or the honest do-gooder. This is why we almost never get the leaders we deserve.

Every time a ghastly assassination happens at the top, such as that of Benazir, it raises by that much more the entry price into politics all the way down to the lowest functionary. This effectively shuts out the good guys and the field is left only for those who can handle violence with ease. That all this is done under a supposed “democratic” system should not blind us to the fact that the players out there in the middle are not our ideological representatives, or our inspiration points, but are patrons in command or in waiting. If violence is the key political qualification then law abiding citizens can only function from the sidelines, now casting their vote for one patron, now for another. The choice is really limited.

Patron politics is not incompatible with electoral politics. We can democratically choose our patrons and swing from one extreme to another in search of someone who will deliver and address some of our aspirations. By definition a patron is one who either breaks or lives on the edge of law, or else the person is of little use. What violence does is that it makes the system all the more susceptible to higher and higher levels of patronage politics. It does not matter if PPP comes in, or Nawaz Sharif, violence is now endemic in the system and assassinations such as that of Benazir Bhutto only reaffirms this tendency.

So every time a political leader is killed we must mourn not only for the departed patron but also for the further diminution of democratic politics in the substantive sense. Elections can still be held but it will be a contest between people who can control and inflict violence. To believe that after a leader has been brutally murdered there will be a lot of soul searching in the political realm is wishful thinking. We have heard it being said after Benazir was shot that Pakistan politicians are taking a long hard look at the role of violence in order to root it out of the political system. This was also said when Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were killed.  Indeed, this is a standard, protocol announcement made by those who have survived the assassination or have been touched by it as political activists. But it is just the opposite that actually happens. 

The truth is that after every such incident the level of violence rises significantly as the price for entering politics. This is why we never get the leaders we deserve.

Dipankar Gupta is Professor of Sociology, Center for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. From September to December 2007, he was a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. This piece appeared first on January 3, 2008 in the Mail Today, New Delhi.

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