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Advice for the PM

June 25, 2013

MR Nawaz Sharif has earned admiration for the equanimity with which he bore his torment of arbitrary dismissal, persecution in Attock Fort and years of exile even though he lived in the comfort of Jeddah palaces and London’s Mayfair after that.

Back home and in power, as admiration fades away he must contend with detractors and sycophants alike, more than any other prime minister. In his past regime, sycophancy predominated because Mian Sahib is known to be amenable to personal flattery but wary of restraint in official business.

That may be an exaggerated view of his behaviour and style of government. But with the hindsight of my not-too-happy personal experience pertaining to the time when he was prime minister and I the secretary to government in his first and longest term (1990-93), I feel persuaded to give him some detached advice.

At that time, he transferred me twice out of sheer pique: first from the production ministry after I had been there for only four months and later from the petroleum ministry when I had just four months to retire. On both occasions, he acted on rumour or, more likely, on the complaint of the minister. No reason was given nor was I heard.

The rules of business specifically require that where the secretary and minister disagree the final decision must rest with the prime minister. Mr Sharif instead of calling for the files assumed that I must be wrong or, more dangerously, that the secretary must always act in subordination to the minister.

That has become a practice over the years. Secretaries, as a matter of course, acquiesce in every order of the minister — right, wrong or perverse.

Important decisions are now mostly one-sided as the prime minister has ceased to be an umpire. He himself having been at the receiving end of arbitrary orders, Mr Nawaz Sharif must now encourage secretaries to freely express their views even if they are contrary to that of the ministers, and agree with them if their reasoning is more plausible or the law is on their side.

Most politicians tend to gather around officials who are prepared to place personal or partisan interest above their duty to the public. As a consequence, family, caste, sect and other extraneous factors weigh more than professional worth in filling key posts. It is this collusive relationship between the politicians and civil servants that has led to the loss of faith in the integrity of the public service.

Mr Nawaz Sharif surely has suffered on this count in his dismissal and exile and, hopefully, has learnt his lesson. His brother Shahbaz Sharif and close aide Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan are known to adhere to the principle of dissent in official business more than the common run of politicians. That is what possibly has given Punjab and the petroleum ministry an edge over other provinces and ministries.

Yet another point. Ministers recruited in more numbers than needed only to accommodate aspirants to the office adds to the cost, lowers standards and causes delays. A photograph hanging at Sindh’s Governor House which shows the Quaid-i-Azam presiding over a cabinet of seven ministers in those hard-pressed times should be a guide for Mr Nawaz Sharif.

He may have twice as many but no more. Having sworn in a larger number already, he should stop there and guard against a Balochistan-like charade where, at one time, every member of the Assembly, barring one, was made a minister.

Like the ministers, the number of bureaucrats and consequently tiers of reporting are also on the increase resulting in delayed business and corruption. The tier of additional secretary should be abolished without a second thought. That grade should be given only for field assignments eg to commissioners and chief engineers. The reporting tiers in large ministries should be no more than three and just two in smaller ones.

Last, and most important, recruitment to public service at all levels should be on the basis of competitive merit. Political nominations have shaken the cohesion and neutral character of the public service. No wonder Pakistan is rated as one of the most inefficient and corrupt countries in the world.

Political supporters, whether they are qualified or merely cronies, if they must be rewarded should be given stipends to acquire skills for self-employment.

There is nothing new or special about these submissions. It is a mere reiteration of some basic but abandoned principles that the new government must follow to regain the lost confidence of the people.

The poverty of the masses is deeply rooted but their anger over the extravagance and corruption in government floats on the surface. Military takeovers have generally been greeted with a measure of relief and preference is often expressed for the presidential system. Finally, politics is known to make strange bedfellows. Coalitions tend to encumber the government and weaken the opposition. The wish to “carry everybody along” goes against the very spirit of parliamentary democracy.

The writer is a former civil servant.