One of the truly disheartening aspects of researching Pakistan's history is uncovering evidence that, at critical moments, the country's central bureaucracy provided its rulers of the day with rational and wise advice, only to be ignored.

In 1952, for example, G. Ahmed, Pakistan's Secretary of the Interior, urged Prime Minister Khwaja Nazimuddin to restrain the members of his party from treating the state as their personal estate, abandon manipulating religious fundamentalists for short-term political gain, and focus on policymaking. Nazimuddin ignored Ahmed. In March 1953, sectarian rioting broke out in the Punjab as rival factions of the ruling party aligned themselves with religious fundamendalists. The governor general and the military took the opportunity to push Nazimuddin out establishing the bureaucracy and army's primacy over the elected government.

Similarly, in the early and mid-1980s, Syed Ijlal Haider Zaidi, Secretary Establishment (in charge of the administrative tasks of posting and transfers within the civilian bureaucracy) produced a series of prescient summaries for Zia-ul Haq, Pakistan's third military dictator. His writings dealt with the need to reform the civil service and rehabilitate the provincial administration. Zaidi proposed a number of feasible solutions, such as creating specialized civil service elites to administer education, health, and infrastructure; restoring supervisory functions to the field level; and strengthening the provincial governments. These all could have been implemented, given the relatively healthy finances of Pakistan at the time. Instead, Zia opted to do nothing.

In 2000, Zafar Iqbal Rathore, a retired police officer serving as chairman of Pakistan's Focal Group on Police Reform, advised the country's fourth military regime, this one headed by Pervez Musharraf, to set up neutral bodies to supervise the transfer, promotion, and disciplining of officers. This was meant to reduce arbitrariness within the state machinery, starting with the criminal justice system and eventually extending into other civilian sectors. His advice met with the same fate as earlier noteworthy attempts to advise the rulers.

Since then, the problems Ahmed, Zaidi, and Rathore identified have intensified. Now the state's ability to deal with any one of them, let alone the dysfuction that underlies all of them, is doubtful. Connecting all these men's prescriptions was the idea that the state needed to be less arbitrary and that its rulers needed to accept some institutional autonomy; each tier of government (federal, provincial, local) needed adequate independence to respond to specific needs. And that required an able, motivated, well-paid, law-abiding, and efficient civil service. These civil servants would be the frontline in the fight against the primordial pressures -- kinship, clan, tribe, sect, and so on -- that held the country back. They would work as agents of integration. This wise advice routinely fell on deaf ears because it ran counter to the perverse logic of Pakistan's indigenous culture of power.

Traditionally, states in South Asia were organized along three main principles. First, that the state was the personal estate of the ruler. Second, that managing the estate required the ruler to appoint loyal personal servants in the military, civil service, and religious establishments. Third, that the ruler was divinely sanctioned and could not be lawfully challenged.

In practice, this meant that South Asian rulers exercised arbitrary power over and through servants who were highly insecure and could be removed at whim. Since that could happen at any time, the rulers' servants were driven to plunder as much wealth as possible while they could. Kautilya, prime minister to the founder of the Mauryan dynasty (c. 320 BC) famously compared the emperor's servants to fish in the sea, deeming it impossible to determine how much water they were drinking. In the Mughal Empire, a few hundred senior military and civilian officials typically intercepted more than half of the total state revenues, amassing vast fortunes. They consumed as much of it as they could as quickly as they could, since the emperor's ability to withdraw his favor and confiscate their fortunes always loomed large.

Under the British Raj, which formally succeeded the Mughals in 1858, the colonial rulers tried to remake South Asia in their own image. They had high regard for institutions, the rule of law, meritocracy, and civilian supremacy over the military. They tried to instill those values in their subjects, and thus seeded South Asia with the basic cultural requirements for constitutional democracy. One example was the steady growth of local governments organized on the principle of self-taxation. Another was the drive to recruit civil servants from both England and India through competitive examinations.

Following independence in 1947, however, South Asia -- particularly Pakistan -- started reverting to earlier patterns. Indeed, due to the proportionately greater trauma of its birth and the fact that it was always on the frontier of the Raj, the British veneer wore off rather quickly.

