Nargis Sethi is the perhaps the best example that explains what is wrong with our bureaucracy. Before I launch my critique and get accused of being anti-women, I must confess that Ms Sethi deserves credit for reaching to this level that remains, as other fields, a male-dominated bureaucracy. She is a hard worker.
Let’s forget her gender, the issue is that she was the Principle Secretary to (ex) Prime Minister (PSPM) Yousaf Raza Gilani before she became Cabinet Secretary holding the additional charge of Water and Power. The PSPM is the most prized posting in the civil bureaucracy. Technically, if I am spared my life, this is equivalent to the Chief of General Staff (CGS) in the Army if not the mightier Army Chief.
A minimum requirement for this job is that he or she should have a diverse exposure of all the arms of bureaucracy in the provinces, the Centre and preferably a stint abroad as well. He or she should have worked in districts to understand the dynamics of FATA to Mastung to the Punjab and Sindhi rural heartlands and the mechanics of big cities as Lahore and Karachi. The PSPM, at the centre, should have ample exposure of key ministries such as the Finance, Establishment and various secretariats. The PSPM is supposed to be the top class as he or she advises the PM on national policy and its implementation.
How much Ms Sethi fits into the criteria? She had hardly served in the provinces. Her biggest exposure to the world is her bureaucracy stint in the Economic Affairs Division and a long service in the inconsequential Aviation Wing of the Defence Ministry. This was as far from the bureaucratic power centre as Islamabad from North Pole. So how did she land as the PSMP?
Was it luck, smartness, loyalty or circumstances? A little bit of everything I would say. She got a chance to become a joint Secretary in Grade 20 in 2008 with the then PSPM Siraj Shamsuddin. Siraj had suffered a long hardship while in exile in London and was rewarded with this post as a Salman Farooqui prodigy. The idea was to remote control Gilani through a loyalist PSPM. Six months at the Prime Minister’s office, Ms Sethi got herself promoted in Grade 21. As time went by, Gilani wanted a little more freedom and started resisting micro management from the Zardari camp office in F-8.
Ms Sethi was smart to see the gap between the two power poles and started briefing Gillani on what was being dictated from the Asif camp. In due time, Asif Zardari became the President and Salman Farooqui the chief string-puller at the Presidency. Gilani wanted Sartaj out who in turn also opted to leave for greener pastures in Manila. Nargis Sethi became the junior-most officer ever to take over the senior most assignment in the country’s history. The issue was that she being the junior-most even in grade 21 could only be acting PSPM. We all know the rest that how she got the whole Club-22 crossed 50-member mark just for her own promotion and ruining the service in the process. Professionalism was sacrificed at the altar of personal loyalty. I must say her successor, Khushnood Lashari, given the trail of corruption charges that he has left, was even worse.
Forget the prized PSPM, even a Federal Secretary is supposed to have ample experience of the provinces and the Centre to become eligible. Not too long time ago, the Chief Secretaries and Police Inspector Generals in the provinces were kept in grade 21, let alone the posts of the Chairman of the Planning Division and the Senior Member of the Board of Revenue. It was largely because of the Sharif Brother’s Punjabi favouritism that these positions got upgraded, betraying a certain ‘supremacy’ that the Punjabis are rightly accused of. Half of these posts in ‘smaller’ provinces are still held by grade 21-officers.
We have Grade-22 officers who have never served in the Centre at all. And then we have the ‘Centrists’ who have earned Grade 22 just by moving from block of Islamabad to another. They have never served in the provinces at all, particularly in the OMG, Mushtaq Malik being an exception. At least 70 per cent of Grade-22 officers may not have visited Balochistan in the last ten years even once. A tradition existed for a federal secretary to visit all the provinces at least once a year. Not any longer. Most of them remain attached to their boxes and corners fighting over their power and perks, transfer and postings. But will fight valiantly when it will come to their turf and sectional interests—merit be damned.
I think it was Plato who suggested that one wrong doctor will only kill a patient or two but one wrong statesman, by which he also meant a bureaucrat, will destroy the state. After the Greeks and the Romans, the Chinese civilization stood on the quality of its mandarins. The great Ottomans thrived on its slaves groomed from childhood to run the affairs of the state. The Slave Dynasty in the Sub-continent inherited that from their Turkish roots, which was later improved by the Mughals. The British refined it to its finest heights for one hundred British to ‘control’ 25 million Indians for 150 years. India has sifted much of the colonial baggage and using its bureaucracy as the engine of the ‘Incredible India’ (though its over-cautiousness is now also accused for slowing Indian growth).
What have we done to that great inheritance? It was so pathetic recently when the Indian Commerce team arrived in Islamabad to finalize the crucial trade negotiations. The counterparts here did not even know the Pakistani position and were found running helter-skelter to get hold of old-timers to draft their response till late at night.
If the epitome of Plato’s Republic in Pakistan is Nargis Sethi, forgive me all feminists, then God save Pakistan.