It’s the Leadership, Stupid

By Samia Altaf 

There is a fascinating news report (Jinnah’s New Republic) in an American weekly datelined November 15, 1947 that puts its finger on Pakistan’s most critical weakness – the quality of its leadership.

Reporting from Karachi, the author comments on the country’s first cabinet: “With enormous problems, Pakistan has only a very ordinary set of leaders to cope with them”; barring a few “the other members of the cabinet are all mediocrities.” The exceptions identified by the author were the “brilliant” Mr Jinnah, the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister.

In 2008, the problems have become much more enormous and the leadership has become much more mediocre. Even the exceptions at the very top are conspicuous by their absence.

The quality of political leadership went into a steep decline after Mr Jinnah. This was exacerbated by the military’s interruption of the political process that serves as the training ground for new leaders. Instead, military leaders found it in their interest to pick pliable political faces to front for them. And political leaders, in turn, promoted military leaders whom they deemed safe. A process in which incumbents picked others less clever than themselves assured a rapid race to the bottom.

Insecure political leaders, civil or military, are also prone to choosing their key bureaucrats on the basis of loyalty. Mr Zia ul Haq added to a secular decline in critical thinking by making the social sciences subservient to an ideological education in Pakistan Studies. It was no surprise to read Strobe Talbott’s comparison of South Asian bureaucrats in his book Engaging India: “In general, our sessions with the Pakistanis, while occasionally more exciting than those with the Indians, lacked a comparable degree of intellectual engagement… While Jaswant [Singh’s] team was highly disciplined in every respect, some of Shamshad Ahmad’s colleagues tended to be querulous, surly, and sometimes abusive.”

By way of contrast, Ramachandra Guha’s new book India after Gandhi includes a description of India’s first cabinet in 1947. The thirteen-member cabinet included three who were not from the Congress party and three who had been life long adversaries of the Congress and had collaborated with the British, including the virulently anti-upper caste but exceptionally qualified Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Gandhi reminded his supporters that freedom had come to India, not to Congress, and urged “the formation of a cabinet that included the ablest men regardless of party affiliation.”

Since then, Indian educational institutions including the globally competitive IITs and IIMs have produced many generations of very competent personnel. The calibre of the key Indian political and technical leaders can be gauged by a review of the CVs of the Prime Minister, the Finance Minister and the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, all made available to the public on the web. The gap with their Pakistani counterparts is revealing and a pointer to Pakistan’s problems of governance and management at every level.

In an increasingly complex, globally linked, knowledge economy and with the magnitude of social issues facing the country, it is no longer enough to be very clever and street smart. Competence and training matter.  Granted it is not possible to manufacture a new political leadership overnight but it is possible for the leadership to recognize its handicap. It should search for the most competent Pakistanis available to head all key institutions and agencies that have a bearing on national development including universities, public enterprises, and advisory boards. And this selection should be assigned to a professional recruitment agency subject to the approval of an independent Citizens Commission.

It is time for the political leadership to be humble and it is time to repair the decline of competence that has condemned the majority of Pakistanis to a life of unspeakable misery and degradation.

Dr. Samia Altaf is the 2007-2008 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, DC. This article appeared in Dawn, Karachi on March 27, 2008.

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1 Comment
  • anonyms
    Posted at 05:22h, 01 April Reply

    Further, a policy to fullfill the gap of expertise drafted between the Indian and Pakistani leadership over the inception and course of its history should not be addressed with an influx of foreign pakistani graduates or pakistani’s predominantely living abroad, but rather instatement of local graduates. Hence, the improvement in local education is a must without any other progressive alternative. – and I repeat, it is a must for any long term or effective short term solution.

    This is because context specific application is very very important, which can only be developed and observed after years and years of socialization in the culture, environment and starting point across several economic and social tiers, in any community.

    As otherwise, evident by the experience of the previous government (last 5 years) whose policies although sound in nature and practice given a neoclassical framework- failed to address the real issues , hence the current downturn and criticism, as our environment is far from the idealized ambience in which neoclassical policies draw fruits.

    Rather differing schools from latin america (1950 onwards) and alternatives with a bridge between new age thinking and old age practice would have been ideal, given our environment.

    Hence otherwise, even if there may be good intention at heart- application may not provide the intended results.

    Note: Expertise does not equate to one individual or a group, but a collective wholesome across different tiers of the political body: social capital.

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