The perils of over-centralisation - Zafar Hilaly - Wednesday, March 09, 2011

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Asif Ali Zardari was never cut out for the job. True, Benazir Bhutto wanted him to lead the party till the election of a successor but nothing she said obliged him to make a grab for public office. He landed the job himself. Having got it, to the utter consternation of many, he should have tried to make a good job of it instead of the mess that he has created.

Admittedly, governance is not an exact science but by the time a politician reaches high office, he should have a fairly good idea of the public’s view concerning the difficulties they confront and the remedies, particularly when public conviction is deep-seated and widespread. Besides, being a politician and well past middle age by the time he got elected to high office, he should have had a good idea of the kind of system that would work in his country and plans to bring that about.

When Mr Zardari took office, the foremost concern of the public was the economy. The exchequer had been ravaged by financial indiscipline which had peaked during the irresponsible caretaker set-up headed by Muhammad Mian Soomro. Virtually everything – be it gas, electricity or petrol – was being subsidised by a government on the brink of bankruptcy.

Mr Zardari’s first task should have been to inform the people exactly how he planned to get the economy out of the hole that he had been bequeathed to him and the sacrifices expected of them and of the rich like him. In short, he should have moved quickly to show how he intended to impose fiscal responsibility, strike down avarice, corruption, economic exploitation, uproot privilege and ensure justice and economic opportunity to the masses.

But the economy was ignored and politics took centre stage. We were treated to a hideously contrived display of bonhomie between Mr Zardari and Nawaz Sharif. Their love fests were televised ad nauseam. The amount of (in)sincerity on display was gross. Had they acted naturally and gone their different ways, as any fool knew that they would sooner or later, there would have been less confusion.

For months, no one knew who would be calling the shots on the economy. And just as we were told it was going to be Dar, the PML-N decided to abandon the coalition. Resultantly, a sense of uncertainty took hold and this has grown ever since. Confusion was compounded with the arrival and untimely departure of Shaukat Tareen and it continues under the present incumbent who was fished out of Washington and who looks and acts like a duck out of water.

Mr Zardari must also have known that his reputation was another huge drawback. True or not, the allegations of corruption against him have acquired deep roots in the public mind. To address them, he should have picked men of impeccable repute to man ministerial posts and head financial institutions. Instead, he did the opposite. Sidekicks and ex-felons were appointed to key posts.

To the public, such insensitivity was appalling; it was akin to the egotism, pride, conceit and braggadocio that a petty landlord reserves for his inferiors. Repeated scandals involving his appointees and their public humiliation by the courts have stripped this regime of whatever respect it might have had and any vestiges of sympathy for Mr Zardari personally.

Mr Zardari should have also taken a backseat in the handling of the economy considering that he is neither an economist nor did he have any experience of economic planning at the national level. We would have been spared his numerous u-turns on issues such as the price of petrol, which, if traced on a map would outnumber the contortions of the Karakorum highway as it winds its way to China.

It’s difficult to say what exactly Mr Zardari’s economic philosophy is. At a guess, he is probably a proponent of the ‘trickle-down’ effect that is now in vogue. This theory has been explained thus: ‘if one feeds the horse enough oats some will pass through to the road for the sparrows’ (J K Galbraith). Left unexplained is what the ‘sparrows’ will eat while the ‘horse’ is digesting the oats.

Economic liberalism and the notion that market forces should be allowed to prevail may work in the west, where schemes exist to support victims of market trends and the ruthless competition they engender, but in poorer countries, they do not. Nevertheless, here the state is considered the mai-baap. And no government that leaves its offspring at the mercy of the market can expect to retain the distraught public’s loyalty or their vote.

An additional difficulty in Mr Zardari’s case is his proverbial generosity when it comes to distributing the nation’s wealth; he reportedly does so while never forgetting to omit his friends or himself.

The sad fact is that that Mr Zardari should have known that economic conditions being so bad would eventually boomerang on him and his party. He has nothing to show on that basic issue. Every crisis (energy, water, unemployment, lawlessness) has worsened under him. His mishandling and mismanagement have contributed to that.

But not all of Mr Zardari’s woes are self-created. In Pakistan we either ‘elect’ dictators or are saddled with military dictators. The fact that we can frequently replace the ‘elected dictators’ every so often is not the point. Handing over a country for five years to any one person except Aristotle is foolish.

Power in Pakistan is far too centralised. There are simply too many decisions that only the prime minister or president can legally take. To make matters worse, incumbents develop a fetish for power. They act like control freaks. They want to have the final say on just about everything even on matters about which they are perforce ignorant like, say, which variety of wheat seeds would best germinate in the dust bowls of Baluchistan. If they ever delegate authority, it is only to recall it when it suits their fancy. In short, they act like ‘know alls’, a trait which Mr Zardari reportedly possesses in abundance.

The chief ministers too regard themselves as the fount of all wisdom in the provinces. They hog the ministries for themselves; treat the minister entrusted with the portfolio as a factotum and hire and fire civil servants at whim. Shahbaz Sharif is the epitome of this particular failing.

I once asked Benazir Bhutto why she needed to sign off on the visit of two lowly officials to Kabul to service the communications system of our Embassy. I pointed out that this was an annual affair which any section officer who is able to read a calendar could decide.

‘I need to know,’ was her response.

‘But why?’ I persisted.

‘Because it is in the Rules of Business,’ was her reply.’But, prime minister,’ I remarked, ‘why do you not change the Rules of Business by moving a summary at the next cabinet meeting? Your predecessors had no compunction about tearing up the Constitution when it suited them. Besides you would be saving countless hours by not having to be bothered with trivia’.

‘I need to know,’ she reiterated and that was that.

Of course, no explanation was ever forthcoming for her stance, nor why we should persevere with the current dysfunctional system that produces over-centralisation and makes for bad decision making. The trouble is that if Mr Zardari were to blame the system for his lack of success, no one would believe him and there would be an outcry ‘of a poor workman blaming his tools’ but for once he would be right.

The writer is a former ambassador. Email:

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