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Democratise state business

April 09, 2015


I.A. Rehman
I.A. Rehman

THE affair of the Saudi request for military assistance and Islamabad’s search for a proper response has underscored the urgency of providing for clear-cut, democratic procedures for the conduct of state business.

The story began when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was urgently invited to Riyadh and King Salman called for Pakistan’s help. It is still not clear whether Pakistan was expected to help Saudi Arabia in defending its integrity or whether it was asked to join the Saudi war effort in Yemen , though the latter might have been the case.

For a whole month, between the Riyadh meeting of March 5 and the holding of the parliament’s joint session on April 6, the prime minister groped for a safe response. He was obviously looking for a strategy that would enable Pakistan to avoid dangerous commitments without spoiling the country’s, and his own, special ties with Saudi royalty.

It is pertinent to inquire how the government kept a matter that called for prompt action pending for a whole month. Did Islamabad hope that the storm might blow over before a plunge by Pakistan became unavoidable? In any case by avoiding precipitate action the government gained time to benefit from the public debate on the issue. The fact that public opinion firmly rejected the idea of Pakistan’s intervention in the Yemen civil war should have pleased Mr Nawaz Sharif. He could plead his inability to go the whole hog in view of the brakes applied by the public.

The Rules of Business pay little attention to the decision-making processes in the realm of external relations.

Regardless of how the government now plays its cards, the need for a properly defined method to deal with situations such as the present one is manifest. Had there been anything to this effect in the Constitution, or in the Rules of Business, or in conventions the government could have used it to ward off impossible demands from friends without offending them irreparably.

The Constitution does allow the government to assume, in times of war-like emergency, extraordinary powers in the domestic domain, but it is silent on ways of addressing external pulls. Surprisingly, the Rules of Business, too, pay little attention to the decision-making processes in the realm of external relations.

According to the Rules “proposals involving negotiations with foreign countries, e.g. exchange of diplomatic and commercial representation, treaties and agreements, visit of goodwill missions, representation at international conferences and meetings” must be submitted to the cabinet for approval in principle “and actual negotiations shall be initiated only after the proposal has been approved by the cabinet”. Although a way has been kept open for the prime minister to decide matters without consulting the cabinet, heads of government are usually advised against ignoring the cabinet in matters of critical importance. Was any intra-governmental consultation possible before the various decisions in the present context were taken?

More importantly, there is no reference in the Rules to a situation such as the present one. That in such situations a cabinet decision followed by parliament’s approval may be made mandatory appears to be a sound proposal. Some authorities may chafe at anything resembling a bar to their freedom of action but experienced leaders welcome such restrictions as a cushion against charges of arbitrary or whimsical choices.

Otherwise too the Rules of Business, framed by the government in 1973 and amended by presidents Zia to Farooq Leghari, have long been in need of revision, especially with a view to bringing them into accord with democratic norms.

For instance, a Zia amendment placed a secretary virtually higher than his minister. If a minister does not accept the secretary’s point of view the latter can “request the minister to refer the matter to the prime minister for orders.”

Likewise, the law minister is required to intervene in a matter over which there is a disagreement between the attorney general and the Law and Justice Division. If the minister “disagrees with the attorney general, the case shall be referred to the prime minister for orders who may refer the matter to the cabinet if he so desires”. These provisions go beyond the need for checks on ministers; they betray the colonial/dictatorial tendency to trust bureaucrats more than the people’s elected representatives.

Besides, it is necessary to provide safeguards against non-compliance with the Rules of Business. The ministries are required to submit quarterly performance reports to the cabinet and publish annual reports for circulation among the public. There is reason to suspect that these conditions are not being met.

How important the Rules of Business are for defining the limits to the executives’ powers can be gauged from the fact that president Leghari was able to set up a national security council by merely amending the Rules. No heed was paid to the fact that the Zia amendment to the Constitution under which a national security council could be set up had been dropped during the 1985 bargaining over presidential prerogatives that were to survive the end of martial law.

Also a revision of the Rules was a pledge made by the late Benazir Bhutto and Mr Nawaz Sharif vide their rightly acclaimed Charter of Democracy.

Above all, the establishment of a genuinely representative and responsible government demands the creation of mechanisms for a democratic functioning of state institutions. There are only a few milestones on Pakistan’s journey towards the ideal of democracy — right to adult franchise during 1951-54, one-man one-vote 1970, guarantees of general election 1988, a partial end to separate electorates 2002, and transfer of authority from one elected government to another elected government 2013. Perhaps the present government will be judged primarily on the basis of its progress towards achieving the next target — establishment of a functional democracy.

Running a cabinet system without regular ministers of law, foreign affairs and defence and keeping the post of the largest province’s governor vacant for long smack of a love for arbitrary rule or ad hocism, both unacceptable in a democratic dispensation.

Published in Dawn, April 9th, 2015

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