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Issues in transition

September 06, 2018


THE prime minister was apparently wrongly advised when he asked the media not to ask questions about his government’s performance for three months.

A similar request to the opposition parties might have been in order. The government has a right to plan for not only three months, but for five years, and it could ask the opposition to hold back its fire until it has settled down.

The case of the media, especially of the sections that are not aligned with any political group, is different. It has a duty to promptly analyse government decisions because silence for three months could mean missing the opportunity of preventing harm to the national interest. For example, the government has announced plans to scrap the Pemra law and draft a new umbrella legislation for the entire media. The media community that is already protesting against overt and covert curbs on the freedom of expression is legitimately alarmed.

The move has revived memories of the previous government’s efforts to introduce a law for the print media similar to the one for Pemra. The Shahid Khaqan Abbasi government retreated and denied, quite illogically, responsibility for the bill. If the establishment has persuaded the new government to revive the anti-media initiative of the preceding regime, it only shows that real change often does not follow a change of government.

For a meaningful change in the system of governance, the new rulers need more debate — not less.

If the media does not ask the government to review its decision for three months, a new law would have been enforced during the interval, and the possibility of applying corrective measures would have been missed and considerable harm would have been done to the cause of media freedom. All this will not be in the interest of the media, the state and even the new government.

The government should realise that for making plans for a meaningful change in the system of governance, it needs more debate and not less. Governments that claim monopoly of wisdom and extinguish citizens’ right to join the search for the greatest good of the greatest number end up creating more problems than they can solve.

The government must not rush to make any regulations for the media without genuine consultation with all stakeholders.

Similarly, the time to ask questions about the large-scale reshuffle in the federal bureaucracy is now. After three months, it will be too late.

In an earlier column, a large-scale change in bureaucrats’ assignments was identified as a sign of instability. The government appears to be keen to confirm the adage. But it should not ignore the repercussions.

The information minister has offered two arguments in defence of the en masse reshuffle. First, that everything is being done in accordance with the law. That only means that all orders are issued by competent authorities — a condition that can easily be met. The second argument is that officials in central cadres who have spent 10 years in a province have been repatriated to home provinces. No quarrel with this sound principle. But it is not applicable to transfers within the central secretariat. And it is these changes that need to be discussed.

A new government’s desire to bring changes in the bureaucratic setup can have a variety of motives. The weakest motive is a desire to proclaim a change in the order — according to a Persian saying, each newcomer wants to raise a new edifice. Modern governments do not need such gimmicks as countless means are available to them to tell the people that they have arrived.

Another motive can be to put like-minded civil servants in key administrative positions. This approach is based on the dangerous premise that such bureaucrats can promote a government’s agenda. In other words, a premium is put on political partisans among bureaucrats, though they are supposed to be experts without political affiliations. This is a thorny path, and all authorities on public administration are opposed to it, as it could devalue merit and make wholesale changes in administration with each change of political masters inevitable.

The third and only correct motive can be to put the right persons in the right jobs. But has any exercise in this direction been carried out by the prime minister or members of the cabinet? They have had little time to determine whether or not officials holding different posts in the secretariat were capable of realising the new government’s agenda. The impression that transfers have been made under advice from within the establishment is hard to dispel.

The government would be well advised to bear in mind two traditions of Pakistan’s bureaucracy. First, the bureaucrats have traditionally sought protection for their individual and group interests by forming vertical and horizontal alliances — ie within the service group/cadre and straddling the various cadres. The esprit de corps in these alliances can be strong enough to protect members from accountability by outsiders, such as the political authorities. This is in addition to the privilege that senior bureaucrats enjoy under the Rules of Business in the event of disagreement with their ministers. Nobody should take exception to civil servants’ right to form associations to protect their common interests provided they are democratically organised. Informal arrangements can interfere with the smooth functioning of the administration.

The other tradition envisages the rise of what may be called bureaucratic czars such as Chaudhry Mohammad Ali, Malik Ghulam Mohammad and Iskander Mirza during Pakistan’s early years, Vaqar Ahmad during Z.A. Bhutto’s government, Ghulam Ishaq Khan during several regimes and Fawad Hasan under the Nawaz Sharif government. Such powerful civil servants are liked by political leaders because they relieve them of the hard task of reading the papers they are asked to sign on and also of the need to look for the right person for the right job. Such individuals know how to deliver. The only problem in such arrangements is that the establishment becomes a parallel and stronger government and the political authority loses direct control over the state apparatus.

An extensive reshuffle in the secretariat carries risks that cannot be ignored.

Published in Dawn, September 6th, 2018