Never a technocratic government | Talat Masood

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There can be no two opinions that Pakistan’s democracy is highly fragile. Its fragility is manifest in most government decisions, in unbalanced civil-military relations and lack of interest of parliamentarians in legislating laws, policymaking or building national consensus on vital issues. The list is long and unending, and causes enormous suffering especially to the poor on whose votes the politicians comes to power.

But the answer to these weaknesses certainly is not a technocratic government or any other variant of military rule as some proponents of it keep suggesting. Surprisingly, we conveniently forget that we have tried these experiments of trampling democracy for nearly half the life of Pakistan’s existence. Despite the hindsight of four highly damaging martial laws there are misguided voices that would like to drag the nation once again into a few years of so-called technocratic governance.

Ayub’s and Yahya’s eras ended in the catastrophic break-up of Pakistan. The military aid that we received for being a part of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation, the Central Treaty Organisation or the Baghdad Pact did give an artificial boost to the economy and the political support to dictatorial regimes. But invited the wrath of the Soviet Union and at the domestic level strangled the development of democratic institutions. Similarly, Pakistan pays a heavy price for Gen Zia’s and Musharraf’s periods even now.

Zia totally changed the character of the Pakistani state by using religion for political purposes and committing the country to Afghan jihad. Musharraf’s total surrender to American dictates after the events of 9/11 did earn him the legitimacy for which he was desperately looking for but cost the nation heavily. The blunder of Kargil haunts the nation to date. Hundreds of soldiers were martyred and Pakistan’s international credibility suffered a serious blow. The tragic death of Benazir Bhutto occurred under his watch. And the lawyer’s historical movement, triggered by the removal of former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, was a spontaneous outburst of resentment against the regime. The country continued to drift into further chaos and only through the good offices of a former British high commissioner who mediated between him and the PPP leadership that prevented a total meltdown. Needless to mention how militancy kept expanding and sinking in deep roots, especially in Fata, during this period.

If we look back, vested interest groups initially welcomed military or technocratic takeovers but soon the dark reality emerged. The broad narrative to sell these variants is that larger interest of the country is served; but who defines these interests?

Whereas our experience has been that every time a non–elected government has been installed it has pushed the clock back by several years. And Pakistan had to start the journey towards democracy from basics. What is overlooked is that the policies adopted by military regimes continue to haunt us even today. They take decisions and are answerable to no one. So the whole concept of accountability goes by the board. More significantly, succession becomes difficult. As The New York Times editorial once described: “Democracy is the only form of government that, at least theoretically, contemplates its own demise with equanimity.”

A technocratic government is in fact a euphemism or cover for a military government or dictatorship. For who appoints the technocrats, bureaucrats, businessmen or industrialist to run the affairs of the country? It is the choice of the army where the power resides. Thus it would be an indirect if not a direct military rule with which we all are familiar.

The argument that technocratic governments are good for the economy does not hold to scrutiny. For long- and mid-term economic growth, political stability is imperative. At the end of every military rule the treasury has been empty. Moreover, any economic policy that serves the interests of the privileged, which normally is the case during technocratic governments, is unsustainable.

What is needed is to emphasise that the political parties internally become more democratic, transparent and strengthen state institutions. And give high priority to the country’s economic development and betterment of lives of the people. The unfortunate distrust between state institutions is taking a heavy toll on the nation and the people. Pakistan has paid a huge price in the past and continues to do so.

Another disconcerting fact is that countries that acquired independence about the same time or later, such as, India, South Korea and Indonesia are now functional democracies. Ironically, we try to compete with India passionately on every major issue but not so when it comes to progress in democratic consolidation.

This is not to deny that civilian rule has not been chaotic and highly inefficient. In fact, it has failed to meet even the minimum expectations of the people. But in case of civilian rule the people have a choice to reject a political party in power or its leader and elect another one, if they so decide. There is no such option to remove a technocratic government that is fronting dictatorship. The turbulence is far greater. As we have witnessed in Pakistan dictators were literary thrown out either as a consequence of a mass movement or national catastrophe.

What we fail to realise is that during an army rule organic development of civilian institutions and especially the political parties is stunted. A country where institutions and political parties are in infancy the impact is manifold. More significantly, a technocratic government serves elitist interests and during its period the distance between power centres and the people widens. Furthermore, with armed forces heavily committed to fighting internal insurgency and guarding the eastern and western borders it is in the national interest that they fully focus on defence and security challenges.

The challenge for the current and subsequent civilian leadership is to regain full control over foreign, security and defence policies. But this would only be possible by taking greater interest and improve performance. It seems they have resigned to the idea of leaving this primary responsibility in many areas to the army leadership. Irrespective of which institution is responsible for these major weaknesses the fact is the country suffers enormously. No responsible nation can allow this to continue.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 20th, 2017.