Roots of malaise

Published : Jun 04, 2010 00:00 IST

ILHAN NIAZ, Assistant Professor of History at the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, has ventured on a study of the political culture of Pakistan and its effect on governance. His teaching interests include history, with the history of governance in South Asia as a special field. The research is impressive. One wonders if New Delhi will declassify the records of the Cabinet Secretariat (1947-1965) as Islamabad has evidently done. He has drawn on unpublished official records on police administration and the public service besides a mass of published writings.

The book attempts to explain the decline in the ability of the Pakistani state to govern effectively and in accordance with its own formal constitutional parameters between the 1950s and the 1990s. The primary argument is that the mentality of the westernised ruling elite of Pakistan has steadily regressed into its pre-British form in its ways of exercising power. Thus, the state has come to be treated as a personal estate by the rulers whereby the servants of the state have become personal servants of the powerful members of the executive. This arbitrary exercise of power has re-emerged as a dominant norm and undermined the institutional and psychological principles and practices inherited from the British Empire in India.

Some leading figures in public service did acquire the values of British public life. But to most, the parliamentary system was just a mode of governance shorn of its norms. The seth who converts his firm into a private limited company does not acquire corporate values.

To all such, the entire apparatus of modernity from democracy, constitutionalism, the very idea that the military ought to obey civilian authority, civil society, merit-based recruitment to public service, down to our railways and canals, are parts of the colonial legacy'.

The author rightly points out the error in the concept of decline, not that there was no decline. But even during the Raj legislators were bribed, as the Governor of Bengal reported to the Viceroy in 1923. C. Rajagopalachari and Motilal Nehru were alarmed at the use of money power in elections. As B.R. Ambedkar told the Constituent Assembly, in India democracy is only a top dressing on a soil which is feudal. The author has no use for panacea or institutional tinkering. Only by understanding the causes of failure of earlier regimes in Pakistan can worse be averted. Ironically, Pakistan has been blessed with diplomats and civil servants of world class. A study by S.K. Dehlavi is a good instance.

In the private sector, its most successful members thought corruption useful and necessary' for the generation of profits, evasion of taxes and quick disposal of cases. Even clerics were aggressively using religion in order to advance unjust causes and to protect ill-gotten gains such as the illegal construction of mosques and seminaries on unlawfully occupied land. Over-centralisation at the secretariat combined with the reluctance of junior officials to take decisions at their own levels had created powerful incentives to pay bribes in order to get things done on time as otherwise cases could be kept pending for five to ten years.

Once the pre-British feudal order asserts itself, the state becomes dysfunctional.

The British left behind institutions and practices that were undermined by successive regimes and their administrative collaborators in Pakistan even as the powers, patronage and financial disbursements under the control of the state apparatus increased exponentially. In principle, therefore, the rulers and the servants of the state need to realise that as an administrative state Pakistan must ensure that the best and the brightest are inducted into the officer corps of the state apparatus and that the viability of the state depends on this being done.

The book deserves to be read widely in India and in Pakistan.

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