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Wages of brinkmanship

August 03, 2011

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THE people of Pakistan have been living on edge for as long as one can recall. One of the recent causes of their despair has been what is commonly described as a confrontation between the executive and the judiciary and every conscious citizen realises that it could lead to a national catastrophe.

For months, a short thriller was screened before a captive audience. The judiciary told the government that it would not tolerate defiance of its constitutional authority, that its patience was running out, and that it was holding its hand only to avoid a total institutional collapse. The executive kept swearing that it could not even think of defying the judiciary’s authority, that there was no conflict between the state organs, and those hoping to profit from a clash of institutions were worse than fools. Yet the people all the time felt that the two state organs were facing one another in a manner that was not friendly, to put it mildly.

Recently, the script underwent a change. The prime minister protested that his authority was being encroached upon and declared that parliament would decide who was transgressing its authority. He did not name the other party but everybody understood what was meant. Immediately, the people were told of a grave crisis. Some people said parliament was higher than the other organs of the state, some others said parliament was being used to cover up corruption. All sorts of busybodies jumped into the fray — some pledging loyalty to one side, some to the other. A showdown appeared unavoidable. Then the earlier script reappeared, both sides offered relief to each other and as suddenly as the crisis had erupted a ceasefire took effect.

Unfortunately, this film cannot be allowed to run forever for several reasons. First, the people easily get bored with stale fare.

Secondly, this game of brinkmanship can get out of everybody’s hands. A slight slip by either side can push the country over the precipice.

Thirdly, and more important than anything else, the people’s misery is growing by the day because the government is all the time camping in the fencing arena. It is not seen to be attending to the issues of governance and some of its leading ministers are either travelling or issuing statements on matters they hardly understand or are entrusted with.

While there are many things that divide the executive and the judiciary a major cause of a prolonged and wasteful confrontation between the two relates to the posting, transfer and promotion of civil servants. The government apparently did not learn the lesson it should have when the Supreme Court struck down the package of senior bureaucrats’ promotion.

That order was given on a petition by the aggrieved officials and not in the exercise of the court’s suo motu jurisdiction.

However, there have been quite a few instances when the apex court has taken the initiative on its own to seek a review/cancellation of the government’s decisions. There may be some room for a discussion on the limits to the judiciary’s legitimate intervention in the executive’s domain but nothing can justify undeserved promotion of favourites and punishment of officials who are generally seen to be carrying out their duty.

The complaints against the federal government are many and varied (and the provincial governments may not be far behind).

These include the secret grant of ministerial status to persons not known for any merit, appointment of favourites as advisers to ministers/ministries, re-employment of retired officials whose shady past is quite well known.

The people have not been able to find any reason to justify the government’s insistence on appointing some persons to certain posts despite valid objections to their selection and its determination to remove certain officials who were handling ‘sensitive’ cases. The treatment meted out to senior officials, from Tariq Khosa to Zafar Qureshi and Hussain Asghar, particularly in view of the fact they were probing cases of corruption, have undermined the government’s claims to uprightness.

It is possible that professional rivalries within the ranks of the bureaucracy have made some contribution to the government’s loss of credibility. Likewise, the government alone may not be responsible for losing public confidence by its failure to fill key vacancies in time. The people did not like the delay that was allowed in implementing the new formula for the appointment of judges or in the nomination of members of the Election Commission, and now they cannot appreciate the foot-dragging in the selection of a new head of the National Accountability Bureau.

The government’s position generally is that the actions for which it is criticised have been taken in the exercise of its lawful authority. True, the prime minister, as the country’s chief executive authority, has the power to appoint, transfer and promote civil servants but this authority cannot be exercised arbitrarily, whimsically and in narrow selfish interests. Like justice, executive authority should not only be exercised fairly and justly, and in public interest, it should also seem to be so exercised.

Everybody knows that public perception often matters more than fact and many governments and individuals have come to grief because of public perception of their being incompetent or corrupt or both even though they might not have been guilty to the extent commonly assumed.

There is thus urgent need for the government to prevent the public perception from getting more and more adverse to it. It will not solve its difficulties by staying in the denial mould. Nor is it a game that can be won by exposing the flaws in its rivals’ characters and conduct. It has to prove, to the citizens’ satisfaction, that the charges levelled against it are wrong and baseless. Take the allegation that the prime minister ‘lied’ to parliament over the plots allotted to journalists. The accusation of ‘lying’ to parliament is much too serious to be ignored and the prime minister has a duty to prove that the charge is untenable.

The real problem, apart from incidents that cause friction between institutions, perhaps is lack of understanding of the art of governance. The cliché that all institutions should stay within their constitutional and legal limits has no meaning in Pakistan.

The constitution and the laws have so often and so arbitrarily been changed and circumvented that they have lost much of their sanctity and the people consider them as tools in the hands of oppressors and hypocrites.

Besides, constitutions and laws guarantee just governance only when they are grounded in social justice and equity, conditions that are not met in Pakistan. Even good constitutional and legal frameworks cannot deliver unless their practitioners consciously evolve conventions to sustain them. And that will depend more on restraint in exercising legal power than on keenness on all sides to exhaust the limits of authority.