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Paleo governance

Every year a new diet becomes popular. One year it’s the Mediterranean diet. The next year it’s the Atkin’s diet. Then it’s the cabbage soup diet followed by people swearing that kale smoothies three times a day are the only way to go. Currently, the most popular diet is Paleo – the idea that if we only eat like Neanderthals we will be able to recover our youthful figures. I have tried all of the above diets and like most people, am still very far from my ideal weight. What I now know is what I knew before I tried each of the various diets: if you want to lose weight, eat less and exercise more. And do it consistently.

The problem with common sense though is that it is not news. Common sense doesn’t sell. And so it is that people like me rush from diet to diet, never losing weight permanently and yet never losing faith that a sylph-like figure is just around the corner. The point of this elaborate introduction is not to talk about food. Instead, the point is that good advice remains good advice, even if it isn’t fashionable.

I mention all of this because there is obviously a tremendous pent up demand in Pakistan for better governance. The most recent illustration of this anger came in the form of rebellious passengers on a PIA flight who reacted to a two-hour delay by verbally assaulting the VIP allegedly responsible for the delay (the previous government’s minister of the interior, Rehman Malik). This being the Information Age, the abuse hurled at Malik was captured on a cell-phone video and has since been viewed with much delight by millions.

Predictably, the Rehman Malik incident has been used by our container-wallahs to justify their own rebellions against the state. A new Pakistan is coming, they say; one in which the masses will rise up and refuse to accept the corruption and misgovernance that has been their lot so far.

The problem for the Imran Khan’s excitable band of followers is that there is a very significant difference between what the PIA passengers did and what Imran Khan is urging. What the passengers did was to revolt against the abuse of an existing system. If the PIA passengers had done the equivalent of what Imran Khan is demanding, they would have thrown out the entire PIA flight crew as well and then demanded that the plane be flown by the passenger with the most wickets in international cricket.

Look, nobody disputes that Pakistan has problems. But just like fad diets don’t fix weight problems, quick fixes don’t fix governance problems. Governance takes time. More importantly, it requires consistency. It may not be fashionable to admit this, but the fact remains that the Musharraf years saw a lot of very positive steps being taken in terms of governance. Local government, police reform, tax reform, higher education reform – the list is actually pretty long. Many of those reforms were however writ on nothing more than water and when the politicians became entrenched, many of those reforms were either repealed or diluted into nothingness.

How then does one fix a country like Pakistan? The short answer is, slowly. Yes, it would be great if we had a dynamic, far-seeing, corruption-free political regime that was free from all petty considerations. But we’re not going to get one. And the only thing our feverish search for a saviour is going to do is to prevent ourselves from getting on with the business of living.

What we keep forgetting is that most of the world didn’t transition overnight from corrupt kleptocracies into liberal democracies. Yes, some countries have leaped into the front rank very quickly – Singapore being the paramount example. But for every Singapore, there is a North Korea. And for every Lee Kuan Yew, there is a Kim II Sung.

The fact that we are still having this idiotic debate in Pakistan is particularly perplexing because we have had ample experience of dictatorships. And yet we keep wishing for miracles. A friend of mine recently returned from a trip to southern Punjab where he worked with the army on flood relief. After the trip, his Facebook update was effusive in its praise of the men he had worked with. But then came the kicker: “The civil government should abdicate its responsibilities to the Pakistan Army, at least until our current breed of politicians has been put to sleep.”

The problem with this binary perspective is that it assumes the army exists somehow independent of the ‘civil government’. This is entirely incorrect. I am delighted that the army is doing a good job with its flood relief efforts. But the reason why the army was able to help my friend with his flood relief efforts is because the entire state of Pakistan helps pay for a modern, highly effective military which has more than half a million men at its service. It is the civil government and more specifically, its tax collection machinery, that allows our army to function as well as it does.

But the fact that the army does a good job of doing its job is no basis for assuming that the army can do other jobs as well. In fact, the assumption made by highly successful people that they are somehow more likely to succeed in every other field is a flaw recognised by modern psychology. This is a lesson that our armed forces have learnt after multiple attempts at trying to show the bloody civilians how a state should be run. And it is a lesson that Imran Khan needs to learn.

Modern political philosophy is normally traced back to ‘Leviathan’, the masterwork of Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes, born in 1588, spent a large part of his life in exile in France as a consequence of the English Civil War. This close exposure to political turmoil in turn informs the political philosophy of Leviathan.

In simple terms, what Leviathan argues is that left to their own devices, human beings are insecure and violent beings who will only kill each other. Hobbes’ view of life without governance, or what he referred to as “the state of nature” was thus decidedly bleak. In such a condition, he argued that there could be no place for industry (“because the fruit thereof is uncertain”), no progress in the arts and sciences and “which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death.” In short, life in a state of nature would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

My point here is that anarchy is not a desirable condition for any country. And in our case, attacking the legitimacy of state organs is a particularly dangerous tactic. Pakistan is not a stable country. On the contrary, it is a dangerous bundle of contradictions lashed together by the remnants of the governmental structures bequeathed by the English to us. We have spent 68 years lurching from crisis to crisis and from dictatorship to dictatorship. It is about time we had a little less excitement in our lives, not more.

Backyard games are notorious for coming to an unscheduled halt when the person who has provided the equipment becomes upset at being given out and decides to take his bat (or ball) and go home. Or as Punjabis describe this approach, “na khedaan gay, na khedan deyaan gay.”

What we are seeing with the PTI’s never-ending dharna is just a manifestation of this deeply unsportsmanlike attitude. Yes, I know politics is far more important than sports. But then all the more reason for the people involved to show some maturity. After all, we teach our children not to be sore losers. One expects somewhat better of our leaders.

The writer is an advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Twitter: @laalshah

Feisal Naqvi, "Paleo governance," The News. 2014-09-27.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social needs , National issues , Civil war , Military-Pakistan , Government-Pakistan , Society-Pakistan , Corruption , Violence , Politicians , Democracy , Politics , Rehman Malik , Gen Musharraf , Imran Khan , Thomas Hobbes , Singapore , North Korea , Pakistan , VIP , PIA , PTI