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The insolence of office

March 28, 2013

ONE thing is certain: Hamlet’s soliloquy ‘To be or not be’ could not have been written by a committee.

It would have taken hours of wrangling before any committee agreed (if they ever did decide to agree) upon the text of that famous speech in which Hamlet remonstrates to himself against “the whips and scorns of time, / the oppressor’s wrong, / …the law’s delay, / The insolence of office.”

Had the committee been one of parliamentarians, one suspects they would have probably found it impossible to decide upon whether Hamlet qualified to be an interim prince of Denmark.

It is a sad reflection that five years after the Bhurban Accord was signed on March 8, 2008, by Asif Ali Zardari (then co-Chairman of the PPP) and Mian Nawaz Sharif (for the PML-N), after five years of uneasy co-habitation in the same chamber, seasoned representatives of the Pakistani public could not agree upon who should be the interim prime minister for the brief six weeks between now and mid-May.

Can the privilege and responsibility for representing 180 million of our citizens, can the prime ministership of Pakistan, can the dignity of that office really be treated with such contempt — tossed about with such disdain as some worthless bauble? Pakistanis deserved better.

An interim government, by its definition, is essentially a stop-gap between two lawfully elected governments. It is not expected to pass laws or to take decisions on matters of enduring public importance or (despite its name) to govern. In a political context, an interim set-up is no better than a mule that is neither the horse of a government nor the donkey of an opposition. It is a creature, to paraphrase Robert Ingersoll’s words, with ‘neither pride of ancestry nor hope of posterity.’

Perhaps it is the very characteristic for which a mule is notorious — its stubbornness — that the choice of an interim prime minister has proved so fractious. Could it have been a fear by both parties that whoever was selected would prove unpredictable and unmanageable?

The outgoing parliament has demonstrated in its final, dying moments that it cannot trust any individual in the country to be an impartial, interim prime minister. By doing so, it has cast irreparable and unnecessary doubt upon the credentials of eminent persons, such as Dr Ishrat Hussain (former governor of the State Bank of Pakistan) who have served our country with distinction.

It has without doubt weakened its own credibility in the eyes of the electorate, and unwittingly strengthened the cause of other, smaller parties. It has given them an unexpected second wind that must only carry them in increased numbers into the next parliament.

What matters to the Pakistani voters, though, is not who goes out or who comes in after the next elections, nor the final composition of the next national and provincial assemblies. What concerns them is the ability of the future government to take decisions in the public’s interest rather than their own.

Most outgoing governments find it difficult to resist distributing last-minute favours. Kings were notoriously famous for distributing largesse from their deathbeds. The Sikh Maharaja Ranjit Singh, for example, as he lay dying in the fort at Lahore in the closing days of June 1839, ordered that his prized Koh-i-Noor diamond be given away to the Jagganath temple at Puri. His courtiers prevaricated, telling him that it was far away in the toshakhana at the Gobindgarh fort in Amritsar. They were not above preparing a document, however, perpetuating their jagirs for his heir to sign as soon as he ascended the throne.

Even American presidents — Bill Clinton, for one — have been known to issue last-minute pardons upon which the ink was still wet when they quit their desks in the Oval Office.

Unconsciously following their example, legislators from the outgoing prime minister downwards have been equally generous to their underlings, and to themselves. The outgoing prime minister has sought police protection ad infinitum for himself and for his immediate predecessor. Provincial legislators have approved benefits and perquisites for themselves, with retrospective effect. The only persons neglected in the distribution of this unseasonal harvest have been members of the public. They must wait for the morning after 11 May.

The only largesse shown by the political parties to the expectant public has been the 11th-hour, 59th-minute release of their party manifestos. These outline their plans for the next five years. Read carefully, they seem to offer saccharine promises to remove the taste of the sawdust of past performance.

Can the public expect any improvement in governance over the next five years?

Many years ago, someone as disenchanted with governance in his day as Hamlet was in the Danish court at Elsinore, wrote: “How many there were who had been fattened upon the fleshpots at the old Capital we could not say certainly, but most of them have the unmistakable marks. They had the same supercilious look and action, the same high stand and magnificent sweep, and appeared to have the full hang of making themselves as odious as possible in the eyes of everyone who was thrown with them, and looking down with contempt upon every one, saving and excepting their ‘masters’...”

These comments appeared a hundred and fifty years ago, in The Nashville Union and American in January 1862. They could have been written the day our national and provincial assemblies disassembled themselves.

The writer is an author.