Who wants to be PM?

Updated July 14, 2018

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THERE’S a small corner in my mind where I store and update a list of jobs to avoid. Curr­ently on top is prime minister of Pakistan.

Why on earth would anybody in his right mind wish to be, nominally at least, the chief executive of a fractious, divided country like ours? Apart from problems like separatist struggles, jihadist terrorism, poverty, rapid population growth, water and power shortages, and illiteracy, the prime minister now has to contend with increasing encroachment on his constitutional authority by unelected and unaccountable power centres.

Traditionally, sections of the military establishment have played a major role in formulating our security policy. Most prime ministers have, however reluctantly, accepted this even though they have to cope with the resultant budgetary constraints imposed by the constant drain on our limited resources.

However, as Nawaz Sharif has learned the hard way, trying to wrest civilian authority back after decades of interference is a battle he cannot win. For this to happen, we need a political consensus and a minimum level of cooperation between our quarrelsome politicians. These ambitious people would rather accept a crumb from the GHQ high table than forge unity. They are thus seen as easy to manipulate.

Establishing civilian authority is a difficult battle.

But now, other unelected forces are seen to be emasculating the executive. After retired chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s disastrous tenure of judicial activism that saw bizarre decisions ranging from wanting to control the price of sugar (which inevitably saw its price rise sharply) to blocking the sale of Pakistan Steel Mills (which we are continuing to subsidise to the tune of billions), we now have a chief justice who wants to build dams through public donations.

I have no doubt his intentions are good. But one must ask if he realises the cost, scale and complexity of building large dams. Kalabagh dam, a project much hyped in the 1990s, was bitterly opposed by KP and Sindh. Gen Musharraf, with all his power, could not cobble together a consensus on the issue.

But building dams should not be the judiciary’s concern. The Supreme Court ought to worry about the quality of its decisions, and the huge build-up of pending cases in various courts (over 1.8 million at last count). And sadly, some have questioned its impartiality in recent decisions concerning Nawaz Sharif and his family on the eve of elections.

At least PML-N supporters are convinced that their leader has been unfairly deprived of a place in the National Assembly, the right to run as a candidate, and most recently, of his freedom for 10 years. True, most drawing room pundits and TV talking heads think Sharif has finally been held accountable. But I am looking at perceptions, and in the court of public opinion at least, judgements focusing on Nawaz Sharif are often seen as one-sided.

Large sections of the media, too, have followed the lead of the establishment. There has been a drumbeat of anti-Sharif propaganda across the spectrum, ostensibly exaggerating the sums the ex-prime minister is supposed to have stolen from the exchequer.

We had a hilarious moment when the head of NAB, the anti-corruption body, announced that his agency would investigate the scores of billions Sharif is supposed to have sent to India. It turned out the figure was a rule-of-thumb calculation in a World Bank study of the theoretical amount migrants send home. The authors had totalled the number of refugees who had come to Pakistan and multiplied it by a notional figure. The NAB chief felt he had done nothing to apologise for. The fact that all this is happening just weeks before a crucial election speaks volumes for the weakness of the executive.

Most importantly, there are accusations that the establishment’s stake in our security has expan­ded to political engineering whereby leadership contests are decided in the shadows rather than by the electorate. The surprise election of an unknown as Senate chairman was easy as this is an indirect contest, and the number of representatives qualified to vote are in the hundreds.

But shaping the outcome of the general elections with thousands of candidates and millions of voters across the country is a totally different ball game. It is difficult to rig the vote on election day itself, except perhaps in constituencies with small margins between candidates. However, many reports suggest that PML-N candidates have been pressurised to jump ship and move to Imran Khan’s party, viewed by many as being favoured by sections of the establishment. Candidates report receiving phone calls threatening them with corruption charges, and visits from the taxman, if they don’t comply.

When visitors come to Islamabad, after a courtesy call on the prime minister, they make a beeline to GHQ to hold substantive talks with the army chief of the day. This must be galling for the elected prime minister who watches as generals travel abroad making policy speeches, and appear to be more respected than he is.

So I repeat: why would anybody wish to be prime minister?

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, July 14th, 2018