In search of an executive

Updated June 20, 2019


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

IT begins already, the steady process of diluting the influence of Imran Khan on the executive powers of the state. A few weeks back I said he has become a “figurehead prime minister”, and on budget night he showed himself to be so totally separated from the conduct of economic policy that this week’s conclusion was nearly inevitable: the formation of a National Development Council.

One can be forgiven for feeling a little disoriented with the proliferation of all the councils thus far. But this last one is different because it has the army chief on it, unlike the others.

What we are witnessing today is a continuation of a search for an agreeable model for configuring and wielding executive powers that began perhaps as far back as the early Zia years. Those more learned than me might well be able to trace the line further back. It is born of a tension built into the nature of civil-military relations.

Accumulating power at the top involves managing two major spheres of activity: politics and executive power. Politics in this country pits the ruler against the political parties, whether they are in acquiescent mode (like they were through the Musharraf years as they sat in his parliament) or in street-fighting mode (as they were in the Zia years). When not faced off against a military regime, the parties have been faced off against each other.

Managing politics has a fairly standard template by now. A relatively straight line runs from the IJI to the PML-Q to the PTI today. When you have a political prime minister, like Mohammad Khan Junejo, it becomes hard to control how he will discharge his executive functions, whether in budgeting, taxation and spending or in foreign policy.

Managing politics has a fairly standard template by now. A relatively straight line runs from the IJI to the PML-Q to the PTI today.

When you have a non-political prime minister, like Shaukat Aziz, the discharge of the state’s executive functions remains soundly under control. But Aziz could provide little to no help when Musharraf faced his big political challenges, when pressing on with accountability, or in negotiating an extension of his term in office under uniform, or when the Supreme Court began challenging his decisions starting with the privatisation programme, or when the lawyers movement broke out, or when the NRO had to be negotiated or the PML-Q had to be asked to secure a vote from the Assembly granting Musharraf another five years in power after 2008 and so on and on.

This is one balance for which an active but fruitless search has been under way for decades in Pakistan. A prime minister who is accountable only to his political party does not work in such a setup. Not a single one of those types — who recognize only their party leadership as their overlords — has managed to finish a term in office.

Think about all the various times a prime minister has been sent packing from parliament in our history from Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to date. There is only one example when this was attempted (not successfully, mind you) using the instruments the Constitution gives for dislodging a prime minister or a government: a vote of no-confidence. That was in 1989, with the combined opposition parties, who left Benazir Bhutto’s government hobbled but in place.

Other than that, I count 10 other occasions when a prime minister has been sent home involuntarily. In only two of those 10 cases were troop movements involved (ZAB and Nawaz Sharif’s second stint). Junejo was struck down with the stroke of a pen and a constitutional amendment that his own parliament had debated and passed.

The next three governments (PPP, PML, PPP) were all sent home using the same instrument of presidential power. Yousuf Raza Gilani and Nawaz Sharif in 2016 were both sent home by the Supreme Court, directly. Nawaz Sharif’s first term ended first with his dismissal by the president, then his restoration by the Supreme Court, followed by his agreeing to step down in an agreement brokered by then COAS Gen Waheed Kakar.

When recalling this noisy and tumultuous history it is easy to overlook the case of Zafarullah Jamali, who stepped down without a peep simply because he was asked to. It was his sheer inability to discharge the executive functions of the state as well as his inability to be useful in the robust politics that emerged from the 2002 elections that paved his way out of the Prime Minister House. Of all the prime minister’s discussed in this brief overview, his was the shortest stint at 581 days, not even two years, and the quietest departure. This was also the first time that a prime minister was removed but the government left intact. In the years to come, this was done twice more with Gilani and Sharif.

Today it is becoming increasingly important to ask whether Imran Khan is able to manage the politics of the moment or discharge the executive functions of the state. For the former it is necessary to understand what sort of end point is envisioned in the ongoing political confrontation that sees the parties in an intensifying clash with each other. For the latter the real, hard metric is the ability of the government to jump through the hoops set by the IMF.

Beyond this they have to manage a growing regional engagement under an extremely trying scenario that is becoming increasingly critical. There is a reason why the prime minister is repeatedly writing letters to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking for talks, and the reason is not a fatuous one. Notice that, of the four terms of reference given for the newly formed council, two relate to regional connectivity and cooperation.

The formation of the council shows that there is growing concern about the discharge of executive functions of the state at present. A leadership vacuum is being filled. Of course, it won’t work, because executive power cannot be run on a part-time basis. When that becomes clear, the key decision point will arrive.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @khurramhusain

Published in Dawn, June 20th, 2019