Know thy neighbour: good, bad, and ugly

Know thy neighbour: good, bad, and ugly
Times of India, 24 July, 2010
The July 15 Islamabad Summit was a failure only for the supremely ambitious South Asian, says Mosharraf Zaidi

The anger that produced Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s press conference lambasting the Indian delegation led by SM Krishna, as Krishna was boarding a plane for New Delhi, comes from a very specific place. It is a place that doesn’t exist in the real world anymore, but is still vividly embedded in the minds of some within the Pakistani establishment. In that old place, Pakistan was the nimble and clever fox, and India was the large, clumsy elephant. That place is 1991.

In 1991, India’s GDP growth was a sorry 1.06 per cent, while Pakistan was chugging along at an impressive 5.06 per cent. This was not an anomaly, but the usual. Before 1991, Pakistan frequently outpaced India’s growth — even though India’s was more even, while Pakistan’s seemed to be on crack, vacillating wildly. Then in 1991, a bunch of retired and on-vacation IMF and World Bank bureaucrats unofficially took over the Pakistani economy to try to tame the beast, and a sage named Manmohan Singh began to run the Indian economy. Since then, India has enjoyed a sustained era of slow, but meaningful and across-the-board reform, while Pakistan has, outside of its telecom, banking and media sectors, achieved zero reform.

Pakistanis that I spoke to who had access to the goingson during the July 15 summit between Qureshi and Krishna complain of India’s monochromatic national narrative —press, government, private sector — all united. They complain that India didn’t come to slow dance, but rather to tease and prod. They complain that India’s attitude was dismissive, while Pakistan’s was earnest. I have no difficulty believing any of these things. But the very act of complaining about these things, rather than having cogent and defensible comebacks, should be a tell-all indicator of how differently positioned India and Pakistan are for the 21st century. Qureshi’s press conference is what weaker parties do when confronted with a conundrum. They wail.

One way to try to understand the growing gulf between India and Pakistan is to examine the now infamous interview of the Indian home secretary G K Pillai — which is rightly identified by many Pakistanis as having possibly contaminating the spirit of the July 15 summit. The truth is however, that the interview hardly scratches the surface of what would constitute titillating revelations. Nobody loves intelligence agencies, certainly not one from an “enemy country”.

What really catches the eye in that interview rather is the boldness of Pillai’s manner, a civil servant working for India’s central government, as he skewers the political and administrative failures of Indian states. A gag order reportedly placed on Pillai may assuage some of the politicians’ egos in Delhi and the various state capitals that he rankles, but the home secretary’s confidence is unlikely to diminish. Maybe civil servants have no place discussing public policy with the press. Maybe not. But Pillai’s self-confidence speaks to a greater issue.

The Indian Administrative Service’s ability to breed such confidence is not a random accident. Good civil servants — like Shiv Shankar Menon and TN Seshan — are cultivated, not discovered. The contemporary history of the IAS in India and its colonial cousin in Pakistan, the District Management Group, is a study in contrasts. India’s system of recruiting, retaining, rotating, and sustaining civil servants to serve the state has produced top-shelf talent consistently, despite being ravaged by challenges like corruption and a rigid system of home state allocation.

Despite enjoying a less complicated federal structure, Pakistan’s civil servants, on the other hand, while individually brilliant, have experienced a consistent and brutal stripping away of their powers and their ability to contribute to national stability and prosperity. The decay began in 1974, when Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto sought to democratise the bureaucracy by making civil servants increasingly accountable to politicians. Those reforms effectively ended up bringing to a close the Raj legacy of administrative efficiency on this side of the Wagah border.

A 2007 study of political cycles in IAS postings by Lakshmi Iyer (Harvard) and Anandi Mani (Warwick) found that the “average probability of a transfer in a given year was 49 per cent… bureaucrats spent an average of 16 months in any given position”. While 16 months falls well short of the global three-year standard (which is also the recommended period in both India and Pakistan), it likely exceeds the average for civil servants in Pakistan. One example of how crazy transfers and postings have become is from the spring of 2009 when the government of Punjab (in Pakistan) saw a number of individual departmental heads experience as many as four postings within a shambolic five-month period (when Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s government was summarily dismissed, and later, reconstituted).

The differences are vast. India’s Pay Commission reports, in epic detail, are available free of cost to anyone (including Pakistanis). Pakistan’s Pay and Pensions Committee reports are state-secrets, not available even to parliamentarians and senior bureaucrats.
The Indian delegation of officials and journalists got to know a small morsel of these kinds of details about Pakistan during the July 15 summit. That, and not Qureshi’s political tamasha, is what should lie at the heart of this conversation between India and Pakistan: a continuum of humanising the other.

I’d be delighted to watch the next Pakistani delegation visit India and receive a frigid welcome by the Indian ministry for external affairs. Delighted that the next summit is used by both sides to reiterate the centrality of Kashmir versus the centrality of terrorism. Delighted if India and Pakistan continue to agree to disagree. As long as the two countries keep talking, we should all be delighted. The long road to a peaceful South Asia begins by getting to know one another, little by little. The July 15 summit achieved that, and then some.


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