Posts Tagged ‘Leadership’

Democracy in Distress

June 27, 2016

By Anjum Altaf 

Over two thousand years ago Plato was skeptical of democracy because he felt that voters, even those restricted to property-owning male citizens, were swayed too easily by the rhetoric of self-serving politicians.

Democracy disappeared for over 1,500 years following its demise in Athens and it was only then that its slow evolution began in England and spread to other parts of the world. Doubts regarding its efficacy persisted but were countered by arguments that it was the worst form of government except for all others.

Not that this was considered universally applicable – during colonialism it was openly asserted that natives were not ready for democracy. Similar reservations regarding the developing world persisted beyond the end of colonialism. In the 1990s the late Richard Holbrooke was reported to have said: “Suppose elections are free and fair and those elected are racists, fascists, separatists — that is the dilemma.”

We rightly attribute these attitudes to the realpolitik that rationalized empire-building and later interventions to replace democratic governments with pliant authoritarian ones. They were just as self-serving as their more recent converse – regime-change with the professed aim of promoting democracy.

Nevertheless, the intellectual challenge to democracy was unaddressed – after all Hitler was popularly elected and voters have often elected leaders who they themselves condemn as thieves and rascals. Genuine doubts regarding the capacity of the electoral process to yield competent leadership remain and the democratic experiment is not old enough to argue unequivocally that the case is closed.

The revival of this debate now is due to the turmoil in the democratic homeland – governmental gridlock, the surge in extremist sentiment all over Europe, and the emergence of Trump as a presidential candidate in the US. As one comment put it: “With a vain fool like Trump on the political stage in America and racist bigots and know-nothings voting all over the world it’s a good time to ponder the wisdom of the political systems that allow this to happen.”

In this context the political theorist Daniel Bell has made waves with his book, The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, in which he has questioned the article of faith that one-person-one-vote is the best way of selecting leaders. He offers as a credible alternative the still-evolving Chinese model based on democratic local elections and meritocratic selection of top national leaders. In this system, local leaders handling basic issues of service delivery remain accountable to voters but national leaders who need to make complex and unpopular decisions are chosen based on knowledge and experience.

Similar reservations about democratic decision-making have been expressed more recently by Richard Dawkins with reference to the British referendum on EU membership. Dawkins asks: “How should I know? I don’t have a degree in economics. Or history. How dare you entrust such an important decision to ignoramuses like me… You want your surgeon to know anatomy… Why would you entrust your country’s economic and political future to know-nothing voters like me?”

Heated exchanges on the relative merits of Western and Asian values had erupted a few decades back in the wake of the East Asian crisis but the self-serving claims lacked objectivity. The challenge from scholars like Bell and Dawkins carries more legitimacy because they do not have political or economic interests at stake.

The point of airing this argument is not to assert that democracy in Pakistan should be replaced by military dictatorship or monarchy. Rather, it is to urge a critical examination of the rules underpinning the electoral process by which leaders are selected and made accountable. Much has changed since the birth of democracy in England – corporations more powerful than many countries did not exist then and neither did the means of swaying voters now available. With the visible transition of democracy to plutocracy in the US and the dangerous manipulation of extremist sentiments, it should be obvious that reforms are required to repair the systemic distortions that have accrued over time.

Electoral systems are nothing more than sets of rules. Consider some that exist in the US – primaries to select party candidates, first-past-the-post elections, super delegates with decisive power, the Electoral College, and the treatment of corporations as individuals. Change any of these and the outcomes could be different. At the same time, failure to agree on rules can have tragic outcomes as witnessed in the Indian subcontinent in 1947.

Debates are structured around ideas and critical ideas are nurtured in schools and colleges that have failed to do an adequate job in Pakistan. It is no wonder that our popular discourse remains mired in a simplistic choice between democracy and dictatorship ignoring the hard work of assessing the set of electoral reforms that would improve governance and promote leaders that are more competent and accountable to citizens.

