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Monday, December 7, 2015

The Sharifs’ sixer

Monday, December 07, 2015

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.

Confident yet insecure. Well-established yet floundering. Unchallenged yet hobbled. In control yet struggling. The marvellous contradictions of the Sharifs are both amusing and worrying.

Amusing because they yield comical sights like federal ministers’ childish in-fights over petty personal matters; worrying because the existential challenges confronting Pakistan require the federal and Punjab governments to inject immediate sense and long-term purpose into its functioning rather than act like a lost souls in lost woods protected merely by good luck and happy accidents.

The Sharifs’ contradictions are not products of structural issues: a weak majority, a coup-plotting army, a motivated and ambitious judiciary, a feisty opposition with capacity to turn the tables. There is no economic meltdown looming large on the horizon, nor a regional war sucking time, money and energies in its vortex. The Sharifs have more blessings to count than curses to mourn. And with local bodies polls over, the ruling family can easily be defined as arguably the most well-placed in national politics since the days of the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

What, then, is the problem? There isn’t one. Or two. Or three. There are many, and multiple – a sixer really.

The first is the inability to separate politics from governance. All political entities pay homage to their origins. All political animals strive to sustain the habitat they are born in. But modern politics allows considerable space to vault over the bar of political considerations. Sacrificing political interests and confronting supportive lobbies for larger goals is the done thing. Not so in the world of the Sharifs where everything is negotiable – except what is politically important. Governance can wait.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the manner in which Premier Sharif handles his cabinet and close colleagues. The interior minister runs his own kingdom and, depending on his mood, may or may not feel obliged to present a performance card to his political boss, who, in turn, feels obliged to keep his minister in good humour because he is, after all, the one and only Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan. Whether he is up to the mark or not, is besides the point.

Just as besides the point is accountability of other cabinet ministers, including the formidable Khawaja Asif handling the energy sector, or any other member. Shuffling around bureaucrats is considered the best way to retrofit a team that looks clumsy and is constantly underperforming. And because Punjab is run by worthy brother Shehbaz Sharif – a natural exemption from any probe and critical query – therefore the entire edifice remains beyond the pale of a governance audit.

The second problem is that the auditor in chief, the prime minister, has not exactly set great standards of governance in the little backyard that he exclusively control – the capital city, Islamabad. This is because the prime minister seems to think that is he is too big and strategic a leader to worry about small-scale disasters like non-functioning hospitals, increasing crime rates, a rag-tag police force, growing monopolies of real-estate mafias, and a judicio-legal system that is primed to serve the rich and the resourceful.

Islamabad is a prime example of a poorly-governed unit. The prime minister’s presence in the city does nothing for its citizens. The city is outsourced to part-time managers, some personal favourites of the Sharifs and some clingers who are always around the PM House.

This neglect is born out of a third problem: mistaking projects for vision and abiding belief in the misleading idea that as long as high visibility – roads, bridges, buses, buildings – is ensured there is little need for digging deep into the governance needs of the people.

That is why polluted water that kills more people in Pakistan than any other factor does not exist as an item on any high-ranking official meeting agenda. We have not heard the prime minister dwell at any length, long or short, on police reform, arguably the single most important variable in improving law and order. Reforming bureaucracy, the tool that takes policy out of the files to the implementation stage, is considered a subject too dry to merit any attention. There are hundreds of ways the Sharifs can push the country up on the scale of improved governance, touching people’s lives and setting the stage for deep, durable change – but they won’t.

This is also the cause of the fourth problem: allowing challenges to become crises before undertaking measures to address them. There is near-zero preparation for or anticipation of obstacles that might rear their head in the way ahead. That is why the Sharifs are perpetually unprepared for everything that happens, and then when it happens, they typically burst into a reactive mode, over-killing, overcompensating, over-committing.

It had to take Imran Khan’s near-suicidal dharna in Islamabad for PM Sharif to discover the value of parliament just as it took an audacious press release from ISPR for him to notice that his government needed to work diligently on any number of points of the National Action Plan besides doing many projects all around to show the government’s ‘presence’. Between the dharna and the ISPR press release lies more than a full year but in terms of what triggers action on the part of the Sharifs, little has changed. They wait and wait till something breaks on their heads for them to wake up and respond.

This propensity to postpone seemingly unattractive but central issues or not actively imagining the future, is the result of a long-standing political malaise that has afflicted the Sharifs: revolt against the established logic of institutionalised functioning. This is the reason that Shehbaz Sharif – despite being a chief minister – acts more like a mayor or a sheriff and the prime minister prefers to studiously avoid all institutionalised engagements where different positions have to be reconciled and agendas have to be advanced through concessions and modifications. This is also why the prime minister would rather meet the army chief in person than through the forum of the National Security Committee.

He would prefer to take up provincial matters in person through bilaterals with the chief ministers rather than through the Council of Common Interests. He would rather interface with party members individually than through party mechanisms, and would meet allies over a cup of tea than in parliament or give face time to cabinet ministers in the PM House than in cabinet meetings. He and his brother have very little interest in working the system by respecting the requirement of institutionalised functioning, which, we all know, is the strongest check on the exercise of authority in a parliamentary form of government.

And there lies the root of problem number six: Prime Minister Sharif is officially a prime minister but he functions like a president – an Obama, an Erdogan, a Putin. He likes to do things on his own and believes that what lies in his head and heart is superior to the collective wisdom or will being expressed through a counter-narrative by ‘others’. His idea of leadership is – has always been – to relentlessly pursue his views through policy, if possible, or through backdoor, in secret and without any debate and institutional scrutiny.

That he needs to craft consensus and seek prior approval of his team and allies is something he is most uncomfortable with. This makes him change his prime ministerial spots into presidential ones. In his world, his kitchen cabinet is his set of presidential advisors who are there to endorse his thought process or marginally modify it. He embodies policy. His actions are national initiatives. Shehbaz Sharif is a provincial version of this model, a governor rather than a chief minister.

With these six afflictions in play, it is no wonder that the Sharifs, even after all the power they have amassed, look more petrified than pretty in the seats they occupy. It is their style of politics that makes them look so challenged even when there is hardly any challenge to their hold, and forces them to constantly look over their shoulders when they really should be looking ahead.


Twitter: @TalatHussain12 

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