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Pakistan: An Overdeveloped State With Weak Capacity

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Is Pakistan an “overdeveloped” state as Hamza Alavi wrote about it since the 1970s? In a way it is good to visit this question in the times of Covid-19. The states that have successfully fought off the pandemic like China, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam and the Indian region of Kerala had a certain level of state capacity to plan and implement public welfare decisions. Pakistan like other some countries seems to struggle with the requisite state capacity to offer an effective response to challenges like Covid-19.

It might be worthwhile to visit a few arguments in Matthew McCartney and S. Akbar Zaidi’s 2019 edited book “New Perspectives on Pakistan’s Political Economy: State, Class and Social Change”. This book has been inspired by Zaidi’s 2014 journal article on Alavian thesis. I started reading this excellent book in late February around the same time Covid-19 landed in Pakistan and it struck certain questions regarding Pakistan’s state capacity and overdeveloped state in my mind. I particularly refer to McCartney’s chapter. I also picked up Hamza Alavi’s later writing (1998) “Authoritarianism and legitimation of state power in Pakistan” in S. K. Mitra’s book to make sense of the debate.

Hamza Alavi is a path-breaking Pakistani social scientist. The traditional Marxist view is that the modern state reflects the aspirations of the bourgeoisie (industrial) class. Alavi made a notable contribution in this line of thinking in the context of non-European developing countries like Pakistan. Alavi stated that developing countries have quite a few separate and diverse classes like the indigenous bourgeoisie (national industrial class), large farmers, and metropolitan bourgeoisie (foreign capital). These three “propertied classes” often converged their economic interests and they also let the “military-bureaucratic oligarchy” to mediate their interests and it gave the Pakistani state relative autonomy to impose its will and develop it into an “overdeveloped” state.

McCartney gives a mixed score to Alavian thesis of Pakistan being an “overdeveloped state” by pointing out its various strengths and weaknesses. There is evidence regarding the agricultural and industrial policies that did not reflect the corresponding class power of large farmers and indigenous bourgeoisie and the state was relatively autonomous in setting those policies in Pakistan’s formative decades. McCartney refers to Pritchett’s work on India that below the apex of “overdeveloped” façade, there is “flailing state”.

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McCartney states, “…the capacity of the Indian (or Pakistani) states to implement programmes is weak and there is ‘rampant absenteeism, indifference, incompetence and corruption’ in the functioning of the ‘police, tax collection, education, health, power supply, and water supply’”. He gives example of most often failed rural development schemes in Pakistan. Barring a few exceptions, Pakistani or Indian state cannot protect public interest in development or governance at the level where the citizens interact with the state. McCartney possibly refers to this argument to pick hole in thesis that countries like Pakistan and India do not have “overdeveloped” strong states at the functional level.

Zaidi’s critique of Alavian thesis is that it ignores the element of change and transition in Pakistan’s structure. Not only Pakistan’s seemingly “overdeveloped” state struggles to exercise its monopoly over violence against non-state actors, it is not effectively able to collect taxes and provide social services pointing to many fissures and fractures. Other than “military-bureaucratic oligarchy”, there are also new institutions such as the judiciary, the media, traders, and politicians who wield power. These “newly emergent classes” need to be taken into account particularly in urban areas. There are also critiques by others who miss a view from “below” in Alavian analysis and his lack of focus on the politics of resistance, politicians, and workers.

Alavi makes an important distinction between “power” and “legitimacy” in his 1998 piece. Alavi also states that politicians are weak and are manipulated. We think it is important to extend this line of thinking to interpret Alavian thesis. In other words, most of McCartney’s discussion of Alavian “overdeveloped” state is in the context of state capacity. We think it is best not to conflate “overdeveloped” state with the notions of state capacity. China, newly industrialized states of South-east Asia, Vietnam have state capacity. We have seen evidence of this state capacity in their economic, industrial, and human development policies and implementation. We have again seen the same impressive state capacity in their effective dealing of Covid-19 public health and welfare challenges.

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In other words, states like Pakistan can be “overdeveloped” in their coercive powers as we have amply seen this since the 1950s in suppressing ethnic movements for the realization of their rights and losing half the country in the process in 1971. Pakistan is an “overdeveloped” state as its “military-bureaucratic oligarchy” has the power of coercion. However, it often lacks the legitimacy, as it does not have the state capacity.

What McCartney refers to Pakistani state being “fearful” that prefers coercion of ethnic and other subaltern groups over their co-option is precisely that makes Pakistani state “overdeveloped”. It is overdeveloped in its coercive powers but often lacks effective capacity to implement public welfare, governance, and economic development agendas.

Another important point concerns the ubiquitous “political will”. Pakistan’s state considers its coercive powers important and that is why the lion’s share of government’s budget is spent on bolstering its ability to master coercion in line with the “overdeveloped” state thesis. Public welfare is not considered important and therefore we see much less development budget in comparative terms for the past many decades. This factor also contributes to having less state capacity but overdeveloped powers of coercion.


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Naya Daur