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Of personal opinions

July 20, 2011

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QUITE a few well-known persons have been able to escape the consequences of their actions and utterances that are against the interest of the government or the political party to which they belong by pleading that they had acted or spoken in their personal capacity. A steady increase in such cases is making the confusion in public life worse confounded.

It is no secret that a large number of people, perhaps a preponderant majority, do not have personal opinions, even in matters personal, because forming an opinion demands a process of thinking for which most people have little time or inclination or capacity. Thus, the fact that some people enjoying power or influence have personal opinions on some matters should ordinarily be welcomed. The trouble arises when such dignitaries do not realise their duty if their personal opinions on matters of public importance are found in conflict with the declared policy of their collective, government or party.

Of course, there have been some people who have quit positions of authority on the ground of difference of opinion. But such honourable exceptions are few and far between, and those choosing this way seldom offer disagreement on principle or policy as the reason. The cover of personal opinion or action in personal capacity is usually sought when one finds himself/herself in serious trouble.

Democracy presupposes a harmonious blending of individuals’ opinions into a group’s collective thinking. All associations are supposed to be voluntary as every person has a fundamental right to protection against involuntary entry into or exit from any association.

In all organisations — governments, political parties, trade unions, professional associations, et al — people do have differences of opinion on what the group should aim at or how it should function but they should either accept the majority view (and wait till their opinions gain majority support) or quit the group. They cannot have the luxury of publicly supporting the collective’s view and acting to the contrary in their personal capacity. That would be violative of the code of conduct distilled from the wisdom of ages.

The havoc that will be caused in the event of deviations for this code can easily be appreciated. Imagine the consequences if a minister for women’s affairs defends beating his wife as an action “in my personal capacity”. Or a minister of minority affairs denying non-Muslims equal status in ‘personal capacity’. A most bizarre situation could arise if a defence officer who is fighting militants as part of his duty pays a monthly subscription to the mohallah militant outfit — in his personal capacity.

Complications arise not only when a person acts or speaks against the call of his voluntarily assumed duty but even when one holds an opinion out of accord with the accepted concept of public good. Responsible leaders therefore avoid appointing employers’ counsel as ministers of labour, conservative scholars as heads of institutions of liberal education, patrons of outlaws as law or home ministers. The reason simply is that a person’s personal predilection or prejudice is bound to affect his/her official performance. Many historical events can be cited in elaboration. The impression that Edward VIII had a soft corner for the Nazis, while Britain was preparing to fight them to the bitter end, was one of the weapons in the armoury of prime minister Baldwin when he forced the king-emperor to abdicate.

Thus, according to a hallowed convention respected in democratic societies political persons do not give vent to their personal opinions on a matter contrary to their government’s/party’s posture. They are supposed to voice their belief at the collective’s designated forums. In other words, acceptance of certain offices demands that the persons concerned surrender their right to express their personal opinions in public. In fact, the distinction between their public and private lives disappears to a large extent.

In Pakistan the question of decline in the performance of the government or a political party because its leading members’ personal opinions are at variance with its thinking is quite serious for three main reasons.

First, most people join government or a political party in the hope of finding a wider platform to further their personal interest.

Secondly, there are no rules or conventions that define as to what kind of deviation from the collective thinking renders a member of a government or a political caucus liable to disciplinary action. Normally, all infarctions are tolerated unless one has committed a crime. The position is not clear even in cases where criminal offences are alleged.

In civilised societies, a person is required to quit his government/party office the moment he is accused of moral turpitude, perhaps because nobody is charged without a prima facie case against him. In Pakistan, the fact that people are often wrongly accused of a crime has given an excuse to many not to resign from whatever position one is holding till the court of final appeal has pronounced the guilty verdict. Besides, practice varies from party to party. Ms Atiqa Odho chose to resign her party office instead of arguing that even if two bottles of liquor were really found in her baggage it was her personal matter and had nothing to do with the party. On the other hand, a Punjab minister could get away with a much bigger offence of a similar nature because his leaders forgive acts done in a personal capacity.

Thirdly, there is no tradition of intra-government or intra-party debate and decisions being taken after taking into consideration at least the opinions of the high command’s members, or even with reference to party manifestos. Those who know say the tradition of eschewing intra-party discussion started with the All-India Muslim League. There may not be much evidence of Mr Jinnah’s lack of patience with dissenters but one does know that Hasrat Mohani, Abdur Rahman Siddiqui or Suhrawardy were odd men out. And it is this legacy of the mother of all parties that Pakistan’s political groups have not abandoned.

You may look any way and you will find a single supremo presiding over an assembly of nodders. Since most people do not get a chance to express their opinions at consultative sessions, if they are at all held, they cannot help blurting out their opinions, even raw emotions, at the first opportunity. Often they have to do so to make their very existence known.

Ultimately governance in Pakistan means rule of superior personal opinions. One man’s personal opinion can plunge Karachi into an orgy of murder and arson and one man’s personal opinion can enforce ceasefire. The zero value of subordinate personal opinions can be judged from the current chorus in Karachi. One is amazed at the way personal opinions change overnight. The only lesson is that in most cases public posture and private opinion both mean an opportunistic pursuit of self-interest.