This op-ed was published in Dawn on June 26, 2016 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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The General Leaves His Labyrinth

August 15, 2011

By Hasan Altaf

There is, I imagine, no one on earth whose understanding of the past is completely without bias, but this problem must be particularly acute when it comes to those who, once upon a time, were responsible for creating that past: those who could change, in ways however small, the course of events, who could, or imagined they could, control whatever forces were in play, who could and did shape history. Maybe it would be best to take their versions of events with not just a grain of salt but also a pinch of pity, because for them, the stakes of this game must be higher than they are for the rest of us. They made the world we have today; all we have to do is live in it. (more…)

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…)

Pakistan: An Idiosyncratic Road to Better Governance

August 11, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

One has to sympathize with Pakistan at this time beset as it is with problems from all sides. The focus ought to be on ensuring survival. But surely there must be some thought that extends beyond the sympathy, beyond the jaded expressions of shock and sorrow. Will Pakistan continue to lurch from crisis to crisis? Will this cycle of pray and beg, beg and pray, ever come to an end?

It will, but perhaps not in the way we would like. There is no such thing as equilibrium; it exists only as an idealized state in textbooks of economics. In the real world, things either get better or they get worse. And who will now dispute that, in general, things have been trending down in Pakistan mostly as the result of self-inflicted wounds. (more…)

Ghalib – 26: A Tale Told by an Idiot?

March 20, 2009

Last week’s selection is nicely followed up by the following couplet:

baaziichah-e atfaal hai dunyaa mire aage
hotaa hai shab-o-roz tamaashaa mire aage

the world is a game/plaything of children, before me
night and day, a spectacle occurs before me

From resignation (ho rahega kuchh nah kuchh ghabraayeN kyaa) to equanimity (hotaa hai shab-o-roz tamaashaa mire aage) seems quite appropriate. After all, how seriously can one (or ought one) to take what goes on in the world?

Take for example, the current events in Pakistan. Do they have any import? In its over 60 years of existence, how many leaders have come and gone whose names are virtually impossible to recall but who were so incredibly important in their own times?

How well Ghalib fuses into Shakespeare:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.
— Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5)

And yet, while the fools strut and fret and blunder their ways to dusty death, full of sound and fury signifying nothing, they still inflict tremendous damage on the poor country whose stage they occupy and whose audience they insult with their antics.

And for that reason, much as one might want to withdraw and muse over the spectacle as a spectacle, one needs to engage to ensure that the degree of foolishness declines over time.

And this brings us to some points to ponder:

Why has the quality of leadership declined so steeply in Pakistan?

Has there been a similar decline in the quality of leadership in other countries in South Asia? If yes, what are the systemic forces leading to this deterioration? If no, what explains the variations in the different countries?

Are there any reasons to expect the quality of leadership to improve over time?

See Mehr-e-Niimroz for a literary interpretation of this week’s couplet which is linked to our post on the Long March at the suggestion of Amit Basole.

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Ghalib – 20: Leaders and Followers

January 24, 2009

How do we decide whom to follow? Ghalib has some advice:

laazim nahiiN ke kih Khizr kii ham pairavii kareN
jaanaa kih ek buzurg hameN ham-safar mile

it is not necessary that we follow in the footsteps of Khizr
we consider that we have a venerable-elder as a fellow-traveler

Hazrat Khizr is the most revered guide to the lost in Islamic folk tradition and Ghalib is saying that we do not need to follow in the footsteps of Khizr. Why?

Ghalib has faith in the individual; he wants every human being to use his or her mind first. Ghalib is not rejecting advice but he wishes the advice to be just another input into our decision-making as we proceed on our journey through life. A knowledgeable fellow traveler is fine, but a leader to be followed blindly is not recommended.

What do you think of the advice of Ghalib?

Well, it is clear that Ghalib would not wish us to follow his own advice blindly but to reflect upon it and use it as a venerable-elder’s contribution to our stock of knowledge.

