IF confirmation was needed that Prime Minister Imran Khan’s preferred way of governing is by unilateral actions, it came in his government’s recent handling of a slew of issues. Not only has this done little to inspire public confidence in the PTI government, it has also divided opinion in the country and raised afresh questions about the direction it is taking. This also means that while the government rules it does not govern. It wields power but that doesn’t translate into showing the leadership needed to effectively meet the country’s challenges.
The most spectacular example of the government’s flawed response to a challenge is provided by the TLP affair. Its approach was mired in confusion from the start as supporters of the banned group locked down GT Road and threatened to march on Islamabad. Characteristically, cabinet ministers gave contradictory statements. The interior minister surpassed his own record of bluster. The government lurched between appeasement and declarations of firmness about upholding the writ of the state. But tough rhetoric by government leaders bore little relation to reality. In the end the state’s writ lay in shambles by the agreement forged with the proscribed group.
Worse, the government insisted on keeping the terms of the agreement secret. Never before had a deal struck after violent protests — which left seven policemen dead and scores injured — been shrouded in such secrecy, despite its far-reaching implications. Calls by the opposition and media to make the agreement public were rejected by the government. The terms of capitulation however emerged in subsequent days, laying bare the heavy price paid to settle an admittedly vexed situation — a price that will haunt the country in times to come. That the establishment played a key role only raised questions about the judgement of both the government and its backers. Reports that the government was considering an electoral alliance with TLP in Punjab indicated that the re-empowered militant outfit would be allowed to contest polls. The Punjab government has already taken the first step to end the ban on TLP. This adds another disturbing dimension to an unedifying episode.
The government’s decision in another area also illustrated its muddled and non-consensual approach to running the country. For the third time in a month, it amended the NAB ordinance and, as usual, without taking the opposition or its coalition partners on board. The National Accountability (Amendment) Ordinance was promulgated on Oct 6. Subsequent changes reflected haste and lack of thinking. The substance of the changes was even more worrying. The government did little to address questions raised by excluding some cases from NAB’s purview, maintaining or grandfathering others on money laundering and emphasising those relating to unexplained assets. Not only should these amendments have been taken to parliament for deliberation, their rationale should also have been explained by the government.
Muddling through and taking unilateral actions only widens the gap between challenge and response.
The most significant aspect of the third amendment was that it eroded the formal ‘independence’ of the NAB chairman as it took away the power to remove him from the Supreme Judicial Council and gave it to the executive. Under this the chairman will serve at the will of the prime minister and be obliged to comply with his political dictates. The attorney general went public to advise the government to ‘return’ this power to the Supreme Judicial Council through parliament. His counsel on grounds that the amendment would be legally challenged was rejected by the government. The Supreme Court Bar Association has already announced it would mount such a challenge.
These piecemeal amendments did not emerge from any process of consultation with the opposition, which in any case was ruled out by promulgating an ordinance in the first place. Predictably, opposition leaders assailed the move and described it as aimed at continuing “political victimisation” of opponents. They also criticised the government for bypassing parliament. This indicates that unilateral changes to an entity already mired in political controversy would be bereft of legitimacy and lack necessary consensus for its credible functioning.
Meanwhile on another issue — electoral reform that includes instituting electronic voting machines for the next election — the government announced its intention to call a joint session of parliament this month to adopt legislation on this. That means pressing ahead despite objections on EVMs from both the opposition and the Election Commission of Pakistan. As the government lacks a majority in the Senate, it has sought the route of a joint session in which it can muster the numbers to get the electoral reforms/EVM bill passed by parliament. This again exemplifies its insistence on getting its own way by disregarding the views of others. But it also represents an effort to dilute the Senate’s legislative role and in so doing undermines a fundamental federal principle. Previous governments also resorted to this but that doesn’t make it any more acceptable.
If governing without consensus has become a familiar trait of the ruling party other habits it has formed contribute to its distinct way of running the government. Its tendency to blame every problem on something or someone else is daily on display. Virtually all present challenges are blamed on past governments or on factors extraneous to itself. It is of course true that the PTI government inherited a troublesome economic legacy, but so has virtually every government in recent decades. However, three years into office it has to learn to assume responsibility. Governments are expected to fix problems not moan about the past. To explain every economic difficulty by reference to the past doesn’t work anymore. Nor does the present official narrative to justify rising inflation by comparison with other countries, where income and purchasing power are higher than in Pakistan. Also, the government has blamed the Sindh government for the spike in sugar prices when its own mismanagement and failure to import an adequate amount produced an acute shortage and hence the price rise.
Using disingenuous arguments to evade responsibility does nothing to reassure the public that the government is doing anything to address their problems. Governance is about owning responsibility and about less talk than action. Muddling through, taking unilateral decisions and not thinking them through only widens the gap between challenge and response and between rule and governance.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.
Published in Dawn, November 8th, 2021