Fighting monopolisation

Published April 1, 2024
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums

THE letter written by six judges of the Islamabad High Court (IHC) detailing interference in judicial work by intelligence agencies is an important and brave intervention. By linking it to a previous incident where a former judge had made similar observations, they have helped establish and publicise a malignant pattern of establishment interference.

The response to the letter from the Supreme Court has been weak so far. A commission under the executive tasked with interrogating executive overreach cannot be reasonably expected to achieve much. Further, it adds weight to the perception that the current Supreme Court leadership is hoping to sweep things under the carpet, due to various political and tactical alignments.

Given the outcome of previous inquiry commissions, where facts have either been ignored, or outcomes have sidestepped the facts uncovered, a general sense of cynicism is not unwarranted. Pakistan’s track record of the state trying to fix problems created by other parts of the state is pretty poor.

To put things into context, it’s necessary to look at a significant public intervention, such as this letter, as the response of a system completely weighed under a lopsided structure of power. In the past few years, establishment encroachment has taken a qualitatively different form, touching on a range of arenas of state functioning.

It is necessary to look at a significant public intervention as the response of a system weighed under a lopsided power structure.

The handicapping of judicial functioning is one such example. The management of the economy is another. The creation of apex institutions such as SIFC that is now wading into sectors as diverse as agriculture, information technology, and even education is reconfiguring the very nature of the state. Urban land use has seen such encroachment for a couple of decades, and the modifications to the Irsa Act made by the caretaker government suggest that water resource management might be the next frontier of internal conquest.

On account of such efforts, the state is being reshaped along two dimensions. The first is vertical, ie, a centralisation of decision-making that undermines a federal constitutional structure and spirit. Provinces are given token representation and their concerns are often overridden. Bodies that are designed to support federalist decision-making and resolve federal conflicts, such as the Council of Common Interests lie disempowered and non-functional, while centralising entities such as SIFC act as apex decision-makers.

The second dimension is horizontal, ie, a monopolisation of authority within the federal tier from institutions such as parliament and judiciary to the unelected executive and establishment. This too is in violation of a constitutional structure, but it happens in an even more egregiously illicit manner. And it happens because of the frequent use of coercive tools to achieve desired outcomes.

Pakistan’s political history tells us that both centralisation and monopolisation efforts have an expiry date. Internal diversity, cross-cutting interests, and the existence of a range of different power players ensure that monopolising ambitions (dubbed the ‘Bangladesh model’ these days) are scuppered. The task at hand is for resistance to succeed before sufficient damage is caused.

Centralisation efforts will require coordinated fightback by political parties that have an incentive to support federalism. In the current configuration, this is the PPP and, ironically, the PTI which remains coercively confined to one provincial government. Recent chatter about recalibrating the NFC award and attempts to change the structure of water resource management by imposing a central government appointee as chairperson are the two immediate battlegrounds. The technical case against such centralising ambitions has already been made by several authors on these and other pages. But the technical case alone will not win this battle; instead it requires a parliamentary response that the federalist parties must lead, even if it involves setting aside their own acrimony and differences.

What will prove to be a much tougher fight is resisting the continued monopolisation of power within the state structure. The treatment meted out to both PTI in recent months, and popular movements in the ethnic peripheries over the past many years, have reduced the scope for public mobilisation and protest.

In the aftermath of the IHC letter, some are hoping that bar councils will form the organisational core of a fresh round of resistance; perhaps by initiating another lawyers’ movement to protect the turf of the judiciary. Others are pointing to the role that civil society organisations, rights campaigners, and the media will need to play, given their occupational allegiance to constitutional rule.

But in the current climate, and the range of heavy-handed tactics deployed over the past two years, it is unlikely that any of these entities can succeed on their own. Instead, gradualist, broad-based resistance that opens up sporadic breathing space is going to be a more plausible path forward.

The IHC letter reflects a deep-seated frustration with institutional overreach. One possible response to it is that it may actually take immediate pressure off the judiciary and re-secure some of its independence, via a process of internal negotiation. While this does little to assuage more structural fears, it will be a considerable victory in the short term.

Over the medium to long term, a broad-based coalition invested in constitutional rule remains the only path forward. Tactical action through parliamentary work can fight off centralisation efforts. Interventions via sympathetic pockets in the judiciary, mass media, and the public at large can prevent further monopolisation.

Crucially though, no such coalition can function without the support of political parties, civil society actors, and existing mass movements in the smaller provinces, and more importantly, no such coalition can function through only one party. The current moment, and the opening provided by this letter, should be used for coalition building, even if it means setting aside past animosity. This holds as true for political parties as it does for various segments of civil society.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

X: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, April 1st, 2024

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