Technocrats are a double-edged sword

Technocrats—usually non-career politicians considered experts in their field—are often seen to be jostling for a place in caretaker governments.

Neutral, non-partisan advisers in a technocratic government enjoy the limelight and are able to add a glorious title, often ‘Minister of State’, to their name.

Many experts suggest that far from just personal motives, many advisers in caretaker governments join to do good and often find more leeway in putting their expertise in various fields to use for the benefit of the country.

“Technocrats are good only if they are willing to carry out the painful reforms which political governments fear to implement for loss of public vote,” said a political science expert.

Unlike the loyal leaders of an election winning political party, who are well-known candidates for seats on one or the other ministries, technocrats and advisers are usually the dark horses who, when appointed, inspire a mixture of wonder, envy and jealousy among others, sometimes regarded as equally competent in those fields.

A person in the know of things admitted that there is lot of backstage diplomacy for securing advisory posts. Suddenly expectants begin to be seen more often in print and electronic media, ostensibly as a reminder of their presence and to exhibit their expertise and knowledge.

“Technocrats are good only if they are willing to carry out the ‘painful reforms’ which political governments fear to implement for loss of public vote” says an expert

Shaukat Tarin, finance minister in the Yousuf Raza Gilani-led government in 2009-10, told this writer that often in a military government, technocrats are inducted early on in large numbers so they may have the space to exercise some reforms, but going forward due to political exigencies, such governments have also to include people representing political parties.

However, technocrats are double-edged swords. Inducted for a short term, they put their best for a reform-building exercise. Yet, when they are faced with hurdles from politicians and the bureaucracy, technocrats are not bound to stay and can quit and make public disclosure of loopholes in the system.

Mr Tarin said that even in political governments when party stalwarts have to be given ministries, they should be ideally accompanied by technocrat advisers who could keep the ministries on track.

Shabbar Zaidi, a senior partner at A.F. Ferguson & Co and former finance minister of Sindh in the caretaker government of 2013, believes that it is the underlying system that necessitates change.

“It is the cost of governance and not the cost of doing business that is escalating,” he asserted. The whole idea of tiptoeing on the footprints of the British rulers of the subcontinent was flawed, he said.

“We are given to exercise just the two options: the UK model where the prime minister exercises all the powers, or the less likely option of the American system where the president is the all-powerful head of the government,” he said.

But there was a third option as well, Mr Zaidi said and referred to the semi-presidential system of government that characterises France, where both a president and the prime minister share executive powers. The president appoints the members of the cabinet after the prime minister proposes them.

“The president of France is the supreme commander of the military and holds the four major portfolios of foreign affairs; defence; economics and communications,” he said.

The premier appoints ministers on all other portfolios, which could include technocrats. “Technocrats, where appointed, should also be empowered to bring about change,” he stressed.

Prof I.A. Zeeshan, who teaches political economics at a local business school, says that technocratic governments were a worldwide rage earlier this century. Among others, Italy and Greece named economists as prime ministers.

He recalled that of all the 24 prime ministers who have held office in Pakistan since 1947, the National Assembly elected 18 while six served as caretakers. Prominent heads of caretaker or technocratic governments were Moeenuddin Qureshi, Muhammad Mian Soomro and Shaukat Aziz.

Moeen Qureshi was an economist as well as a former senior vice-president of the World Bank. Muhammad Mian Soomro, besides being the scion of a Sindhi feudal politician, was also a career banker. Shaukat Aziz, perhaps the most talked about of all, descended down from Citibank in the US to hold the post of prime minister in the Musharraf regime.

Prof Zeeshan reminded that since those were technocratic governments, experts in various fields found their place in the cabinet and on advisory posts.

While there is scarce work available on comparison of performances there is little doubt that politicians are averse to technocrats.

In January 2013 when the political climate was heating up and cleric Tahirul Qadri made the declaration of a long march to Islamabad, Qamar Zaman Kaira, the federal minister for information and broadcasting at the time, famously said: “There is no room for a technocrat caretaker government because politicians can better manage the affairs of the country. Pakistan was created by politicians.”

Employers’ Federation of Pakistan President Majyd Aziz believes that caretakers and advisers had scant time to bring about change. “How can they take on the bureaucracy in the couple of months of the caretaker period?” he asks.

He believed that advisers appointed in the military rule were greatly empowered. He reckoned that the underlying system required change with the culture of good governance inculcated. But such a change was required to start from the upper layers of power.

“As they say the fish rots from the head,” he reminds.