The right to govern

January 19, 2020

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The writer is a former IGP and author of The Faltering State and Inconvenient Truths.
The writer is a former IGP and author of The Faltering State and Inconvenient Truths.

WHAT makes a government legitimate? The perception about consent of the governed revolves around the dominant view that public officials have the right to rule even if they are unfair or unfit as long as they gain power through procedures like elections. However, adherence to procedure is not enough: even a properly chosen government does not rule legitimately if it fails to protect basic rights, treat its citizens as equals, or act without transparency and coherence.

In order to ensure its legitimacy, a government must uphold three principles: (i) liberty, requiring that the fundamental rights of citizens be secured; (ii) equality, requiring that citizens not only have fair and equal say in selecting who governs them but that the process should be above reproach or suspicion of rigging; and (iii) agency, ensuring that a government’s actions reflect its decisions taken after due debate and deliberations, and that those decisions reflect reasons of public good and do not promote narrow interests of certain individuals, groups or institutions.

In the present unsettled times for democratic dispensations, governments the world over are failing this test by not adhering to these three principles — and, sadly, drifting towards totalitarian tendencies and praetorian rule of law. Pakistan too finds itself caught in this dangerous drift, particularly accentuated in the last few years. The republic requires course correction, and here is why.

A state determines its national purpose, interests and objectives and makes policies, strategies and action plans accordingly. Our national purpose was delineated by Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah as a democratic and enlightened polity based upon the principle of social justice and thus pursuing our national objectives through peace, progress and prosperity. Unfortunately, we lost sight of this purpose and ended up becoming a security state at cross purposes with the democratic aspirations of a society that requires political, economic and social justice. Unless we humanise the state, the national security narrative will continue to dominate at the expense of human security and development.

In order to ensure its legitimacy, a government must uphold three principles — liberty, equality and agency.

Rule of law, constitutionalism, human rights and due process have become casualties of our national security framework, in vogue despite no formal national security policy, which has yet to be approved by the National Security Committee, the federal cabinet and parliament. The state must create a balance between security and justice, as both are inextricably linked to our peace, progress and prosperity. The motto of ‘unity, faith and discipline’ must also be understood in its correct perspective.

There is unity in diversity; our many subcultures, languages and ethnic identities reflect our strengths not weaknesses. A federation derives strength from the strength of its federating units, not the other way round. Faith is not religiosity, nor can it be imposed. It is a fundamental right for individuals to practise in accordance with their beliefs, with the state’s role being that of a facilitator not enforcer. Discipline means equal treatment before the law — no discrimination, no sacred cows — in short, no one is above the law.

Citizens’ fundamental rights are to be ensured by the state. Yet we see people being picked up, illegally detained or tortured by certain elements of the deep state. Independent and vocal critics of the government and security establishment are silenced through coercion and intimidation. Recently, a former military officer-turned-lawyer who often pleads the cases of missing persons was detained until the superior judiciary stepped in to question the impunity with which state agencies were operating. He may be a rebel with a cause but, surprisingly, was dubbed a ‘spy’. I hope a fair investigation is ensured. Moreover, the issue of missing persons, especially in Balochistan, has yet to be fully resolved. Those who choose the ballot over bullets are not against the state. Their grievances need to be addressed.

Legitimacy of the state’s performance revolves around good governance. This remains a big challenge for both the federal and provincial governments that are defined by the Constitution as the chief executive and their cabinets. The federal government has transferred four police chiefs each in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with PTI-led coalition governments at the helm since August 2018. Consequently, the agenda for police reforms could not be fulfilled in earnest. Two task forces constituted for austerity measures, government restructuring and civil service reforms appear to have been bogged down due to resistance by the forces of status quo. To raise the issue of austerity measures among the defence forces and judiciary is to be met with a hushed silence, even snickering at the naivety of speaking of such sacred cows. Some very useful suggestions, such as inducting technical advisers for policymaking and fixing the tenure of federal secretaries, were met with resistance by bureaucrats and ministers respectively. Turf battles, in short.

The selective and ineffective accountability drive reflects a lack of political will, or the inability of politicians to address loopholes in the NAB law so often pointed out in various verdicts of the Supreme Court. Is the law defective, or is something wrong with the accountability tsar, or both? While the ball is in parliament’s court to amend the law, who really pulls the strings for the purposes of political engineering is an open secret. If we can’t admit the reality and hide behind the facade that is the accountability process, then we deserve what is happening in this republic of Swift’s Lilliputians.

And what about the booted Brobdingnagians? Should they get extensions? With malice towards none, a voice of reason and conscience would certainly oppose the concept of extensions for generals, judges and civil servants. No one should be indispensable. Institutions decay if individuals are given preferential treatment. Anyone who seeks or gives extensions loses respect. Hats off to those principled generals and civil servants who politely declined or firmly refused to accept extensions or re-employment in government service after reaching retirement age. They will always be respected.

A state can essentially justify its power in three ways: by promoting shared values and not imposing a narrative; by ensuring the sanctity of the electoral process and rule of law; and, finally, by establishing performance legitimacy. But our current governments have yet to pass the legitimacy test on the three principles of liberty, equality and agency.

Best wishes for 2020.

The writer is a former IGP and author of The Faltering State and Inconvenient Truths.

Published in Dawn, January 19th, 2020