IT seems almost natural that on all national occasions our minds begin to oscillate between the past and the present. We trace the roots of our present in our past and look at our past as the shaper of where we have reached today. Quite understandable, one might add.
Let us think about the occasion of the inauguration of the Constituent Assembly of the newly-formed country on August 11, 1947. Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah was elected the president of the assembly; after three days, he had to be sworn in as the governor-general of the country as well. In his address to the Constituent Assembly, he laid down his vision for the future of the country, which, in conformity with what had been regularly reiterated during the freedom movement, had to be a modern, social welfare state with federal and parliamentary forms of government.
The structures of the state had to represent the cultural diversity of Pakistani society, and the societal ideals had to be drawn from the egalitarian principles of Islam.
In his speech, Jinnah explained why the conflict between the majority and the minority issue in united India had resulted in partition and how the new state could cope with the religious differences of the people by adopting for itself a character and role of neutrality, ensuring equality of citizens in the eyes of law.
The Independence Day is an occasion for introspection, and to look back with the intention of charting a better course for the future.
Of great importance was the reference to parliament as the sovereign body of the country, a notion he referred to thrice in his historic speech.
He began his speech by thanking the assembly for “(T)he greatest honour that is possible for this Sovereign Assembly to confer…’. Then, delineating the two main functions to be performed by the assembly, he mentioned the first as “framing our future constitution”, and the second as “functioning as a full and complete sovereign body as the federal legislature of Pakistan”. A bit later, while explaining the latter function, he said: “Remember that you are now a sovereign legislative body and you have got all the powers.”
The brief statements carried great substance and were of enormous significance for the future. They reflected deep insight of history, a good understanding of the political development of the region that constituted the new country, and an equally good understanding of the modern institutions of statecraft.
What Jinnah said was not out of context. He had had his political education while watching the House of Commons at work. He was influenced by the ideas of the most liberal politicians of England. In the Imperial Legislative Council, he always argued for making the executive answerable to the legislature exactly on the pattern of the United Kingdom.
He envisaged building the parliamentary institutions introduced in the provinces during colonialism wherein they were controlled by colonial bureaucracy. After independence, he thought, such interference would no more be there, and these institutions would become the true representative of the people’s will. Such had been the ideals of parliamentary supremacy at the beginning of our independent journey.
However, unfortunately, soon after independence, the ideal of parliamentary democracy was overshadowed by the ambitions of successive overly-centralised executives. The tradition of undermining the parliamentary system and its values has continued till today though the country, in the last seven-and-a-half decades, has experienced different forms of government, like the viceregal system, presidential system with certain parliamentary traits (1956 constitution), full-fledged presidential systems, military rules and the hybrid systems wherein the actual power-holders operate from behind and above the parliamentary institutions, whose actual constitutional roles are circumscribed and they are relegated to a role to put a parliamentary veneer on the decisions taken elsewhere.
In contravention of what was stipulated as a democratic welfare state, Pakistan, soon after independence, took to the path of building itself as a state with security concerns. While security is a pivotal issue of all nation-states, they also adopt the principle of democracy and, if they also comprise big territories and diverse populations, federalism.
In case the state adopts security as its fundamental concern, democracy and federalism become secondary and can, at times or even permanently, become irrelevant. This is what has happened in the case of Pakistan.
Inherited from the colonial rule through the Government of India Act 1935, which served as the interim constitution for nine years, authoritarianism came to serve as the first model of governance in the country. It was followed by a constitution in 1956 that could not last beyond the end of 1958 when martial law was imposed with a strong bureaucracy being a close ally. The two martial law regimes – the second one starting in 1969 – together lasted some 13 years till the breakup of the country in 1971.
The pseudo-parliamentary system of the first nine years and the presidential system between 1958 and 1971, did not allow the country to take to serious parliamentary form with the executive answerable to the legislature and the former taking guidance from the latter.
The post-dismemberment era saw an interregnum of civilian rule during which the country eventually succeeded in devising a constitution which had the merit of being made by the elected representatives of the people who had almost unanimously reposed their confidence in the basic law of the country. It was believed that perhaps after losing half of it, and bewildering for quarter of a century, now that the country had adopted a fairly workable constitution, it would lead to a progressive journey towards future democratisation. The hope soon died.
In July 1977, the country entered its third military rule that lasted for 11 years and was followed by another 11 years of docile civilian regimes which apparently were there in office but were bound to operate within a given space with the condition that they could be shown the door at the discretion of the president who had been given the power to dissolve the assembly by an amendment forced on parliament in 1985.
From 1998 till 2008, the country saw another military rule. In the third and the fourth military rules, a new experiment was made whereby first under the 8th amendment of 1985 and later the 17th amendment in 2002, allowed the president to have extraordinary powers vis-à-vis parliament, and appoint a prime minister of his choice.
The prime minister was not elected by the legislature, but had to get a vote of confidence after being appointed by the all-powerful head of the state. This was the beginning of what came to be called the hybridity.
The hybrid regimes of the two amendments, which saw prime ministers like Muhammad Khan Junejo, Zafarullah Jamali, Chaudhary Shujaat Hussain and Shaukat Aziz, did not come to end once the proper civilian regimes were restored in 2008.
There had been a spell of 10 years between 2008 and 2018 during which the two mainstream political parties ruled for five years each, the system, though not hybrid in nature, faced pressures from extra-political forces, with two prime ministers getting declared disqualified by the higher judiciary.
Beginning from the 1985 non-party elections, a class of electables emerged as a regular feature in Pakistani politics. These electables, given their ability to generate financial resources and manage the support of biradaris and occupational groups through promise of generous dividends in case of their success, had become a relatively distinct, but not quite independent, segment in Pakistani politics.
However, not all the electables were likely to enter the corridors of power, for they were numerous, and only the acceptables, that is, the more loyal among them, could make it. Those who had joined the ‘wrong’ party were also the failures.
The political parties, instead of correcting the culture of electables and acceptables, found it more convenient to become part of it and pursue their own acceptance by the establishment. Thus, the period after the 1985 non-party elections can be designated as the end of ideology in Pakistani politics. This also implies the end of a meaningful party role in the affairs of the state.
Democracy, as such, has come to have new meaning now. Parliamentary supremacy is a dream that could not be realised in the past and has seemed all the more distant with the passage of time. Parties do exist, but they are more of personalised entities. They are seldom seen operating their own constitutional bodies. By and large there is no bearing of the workers on their parties.
Parliament itself is disregarded in many ways. Answerabilty of the executive to it is not a matter of routine. A former premier had attended the Senate after a gap of six months, and that too after the chairman threatened that he would not hold the next session without him. Things have only gone worse, with the promulgation of presidential ordinances being the more convenient way to rule.
With the record of our political journey being what it is, the vision of the founding fathers stands shattered.
Democracy is believed to connect the state and the society, and parliamentary democracy was thought to be a useful mechanism for its realisation, but this did not happen for one reason or the other.
The Independence Day does bring a lot of food for thought.
The author is Director, Institute of Historical and Social Research, Karachi.