Sweating the small stuff

HAVING a revolution is easy; not much more difficult, in fact, than having a baby. Take some moonlight, add some sweet nothings, a dollop of passion and that’s amore.

The tricky part, to continue the metaphor, is not having the baby but taking care of it. Babies are born helpless and must be nurtured for a long time before they can become useful members of society. The same goes for societies birthed by revolutions.

I mention all of this because of the breathless excitement in some quarters about Pakistan being pregnant with revolutionary potential, just hovering on the brink of becoming another Tunisia. Give me a break. Listen up people: we already had a revolution. In fact, we’ve had several. Revolutions don’t solve problems: they make solutions possible.

After you have had your revolution you still need to go out and do the hard work. Streets need to be swept, crooks need to be put in jail and trains need to run. Otherwise, you will wind up in the same position as before — poor, miserable and yearning for a revolution.

There is a popular self-help book titled Don’t sweat the small stuff … and it’s all small stuff. Since I haven’t read the tome, I can’t comment on whether it fixes personal problems or not. What I can tell you is that the big-picture approach doesn’t work when it comes to governance because good governance is all about the small stuff.

To take a different metaphor, good governance is like water-proofing a boat. You have to make sure that each and every joint is properly sealed because if you leave even a single weak spot, water will inevitably and invariably seep through.

The problem though with sweating the small stuff is that it takes time. Each incremental victory has to be patiently accumulated and added to the list of all other insights carefully gleaned over the years. The only way to get to good governance then is through a constant process of trial and error: nobody gets to good governance overnight.

There is a story, probably apocryphal, of the visitor to Wimbledon who inquired as to how the grass on Centre Court was so perfect. “It’s easy,” was the reply. “Cut and roll. Then repeat for a hundred years.” Good governance works much the same way.

It is precisely because good governance relies on a million tiny victories that continuity of policy is important. When we had our last great glorious revolution in 2007-08, the newly elected regimes thought that the best way to demonstrate their democratic credentials was to throw out all the work done by the Musharraf regime, irrespective of whether the work was good or bad. And so multiple babies got discarded along with the bathwater.

The best example of this short-sighted approach is the decision to ditch the local government laws. Devolution is a complicated subject but broadly speaking, there are few people who disagree with the merits of the proposition that governance decisions need to be made closer to home. The Musharraf approach was valid in theory but flawed in execution, a fact which was hugely hyped by opponents of devolution.

However, major legislative changes always take time to work themselves out. The truth of the matter is that by the time the local government laws were suspended they were working reasonably well. The main reason why the local government laws were suspended is not because they were flawed but because neither our rulers nor their henchmen were inclined to share their powers. As such, they both found it convenient to get rid of the local government laws.

Unfortunately, the only thing worse than what our newly elected governments have done is what the discontented propose, beseeching the army to step back in. I concede that our newly provincial and federal governments have been both incompetent and luridly corrupt in equally outstanding measure. But that is a cross we have to bear. We do not have the option of going back to square one over and over again.

The standard response to this argument is that unless some strongman/hero steps in to save the day there will be nothing left to save. I don’t buy that argument if only because it is self-reinforcing. Dictatorship not only destroys the institutions that democracy needs to survive but weakens the prospect of accountability.

In other words, if democracy is a temporary aberration then your elected representatives have no reason not to be corrupt. That corruption in turn fuels the demand for intervention which, when it finally arrives, only reinforces the belief of the rational politician that money needs to be made in a hurry because there is little chance of a long run at the helm.

Obviously, one answer to our problems is for a philosopher king to take over: unfortunately, the Pakistan Army seems unlikely to produce one. We are therefore stuck with the reality that every dictator who comes in will eventually lose his way, even those who arrive with the best of intentions. As Lord Acton helpfully pointed out, power tends to corrupt. That tendency holds as true for Pakistan as for anywhere else.

Any idiot can lead a revolution — and many often do. What we need is somebody to take care of the one we’ve already had.

This column first appeared in Dawn on 10 Feb. 2011.

 

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