Democracy/Governance / 06.01.2017

By Anjum Altaf The most recent written examination for the Central Superior Services (CSS) has been characterized by two stark statistics: a dismal overall success rate of about 2% and a steep failure rate of 92% in English, a compulsory subject. The first statistic has attracted much attention with commentators attributing the abysmally low pass percentage to the poor standard of education in the country. The second has been cited in passing only as reportage without generating any serious analysis. I believe there is much to be gained by exploring what it reveals. On face value the CSS results do suggest a declining quality of education in the country, something educationists have been been highlighting for a while. Irrespective of other causes, this is an inevitable consequence of the supply of competent teachers lagging the demand in the absence of any serious investment in teacher training. More...

Democracy/Governance / 21.12.2016

By Anjum Altaf The result of the most recent examination for the Central Superior Services (CSS) - in which around 10,000 candidates appeared and 200 passed - has elicited much commentary. Most of it, a lament on the falling standard of education, has been predictable. A different perspective is more intriguing: It lauds the examination for being meritocratic and so rigorous that it selects the very best for the civil service, which, it argues, is all to the good. Does this claim hold water? I argue otherwise based on evidence, observation, and investigation. First, the evidence: If the claim is correct, the quality of the civil service should have been improving over time. Even insiders accept that is far from the case. Second, the observation: As one involved with mentoring undergraduates, I have seen the most creative and perceptive students fail the test and the relatively mediocre succeed....

Democracy/Governance / 08.08.2016

By Anjum Altaf Brexit has triggered two arguments about democracy: (1) Voters are ignorant, and (2) Representatives are selfish. In either case the implications for governance are grave. It is significant that the questions are being asked in the West. They have always been on the table in countries like Pakistan but dismissed as reflecting the limitations of people rather than of democracy. The answers in Pakistan are clear. The wisdom of voters is extolled in theory but undermined by contempt for their intelligence in practise. Citizens are never asked how the revenue they contribute ought to be allocated - they cannot be trusted to determine what is good for them or the nation. As for the representatives, voters are convinced of their dishonesty, their task limited to selecting the least crooked. The rulers themselves leave no doubt accusing each other of egregious malfeasance. In the West the...

Democracy/Governance / 27.06.2016

By Anjum Altaf  Over two thousand years ago Plato was skeptical of democracy because he felt that voters, even those restricted to property-owning male citizens, were swayed too easily by the rhetoric of self-serving politicians. Democracy disappeared for over 1,500 years following its demise in Athens and it was only then that its slow evolution began in England and spread to other parts of the world. Doubts regarding its efficacy persisted but were countered by arguments that it was the worst form of government except for all others. Not that this was considered universally applicable – during colonialism it was openly asserted that natives were not ready for democracy. Similar reservations regarding the developing world persisted beyond the end of colonialism. In the 1990s the late Richard Holbrooke was reported to have said: “Suppose elections are free and fair and those elected are racists, fascists, separatists — that...

Democracy/Governance / 23.10.2015

This billboard from the ongoing elections in Bihar revived our reflections on democracy. Focus first on the panel of four messages in the middle of the picture. For those who do not read Hindi, the messages, from left to right, are as follows: Kheti ke liye 0% byaj par rna (loan for cultivation at 0% interest) Har dalit va mahadalit parivaar ke liye ek rangeen TV (a color TV for each dalit or mahadalit family) Har beghar ko 5 decimal zameen (5 decimal land for every homeless) Har ghareeb parivaar ko ek jori dhoti, sari (a dhoti and sari for every poor family) What should one conclude? This is a striking case of a picture speaking louder than any number of pious words, the starkest commentary possible on the nature of democracy in a very poor country. Undeniably, votes are being purchased and for a price as low as...

Democracy/Governance / 28.08.2015

By Anjum Altaf Ask any good doctor. There's no way to treat a disease without a definitive diagnosis. Treat a cancer as a stomach-ache and the consequences are bound to be fatal. That's common sense. Now apply that common sense to our system of governance. We have it from the highest authorities, again and again, that the system is diseased. Every fresh group of rulers swears that the previous set has left a 'sham' democracy and promises to transform it into a healthy one. What exactly is this disease that turns a healthy democracy into a sick one so quickly and why has every effort failed to find a cure? I wish we were at the stage where we could sensibly address this question. We would examine the diagnosis that the disease emanates from the dishonesty of the previous set of rulers. And we would patiently argue that reconfiguring...

Democracy/Governance / 20.04.2015

By Anjum Altaf I want to tie together two conversations about politics because they bring together some strikingly similar views of very different segments in society. I find it useful to explore the implications to better understand what might motivate our politics. The first conversation, about a month ago, was with a taxi driver in Islamabad. A broken-up road triggered a litany of complaints about the increasing difficulties of existence – shortages of utilities, difficulties in access to services, etc. The monologue transitioned into a critique of democracy – could one eat it? – followed by the oft-heard desire for ‘strong’ governance. I submitted that we had tried the ‘strong’ route four times without the desired results only to be met with the dismissive judgement that conditions under Musharraf were distinctly better than they were now. It was not the occasion to ask if something done at one...

Democracy/Governance / 25.03.2015

By Anjum Altaf Consider two recent electoral results from India: Of the total seats contested, the BJP won 52 percent in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and 4 percent in the 2015 Delhi state elections. The first was characterized a sweeping victory; the second a crushing defeat. Yet, in both contests the share of votes cast for the party was the same – about a third. This is a quirk of the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system in which the candidate with the most votes wins a constituency. A candidate securing one-third of the votes cast could win or lose depending on the number of other candidates and the distribution of votes among them. Is this problematic? Yes, if one considers it unsatisfactory that a party representing a third of the voters in a state has no say in its governance. It is for this reason that the majority of...

Democracy/Governance / 04.05.2014

It was the late Richard Holbrooke who said: “Suppose elections are free and fair and those elected are racists, fascists, separatists — that is the dilemma.” That, indeed, is a dilemma. For the Americans, even the election of a remotely anti-American government was a dilemma and they spared little effort in overturning the verdict of electorates whenever such an ugly possibility reared its fearful head. So, it could have been an occasion of smug satisfaction for the rest when the American electorate voted in Bush except that he inflicted incalculable harm on the world while driving the US deep into the hole. That highlights the other dilemma – whether those freely and fairly elected are racists, fascists, separatists, or just megalomaniacal fools and simpletons, the damage they end up doing to themselves and others is serious business. Enter Mr. Modi. Mr. Modi has not been elected yet but it seems...

Democracy/Governance / 01.04.2013

By Anjum Altaf Elections are due in a few months and one of the questions being asked is whether they would be an exercise in futility. I think not even though nothing much is likely to change in the short term – for that, one can look across the border where six decades of uninterrupted democratic governance has not made a major difference in the lives of the marginalized. It is the long-term implications that ought to be the focus of our attention. For better or for worse, and I feel it is for the better, we inherited representative government from the departing rulers. Better, because the precursor to representative governance, monarchy, no matter how benevolent at times, offered no mechanism for holding the aristocracy accountable or of institutionalizing orderly transfers of power. Those were huge negatives irrespective of how one looks at them. With representative governance, sovereignty,...