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Withering away of the state

Even before it could take root, the state has been withering away in Pakistan. Its existence, as an entity larger and more encompassing than a government – one of its constituents – has been eroding since long. But a society without the protection of the state and its laws and institutions lies at the mercy of power players – economic, political, ethnic, sectarian and others. Whoever flexes more powerful muscles is able to walk away with whatever resources of the society that can be usurped.

“The first building-block” in any exercise of nation-building, said Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore, in a meeting with this writer, is “whether the laws are made for the benefit of the rulers or the people at large.” Special laws and privileges and their selective enforcement cut at the roots of nation-building efforts, as well as the stability of the state. Special interests become emboldened to take precedence over national interest. Consequently, the state and its long-term interests suffer.

After the emergence of the Central Asian Republics as sovereign independent states in 1991, this writer had an opportunity to present a strategy paper before Dr Mahathir Muhammad, prime minister of Malaysia, in Kuala Lumpur. The presentation argued for Pakistan and Malaysia to work together to enter Central Asian markets. While Dr Mahathir agreed with the main features of the strategy. he observed that he had several times instructed his professional and business teams to study various policies of Pakistan with a view to working together. By the time his teams completed their research, Pakistani governments had usually changed their policies – sometimes because of changes in administration, other times even within the duration of the same government! How can a country try to foster long-term relations with Pakistan when its national policies are changed by its rulers so easily and frequently, he asked.

One of the first lessons for anyone intending to take a leadership position in Pakistan should be to recognise and respect the difference between the state and the government, and to remember that governments are formed to use instruments of national power to protect and promote the larger and more permanent interests of the state – which is the political manifestation of the whole nation. Not the other way around.

While those who control levers of power in government do not hesitate to look after their own interests, the teeming millions of Pakistanis are always left out in the cold.

That is less likely to happen in a state where the difference between the state and government is eroding and the state is not conducting its duties and functions as required by the laws and the constitution of the country.

While the fragility and dependence of its economy on outside sources of funding have been increasing, state institutions have been incapacitated – and sometimes disallowed – to collect taxes owed to it under existing laws. For years, it has not been able to collect taxes from more than about one percent of the population. Not knowing how to meet the yawning resource gap, the state has sold about 200 state-owned enterprises, not so much to attract new investments and technologies but to pay off debts incurred on account of incompetent, corrupt and cronyism. But since the root causes of poor governance have remained unresolved, Pakistan has suffered. While its state-owned assets built with public money have disappeared, the burden of national debt on the people has continued to mount even higher.

As regards its regulatory function, while billions are borrowed every year in the name of the state at home and abroad, regulatory institutions had not been monitoring whether public money in banks, stock market, etc., was properly handled, rather than penalising the abuse of trust or auditing where the money involved in ‘development funds’ is going and plugging the loopholes. Such benign neglect towards the use of public funds encourages even larger waste and misdirection of money. Consequently, the state has been made to borrow more in the last five years than in the previous 60 years.

And when it comes to providing safety and security to citizens, while media space and time is often filled with horrors of all kinds of human tragedies in cities, towns and the countryside, the state can’t seem to figure out who is doing all the killings, kidnappings and extortions, nor prosecute the culprits, get them convicted and put away to fulfil its responsibilities of providing safety and security to its citizens. That there is a method in the madness played out in front of the nation became clear when a provincial chief of police informed the Supreme Court that 40 percent of his police force is politically appointed, ill-disciplined and practically outside his command and control.

Because the state is an organic entity, rot injected into one of its components spreads to other components as well. It is not realistic to disable the state from functioning in areas that we may not like, and then expect it to be efficient, honest and effective in delivering results in other areas.

One by one, state institutions have been losing their capacity or been rendered unable to discharge their duties and functions required of them under the laws and the constitution. By eroding the difference between the state and government, we are adding to the frustrations of ordinary folks with a system of governance that does not hold any hope for their fortunes to improve, as was evidenced by their response to the PEW survey of 2012.

That is why the upcoming elections are generating so much interest. As the opportunity arrives for electing new leaders for governance of the state, people’s faith in the electoral process is being restored by courageous decisions of the Election Commission of Pakistan, which is conveying to all that in a democracy, politics and governance can only be conducted under the law and not above and beyond it. And the beginning towards this end must be made by respecting the laws and constitutional provisions – however much these provisions may have been neglected in the past.

The Election Commission is receiving full support from the Supreme Court and the armed forces in its efforts to cleanse the process from corrupt and coercive practices. This would also help rectify problems associated with the process of withering of the state. The big winner, if this exercise is conducted according to the letter and spirit of the law, would be none other than democracy itself.

The writer specialised in FDI from MIT and designed the Board of Investment and the First Women Bank. Email: smshah@alum.mit.edu

Syed Mohibullah Shah, "Withering away of the state," The News. 2013-01-07.