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Stumbling out of the gates

March 24, 2013


WHAT was the big deal about the caretakers anyway? It mattered certainly when there was still some uncertainty about the election itself.

Would it be held on time or would it be delayed indefinitely, the technocrats and favoured pols helping themselves to an extended stint with army backing?

But that time has long gone. We have an election date. We have the ECP in full election mode. We have the politicians ready to press their foot down on the campaign accelerator.

And, most importantly of all, we have an army leadership that has repeatedly said elections will go ahead. Who but the army can stop an election?

Aha, the problem then must be that the pols aren’t quite willing to take the army at its word, even just on the election, even just weeks from the finish line?

OK, let’s work with that theory for a minute.

So the PPP proposes Hafeez Sheikh and Ishrat Husain, two names known to orbit in establishment circles.

The PML-N baulks: Sharif’s principal criterion for care-taker PM being that the technocrat-leading-to-the-Bangladesh-model option be completely off the table.

Who do you blame at this stage? The army for pushing its candidates, the PML-N for obsessing over army interventionism or the PPP for trying to yet again have it both ways?

This one is obvious: blame the PPP.

At some point, the politicians have to grow up, to show some spine, to take charge.

Right, general sahib, we’ve heard what you have to say, but this is our moment, our choice and we’re going to do things our way.

Too bold for the PPP?

OK, if not the direct approach, then the indirect approach.

Jee, general sahib, we understand your concerns and Hafeez and Ishrat are both good men, but how about we consider X for prime minister?

X being an equally capable manager who has no real political ambitions, at least of the undemocratic variety, and isn’t known to orbit in establishment circles.

But how can the PPP be sure — absolutely, completely, one hundred per cent sure — the army won’t cast a spell on the apolitical but capable X?

Now we’re entering the realm of the silly. You can’t absolutely, completely, one hundred per cent be sure about anything in politics.

Ultimately, is an election that is just weeks away really going to be derailed just because a technocrat from establishment circles isn’t picked as caretaker PM?

The answer is simple enough: no.

Let’s try another theory. The PPP and the PML-N know the election will be terribly close. A close election means even small favours bestowed by the caretakers on one or the other side could swing the overall result.

So both want their nominees in — primarily to get the marginal advantage; secondarily, to ensure the other side doesn’t edge ahead in the favours-bestowed stakes.

Additionally, the PPP and PML-N are worried that the caretakers could take some long-term decisions that could hurt whichever of the two comes to power next, or perhaps just limit their space to manoeuvre.

So what’s to be done?

The common-sense answer: set the rules for the caretakers so that neither party vying for power benefits, or loses.

For all the legal firepower available in both the PPP and PML-N camps, it has fallen to an outside group to come up with a solution: draw up a code of conduct — presently non-existent — for the caretaker set-up, a code of conduct that focuses on verifiable neutrality and non-partisanship.

The path suggested was also doable: like the parliamentary committee to select the caretaker PM, a Senate committee with equal treasury and opposition representation could draw up the code of conduct, send it to the president for conversion into an ordinance and so make it binding law.

What would the code of conduct cover? Precise limits of caretaker policy decision-making authority. Clear restrictions on major appointments and projects. Binding guidelines to disclose information on expenditure and revenue during the caretaker period.

Defang the caretakers thus and much of the concern about it tilting towards one party or the other would melt away.

Say, the PPP is worried an N-League-nominated caretaker CM in Punjab will make key appointments in the districts that could impact the election. The code of conduct could block this by fixing the seniority up to which appointments can be made by the caretakers.

Say, the PML-N is afraid a PPP-nominated caretaker PM will dole out big state contracts to help win votes. The code of conduct can limit the rupee value of contracts the caretakers can award.

A code of conduct for the caretakers seems so obvious that you have to wonder why we don’t already have one and why neither party has suggested it.

The unhappy possibility is that neither the PPP nor the PML-N wants a neutral set-up; what they want is a powerful caretaker government that swings the electorate their way.

The unhappier possibility is that the idea hasn’t occurred to them, trapped as they are in the thicket of power politics and patronage.

There is another possibility why the PPP and PML-N handed to the ECP a decision the politicians would rather have made themselves: they can’t bring themselves to trust one another.

Lost amidst the accusations of under-the-table deals and secret agreements is a world of fear and paranoia, of politicians who see each other as the enemy, of leaders hardwired to distrust and undermine one another.

It is a depressing and distressing reality. We’ll get our caretakers now and we’ll get an election soon, but after that, in two months?

Such is our lot in life. Onwards, to the election.

The writer is a member of staff. Twitter: @cyalm