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Branding developmentalism?

The recent Pildat-Gallup poll showed that Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf’s Acceptability Gap – measured by the difference between voting intention and hostility – is positive in all eight (out of the total eleven) classified territories the party is present in. While this does not imply victory for the PTI, it surely goes on to prove that nowhere in the country does the party invite hostility, which is obviously a good thing.

Another way to read it is that the PTI at least exists on everybody’s preference curve – unlike its rivals who are not necessarily on everybody’s preference list. This is a good position to be at because it implies that if the PTI improves its electability, then it can potentially upset the electoral status quo. The question is how to improve electability.

The public at large – and I am not talking about the politically astute ones – currently sees two big question marks looming over PTI: a) the joining or not joining of ‘same-old same-old’ (read: corrupt) politicians in the party ranks or otherwise making an alliance with them at some point before or after elections. And b) the relatively small size of known and tested leadership.

These are relevant questions, but not without answers. And the answers can be found in the growing discourse on development – a theme with which PTI can be identified with – especially its relationship with institutions and leadership. PTI’s election manifesto is due to be released on March 23. But its economic and educational policies announced so far, reveal that the party has a developmental agenda. In broad conception, the very name of the party revolves around distributing justice by setting the institutions right, a notion that has grown to become one of the arch-pillars of the developmental literature.

Let us see how the two questions marks looming over PTI can be answered in the light of recent developmental literature. The first question pertains to the perceived inability of PTI to form a government on its own. Vox populi reasoning so goes that if the PTI wants to form government, it will either have to let the ‘same-old same-old’ politicians join its party ranks or otherwise join hands with them by way of an alliance. As much repelling as it may sound, and as much the PTI may deny the very idea of it, romancing with the ‘same-old same-old’ lot is not exactly out of line with the developmental literature.

Adrian Leftwich, a prominent scholar of the politics of development, notes that development has also managed to come around in states that are run by corrupt elites – just as long as these elites are relatively less corrupt and as long as they are determined in the cause of development, independent of the special interest groups.

This is where the role of leadership becomes important, which in part answers the second question. The PTI may have a small army of leaders; the popular list perhaps stops at Imran Khan, Javed Hashmi, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Jehangir Tareen and some lesser known technocratic faces like Asad Umar and Ali Asghar Khan.

However, traits of strong developmental leadership need not be present in all members of the developmental or transformational elite, but only in a small clique of people who hold top positions. Research by Leftwich, Elisa Reis and Mick Moore reveals that leaders committed to development and transformation are no more than 3 percent of those at the helm.

In his recent book on the role of leadership in the politics of development – a subject that has seen little serious academic research – the American political scientist, Robert Rotberg notes that it is leaders who beget good governance. Robust institutions and rule of law “do not emerge in a vacuum but only as a result of early and careful leadership attention to core values”, writes Rotberg in his book titled ‘Transformative Political Leadership’.

Rotberg supports his thesis with the case studies of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Seretse Khama in Botswana, Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore and Kemal Ataturk in Turkey. This message is in line with the studies discussed by Melo, Ng’ethe & Manor in their recent book called ‘Against the Odds’.

Drawing on three case studies from India, Uganda and Brazil, ‘Against the Odds’ brings home the point that political agency matters – and that politicians ought to be given central position in the analysis of governance and development. So how should PTI answer the two questions to woo its voters and brighten its electoral prospects? The following two important messages could be put across to masses using easily comprehensible political marketing.

First, even if – and that’s a big if – the PTI joins hands with the ‘same-old same-old’ politicians, the key thing to watch is their determination towards development, their performance in their political or non-political associations, and their relatively less corrupt nature. And second, the small size of key leadership should not be a worrying factor; developmental elites usually form a small clique and not necessarily a wide array.

If successfully marketed, these two facts can help allay at least some doubts over PTI’s electability and build up on its positive acceptability gap. And while we are at it, it is also time for Pakistan’s economics establishment to recalibrate its understanding that economic development, whether conceived in institutional form or not, cannot be analysed in isolation of politics, politicians and history.

In the same vein, if politics centred around developmentalism is to gain foothold in Pakistan – an option on which Maliha Lodhi and others mulled on the book ‘Pakistan: Beyond the Crisis State’ – then it becomes necessarily for local academia and the media to take an in-depth look at the developmental histories of parties and politicians and accordingly present it to the public at large.

(The writer is a development consultant)

Sohaib Jamali, "Branding developmentalism?," Business recorder. 2013-03-16.