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Political surrogacy

February 07, 2019


The writer is an author.
The writer is an author.

PAKISTAN is inching towards another experiment in presidential potency. The spectre of authoritarianism has surfaced again, like a vapour hovering over Islamabad. Citizens do not need to visit Rome to recognise the makings of another Caesar; they have simply to revisit history.

In 1958, Ayub Khan took over as CMLA and president. In 1969, he handed both titles to Yahya Khan, who in turn passed them to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in December 1971. Bhutto’s nemesis Ziaul Haq, after wresting power in 1977, waited a year before declaring himself president. In 1988, after Zia’s death, his handmaiden successor Ghulam Ishaq Khan kept the faith for another five years. In 1999, Pervez Musharraf opted for the fig leaf of the title chief executive, which he wore even after remaining COAS and becoming president in 2001. It must have aggravated Musharraf’s bile to see Asif Ali Zardari succeed him as president in 2008, and then watch impotently as Zardari shred all his Nero-scale plans for national reconstruction. Zardari did worse. His 18th Constitutional Amendment devolved power from the presidency to parliament and more to the provinces.

This amendment unconsciously mirrored a similar situation in India, with one significant difference. The Indian states earned their independence from New Delhi; they were not given it as a federal handout. Historians still argue whether in 1947, India gained its independence and Pakistan was granted it. (That explains why we behave so insouciantly with our unearned windfall.)

It is now almost 10 years since the 18th Amendment was petrified into law by the National Assembly and the Senate. Yet, on critical matters, the Pakistani voter still has no idea who — whether in Islamabad or in any of the four provincial capitals — is now responsible for which subject and at what level. Population planning, health, conventional and special education, sports, agriculture, trade unions, zakat (to name just a few) float untreated, like jettisoned plastic.

Drafters of the 18th Amendment thought they had a fool-proof method.

The sting in Zardari’s 18th Amendment lay in the daring modification to Article 6 of the Constitution. Parties which had suffered revolving-door parliaments hoped to retrieve their authority by legislating against any coup that sent its elected representatives back to nursing their constituencies. Coups were declared acts of “high treason”, not to be “validated by any court including the Supreme Court and a High Court”.

Treason never ages. Eight hundred years ago, a poet had written: “Treason sows his secret seeds that no man can detect; Fathers by their children are undone; the brother would the brother cheat [;] Might is right, and justice there is none.”

Those drafting the 18th Amendment thought they had ensured a fool-proof method of avoiding parliamentary abortions. What they had not foreseen was governance by surrogacy.

It has been practised by the Soviet Union over its satellite republics, used by the US self-defeating determination in Iraq and Afghanistan, and toyed by crown princes — Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad bin Salman and the UAE’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed (to name two of our prime minister’s role models). Incidentally, our government is now polishing its lips to welcome the Saudi crown prince in Pakistan. He is coming to sign off a $10 billion oil refinery at Gwadar. One wonders how the Chinese view the head of this laden camel intruding into their pagoda.

Observers of our coiled politics must find it hard to understand to workings of a system that appears to make sense on paper, yet is so flawed in its operation. On one day, the ministry of finance wails before the IMF that the national coffers have been looted by previous governments, and on the next, blo­ated by $9bn of loans and handcuffed dep­osits, it cocks a snook at that banker of the last resort. Yet, our ostensibly impoverished government has emb­a­rked upon a spending spree in which half a million low-cost houses are to be provided and health cards distributed to the sick. These initiatives are laudable in their intent; the flaw will lie in their implementation. Has everyone forgotten the mismanaged largesse of the Benazir Income Support Programme?

FIA and NAB fight over the bone of accountability. Each wants the right of first bite at high-profile offenders. One single-track-minded minister is more concerned, like Donald Trump, with ensuring that his name appears in the newspapers every day. An adviser to the prime minister disingenuously dismisses the Rs1.4 trillion ($10bn) energy circular debt as being of a lesser priority than ‘bigger-ticket items’. How much bigger does any crisis have to balloon before it explodes in our faces?

By the end of this year, the prime minister will have bid farewell to COAS Bajwa and to Supreme Court Chief Justice Khosa. Will their successors regard the 18th Amendment as a sacred Ayer’s Rock, or just another profane obstruction to political surrogacy?

The writer is an author.

Published in Dawn, February 7th, 2019