THE grand cabinet reshuffle carried out by the eight-month-old government of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf can be viewed from several angles. It has exposed some critical deficiencies in the national polity that should cause anxiety not only to the PTI but to the entire nation. But my concern at the moment is the derogation of the parliament’s role as reflected in the reshuffle.
The government has shifted away perceptibly from the principle of reserving ministerial responsibilities for members of the parliament. Four important ministries that were under the charge of parliament members have been wrested from their hands. The key finance portfolio has been assigned to an unelected adviser, the portfolios of information and broadcasting, petroleum, and health have been downgraded further as they are to be handled by unelected special assistants to the prime minister. That these ministries/divisions will be supervised by an unduly overworked prime minister makes no difference to the position of special assistants as executive heads of ministries/divisions.
The transfer of the interior ministry from a parliamentarian of considerable standing to a fresh MP also falls in the category of replacement of a parliamentarian with an expert. The eight-month experience as a silent MP is not enough for retired Brig Ijaz Ahmad Shah to completely grow out of the persona of a spymaster who earned distinction over decades by using intelligence to harass and hound defenders of democracy and civil liberties.
The ouster of elected MPs from the executive pillar of the state should not be taken lightly. The principle of having MPs as heads of ministries was won by the people of the subcontinent after years of struggle. The British began their experiments in responsible government by creating mixed assemblies of elected and nominated members while all ministers were nominated. Under the diarchy introduced vide the Act of 1919, some elected members of provincial assemblies were assigned ministerial responsibilities. Under the Government of India Act of 1935, which was unfortunately used as Pakistan’s provisional constitution for nine long years, all ministries at both the federal and provincial levels were to be headed by elected members of the respective legislatures. However, a non-member could be a minister for six months and could continue in that position if he got himself elected to the assembly during the intervening period. The facility was abused after independence, especially in Sindh, and the authors of the 1973 Constitution dropped it altogether.
The present cabinet reshuffle may be taken as a step towards establishment of a de facto presidential system
The wisdom behind reserving ministerial posts for members of assemblies is quite clear. In a democracy, the ministerial heads are required to always remember that they must stay in touch with their electors to whom they owe their position and to whom they are responsible, while non-members are not subject to any democratic discipline.
When General Ayub Khan imposed his brand of the presidential system on the state of Pakistan he began by proposing that his ministers should not be members of the National Assembly (we had a single-chamber parliament then). The Political Parties Order, which he promulgated before the inaugural meeting of the National Assembly in Dhaka, was originally meant to prohibit the formation of political parties in the Parliament. His designs were foiled by the elected MPs, especially those belonging to East Bengal. Ultimately, Gen Khan not only accepted the formation of political parties in the parliament and outside, he saw safety in becoming the head of the Muslim League faction formed by his supporters.
A similar attempt, to prevent the formation of political parties in the National Assembly created by the partyless elections of 1985, was made by Gen Ziaul Haq, but he too was made to retreat by his handicapped Prime Minister Mohammad Khan Junejo.
The issue is important from another point of view as well. Those who are calling for the replacement of the parliamentary system with a presidential one perhaps have a presidential system in mind in which ministers must not be members of the parliament. The present cabinet reshuffle may be taken as a step towards establishment of a de facto presidential system. This trend will curtail the parliament’s role and make it dysfunctional in certain areas.
The view that the prime minister cannot continue with non-performing ministers is not as sound as it may appear to non-political minds. As a new party, the PTI is short on ministerial and administrative talent. It must find ways of guiding its ministers to acquire the skills they lack. Sometimes they will learn by trial and error. Patience is needed. You cannot win a world cup with a primary school team. Further, there is a critical question as to who decides on the choice of advisers and special assistants (even if those chosen have impressive credits)? Democracy means rule by people’s representatives and not by experts whose chief talent may lie in ability to represent all the parties to an issue.
This is a situation that cannot be welcomed by any political leader, including PM Khan. One cannot help sympathising with him, for he faces a tough dilemma. How long can he depend upon the lot that graduated from the PPP and PML-N schools of thought or grew up in Gen Musharraf’s menagerie? Beginning with Shah Mehmood Qureshi who came to the PTI via both PML-N and PPP, we have Hafeez Sheikh and Firdaus Ashiq Awan from the PPP stock. Like them Dr Fehmida Mirza, Pervez Khattak, Fawad Chaudhry and Nadeem Afzal Chan are already there.
Mr Khan cannot possibly be happy to see his government becoming informally a multiparty arrangement that includes the residue of the parties he reviles day in and day out. If this trend continues, it might become difficult to resist the call for a regular all-party government that alone might be able to pull the state out of the mess for which the parties currently being demonised are not the only ones responsible.
Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2019