So let us reflect upon his advice and see how we can interpret our recent past in its light.

Consider the advice of international agencies to developing countries. Almost all countries accepted the loans but only those that used the funds according to their own visions and priorities benefited from their use. Most East Asian countries that succeeded belong to this category – think of China with its prescription of ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’. On the other hand, all countries that followed the advice uncritically and allowed the agencies to sit in the driving seat, Pakistan being the major example in South Asia, did very poorly indeed.

Or consider the time when many young idealists in South Asia became the followers of Karl Marx? They went into the countryside boxing people into Marxist categories like kulaks, middle-peasants etc., and declared religion to be the opiate of the masses. A little reflection might have suggested that the social conditions of Europe that gave rise to Marxism were quite different from those that prevailed in South Asia. Marxism could not be copied blindly; it needed intelligent adaptation to local conditions if its goals of social justice were to be achieved.

And now we have Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar as our modern-day Khizr’s. Is there a case for following their pronouncements blindly even if they argue they are relying on the highest authority for what they proclaim?

And do they even count as venerable elders? There was no doubt about the intellectual credentials of Marx but are bin Laden and Mullah Omar in the same category?

So we actually need to start a step earlier. We have first to decide whether we are dealing with a venerable elder as a fellow traveler or with a charlatan peddling snake oil. Only after we get past this test should we even consider the advice we are being asked to follow.

I feel Ghalib is giving us sound advice. What do you think?

On this theme, see also Ghalib – 9 on leadership. For a literary interpretation see the parallel post on Mehr-e-Niimroz.

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Ghalib – 9

September 18, 2008

With reference to the politics of Pakistan we had explored the topic of impeachment in an earlier verse. This week we lean on Ghalib to talk about the new leadership.

chaltaa huuN thoRii duur har ik tez-rau ke saath
pahchaantaa nahiiN huuN abhii raahbar ko maiN

I go along a little way with every single swift walker
I do not yet recognize the guide

For our purpose, the interpretation of CM Naim is most appropriate:

“The world is full of false leaders. I still do not know who the real leader is. I get deceived by every appearance of rapidity and movement. Every time I see someone proceeding with rapidity I think him to be the guide and walk after him a little way. But that little experience tells me that the man is not the guide I seek. Or is it that I am restless and get quickly drawn to another rapid-mover?”

This is a charitable interpretation: I am ignorant; I believe in every smooth talker; I realize after a while I have been conned but I learn nothing from the experience; I repeat the same process with the next smooth talker; I do not know how to recognize a real leader.

Seems like a description of the Pakistani intelligentsia – Ayub Khan was so blunt and straightforward; Bhutto so charismatic; Zia ul Haq so meek and humble; Musharraf so liberal and enlightened (he even played with dogs).

And Zardari? Listen to this: “I found him charming, easygoing, unpretentious and fun to be with. At the dinner I was struck by the simplicity of his taste in food.” This is part of an op-ed in which the writer signs off with his doctorate from Oxford.

Good to know our rahbar has simple taste in food.

But let us now push a little beyond Ghalib. Is it really the case that these intelligent, literate people are unable to see through these successive smooth talkers out of ignorance? Or is it that they recognize full well the situation and understand that walking a little way along with every smooth talker is to their advantage?

Should we give them the benefit of intelligence? If so, it will shed a different light on our society and culture. We have remarked in a number of earlier posts that we have a monarchical and hierarchical culture in South Asia masquerading as a democracy. An essential characteristic of a darbari culture is sycophancy. At the level of the common man, the phenomenon of lotas is well recognized.

In a hierarchical society where merit does not count for much the goodwill of the monarch is all-important, especially for those who have little merit to start with. And from this follows the importance of fulsome but hypocritical praise.

Sir, your taste in food is so simple!

Are we being too harsh?

See the parallel post on this verse at Mehr-e-Niimroz.

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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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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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