Two of Pakistan's modern rulers illustrate the trend particularly well. The democratically elected government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (December 1971-July 1977) purged the bureaucracy, brought in thousands of political loyalists, nationalized many of the country's industries and services, and changed the pay and service structure for the bureaucracy with the conscious aim of humiliating and demoralizing the civil servants. In effect, even as he gave the state more control over the country's assets, he destroyed the prestige, autonomy, and efficiency of the civil service charged with managing those assets. Over time, the service lost it ability to resist unwise and even unlawful directives.

In six years, Bhutto unabashedly converted the state into his personal estate and civil servants into his personal attendants. It was Bhutto's desire to appoint a loyalist as the Chief of Army Staff that led him to select an obsequious religious fundamentalist, General Zia-ul Haq. As popular rebellion broke out against the Bhutto government following the rigging of elections in March 1977, Zia ditched his patron, overthrew him in a coup, and had him hanged for conspiracy to commit murder. Like Pakistan's leaders before him, Zia ignored the advice of his civil servants and the country remained a personal fiefdom, with Zia now at its head. Zia proceeded to implement a program of Islamization in Pakistan and, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, had the West's support.

Taken together, Bhutto broke the back of Pakistan's civilian bureaucracy while Zia presided over the radicalization and criminalization of Pakistani society. The former diminished the ability of the state to govern while the latter made Pakistan more difficult to govern. By the end of the Bhutto and Zia years, Islamabad was paraplegic and corrupt, only nominally presiding over a society while the military, the only functioning quasi-modern institution, pulled what remained of the real levers of power.

Today, the political will and acumen required to turn the tide seems to be missing among the civilian politicians and Pakistan's military elite. Although the Pakistani military enjoys far greater public confidence than any civilian actor, past interventions have failed to arrest administrative breakdown. And Musharraf's local government reforms, which subordinated the civil service to local politicians who were, in turn, dependent on the military, actually made the problem worse. And the cynicism of the reforms was exposed by the regime's unwillingness to extend them to military cantonment areas or to the federal capital.

To be sure, improving the quality of the over two million people employed in Pakistan's civil service would be a nightmarishly difficult task even if the government were interested in doing it. Still, if Pakistan's leaders, both civilian and military, don't soon focus attention and resources on restoring Pakistan's civilian bureaucracy, the movement towards administrative failure will speed to the point at which permanent underdevelopment, crippling resource constraints, and social destabilization may become inevitable. Indeed, Pakistan's deteriorating internal conditions merit a new approach, one that focuses on improving the quality of the state apparatus and the people who work in it as the core element of a reform strategy.

Without getting mired in technical detail, the broad objectives of the reform strategy should be to reduce the level of arbitrariness in government and to raise the standard of administration. These two main objectives can be met through four basic steps.

The first is the provision of constitutional protection to the services against political interference, and the creation of neutral bodies that would oversee civil personnel transfers, promotions, and disciplinary actions. Further, the government should establish a council of state to check Islamabad's arbitrariness against citizens. By containing the power of the leadership over civil servants, and checking the power of the civil servants over citizens, a more effective and law-abiding state machinery can develop. Facilitating this is in the government's own self-interest, for no government can hope to deliver on its promises without an efficient state apparatus behind it.

The second step would be to raise public sector pay, at least at the officer level, to a point where an honest civil servant can maintain a reasonably high standard of living on his or her take home salary. This would address problems of morale, reduce reliance on corruption and remuneration in kind, and improve service for honest officers.

The third step would be to start aggressively recruiting Pakistan's best and brightest into state service. Specialized entrance exams, offering one year of training at leading international academic institutions, the abolition of the common training program Bhutto instituted, and the reworking of policies that govern posting decisions so that proper career structures for all the services emerge, would all help.

The fourth step would be improving accountability. The police and the audits and accounts bureaus are key institutions when it comes to detecting, investigating, and prosecuting white-collar crime within the state machinery. To support them, Islamabad should create a specialized full-time central superior service, which would bring corrupt civil and military officials and politicians to book. If the constitutional protections mentioned above are in place, this service will likewise be shielded from partisanship and other institutions.

Unless these four reforms are put into effect, Pakistan's civilian managerial capacity, which has already been hollowed out, will become irretrievably damaged. The formal type of government in Pakistan, whether electoral democracy or dictatorship, will cease to matter as a majority of its people live at the mercy of local mafias. It is time that we realize that the quality of governance that prevails within a state cannot be better than the quality of the servants of that state.

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  • ILHAN NIAZ is the author of The Culture of Power and Governance of Pakistan, 1947-2008 (OUP, 2010, 2011). He teaches history at the Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan.
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