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Of representative rule

July 26, 2012


THE prime minister has proclaimed during a conversation with his law minister that as the state has to be managed by the representatives of the people, its executive authority flows from him.

That the prime minister’s authority is not absolute even the law minister will concede. It is subject to two limitations, one constitutional and the other political. These restraints are derived from different sets of arguments and are not interchangeable. It is possible for an executive to stay true to the constitution and fail the political test for a representative government, and the people’s representatives can make demands the constitution cannot permit.

The constitutional limits to executive authority have been abundantly discussed over the years. A huge contribution has been made by experts in the media. Indeed the basic law is in danger of being conceived as only a means of tethering the executive. There has been little discussion on the political limits to the authority of representatives of the people. They are expected to exercise the powers delegated to them solely in meeting the aspirations and demands of their electors. Secondly, they are required to continue strengthening the system of democratic governance by making it not only responsible but also able to withstand challenges from any quarter.

The crisis of governance that Pakistan has faced throughout its existence cannot be overcome unless the political criterion for representative rule is met. And in this area a civil-society discourse can be of substantial benefit to both the rulers and the ruled.

Let us take the requirement that an elected government should concentrate on satisfying the people’s interests. In normal societies the task is fulfilled, to varying degrees, by parliament. But this august body can discharge this duty only if its members maintain a regular and living link with their electors and keep on voicing their concerns. That legislatures are increasingly running in default in this regard can easily be ascertained. Take the record of adjournments and cut motions moved on public issues in the legislatures or questions put to the government over the past decade and compare it with the record of the ’50s, even the ’60s, and you will find that if once an instance of police excess or eviction of tenants or closure of a school could be raised in the legislature, the practice has greatly declined, if not been abandoned altogether. About legislators’ links with ordinary citizens, the less said the better.

There are other methods of judging the pro-people functioning of an elected government. The first question is: to what extent does a government respect the people-friendly provisions of the constitution itself? Which one of the post-1973 governments has shown respect for Article 3, which calls for an end to exploitation? None. Simply because the millions who are ruthlessly exploited — and they are in a majority — have no say in any of the state’s majestic organs. Are fundamental rights respected in letter and spirit for the equal benefit of the privileged and the marginalised? Does the justice system maintain equity between the bonded hari and the wadera, between the worker and the employer, between non-Muslim and Muslim, between woman and man? How long will it take to transfer the rights to health and social security from the unenforceable principles of policy to the fundamental-rights chapter, and when will the people’s representatives be obliged to explain the reasons for the delay and their lack of interest?

Another way to judge a government’s regard for the people’s aspirations is to see how much of its legislative work has been motivated by a desire to make the state or its functionaries more powerful or richer and how much of it addresses public concerns. In this regard the current government has rightly claimed considerable distinction. The 18th Amendment and the laws adopted to promote the interests of women are surely people-friendly achievements, but the balance is still in favour of state interests. The argument that making state institutions and personnel stronger and richer is ultimately in the public interest is not valid. It is within our direct experience that whenever the state became stronger the people’s rights were abridged, and whenever the state and its hangers-on became richer the people became poorer.

The point being made here is that however resounding their electoral success, the representatives of the people can retain their title only so long as they are perceived to be serving the public interest. True, no politician can be expected to eschew personal interest. But no reward is higher than being accepted as a representative of the people and all hankering after pelf and prestige is self-aggrandisement, pure and simple.

A regime that claims to be democratic and cannot prove its commitment to public interest clearly undermines the scheme of representative and responsible government. The fact is much too well-known in Pakistan. Poor performances of elected governments have been alienating citizens from democracy and politics itself.

As regards the requirement that the representatives of the people should take definite action to strengthen the system of democratic governance, all parties in a legislature share this responsibility with the custodians of power. They are expected to defend the system against all encroachers and challengers. Unfortunately Pakistan’s political parties have seldom risen to this task. Instead they have tried to defeat their rivals, even liquidate them, by joining hands with extra-constitutional forces. Whenever a political party prefers its alliance with a state institution or a group of state employees to accommodation with its political adversaries, the system is spoiled. The theory that any pact with forces outside elective forums is justified in getting rid of bad rulers has been proved wrong all too often. In Pakistan’s case political parties may need to renew their pledges to uphold representative rule every few years lest they stray into the dark alleys of authoritarianism.

A good thing that has recently happened in Pakistan is an attempt to move from the discredited model of a majoritarian state towards a participatory dispensation by making several constitutional appointments subject to accord between the ruling party or coalition and the opposition. The idea has not taken off, and for all one knows both sides may be responsible.

When the late Justice Dorab Patel proposed, way back in 1990, that key offices should be filled through agreement between the leaders of the house and the opposition, he assumed that the country’s politicians would in time acquire the ability to put personal and group interests aside for the sake of consolidating a healthy step forward. These hopes have been belied. The haggle over some of the appointments recently seen did little credit to the exalted representatives of the people. It also underscored the system’s vulnerability to manipulation by strong-willed or opinionated individuals. It would have been better if instead of fighting for their favourites the parties concerned had jointly strived to make the system immune to manipulation by anyone.

Finally, consolidation of representative rule is a process that requires constant vigilance by all parties, civil society not excluded, and matters cannot be left unattended once the result of an election is announced. Nor can anything good be achieved by rhetoric alone, whatever its source or forum.