As the government struggles to cope with the novel coronavirus and comes out with its responses to minimise its impact and bring it under control, it would be rewarding to analyse the chances of its success. Closely linked to it is how the country is being steered through its deep economic and political crises. And above all to assess whether the PTI is holding up to its primary goal of building a Naya Pakistan.
A quasi-democracy at best, Pakistan is facing an extraordinary challenge in terms of leadership. The Prime Minister strongly believes he has the panacea for tackling corona by keeping the wheels of the economy moving while simultaneously dealing with the threat of the pandemic. According to his repeated pronouncements, singularly focusing on fighting the coronavirus and dealing with the economy later would be hard-hitting the dispossessed and is unacceptable. This, he considers, is the elitist approach that the PPP is vigorously pursuing in Sindh.
Is branding PPP’s policy as elitist a fair assessment when it is according a high priority to saving the lives of the poor? The PM’s contention that more poor will die of hunger than from corona if the government fails to give it the due priority is not very convincing.
It seems that the federal government is not realising how fast the coronavirus could spread in Pakistan if strict measures are not ensured. There could be accelerated outbreaks across the length and breadth of the country as doctors are warning. We are already witnessing a distinct surge in all provinces. To bracket the doctors’ advice as coming from the elites is incomprehensible.
Engaging in a war of words and bringing down the Sindh government undermines the national purpose. At a time when the common enemy draws no differentiation between political parties, provinces and ethnicity, these differences make little sense and should be shunned.
Moreover, raising the politically sensitive issue of the 18th Amendment to build pressure on small provinces especially Sindh and shift the focus away from the main challenge is neither good governance nor sensible strategy. Because it would weaken the federation when we need to definitely strengthen it. If certain aspects of it need to be revisited, the government would have ample time to do so in the future. Any attempt to bulldoze a fundamental constitutional amendment will undermine the very security of the state that apparently aims at strengthening it. For security is a comprehensive phenomenon embodying military power and people’s political support and economic wellbeing.
The political forces and civil society had struggled relentlessly for the passing of the 18th Amendment. There is a historical background to this fundamental legislation. If the opposition wants to improve it, this must be only in the direction of giving more powers to the provinces. In fact, it should encourage provinces to further delegate power at the grassroots level by holding local body elections.
Our leaders have short memories. The 18th Amendment was brought about when Pakistan was beset with serious centrifugal tendencies. There was a serious separatist movement in Balochistan encouraged by India and other hostile forces. They were exploiting the fact that Balochistan was being run by Punjab and the military. The people of erstwhile NWFP and Sindh also had misgivings that they had little share or voice in governance.
After 72 years of experience we ought to have known that democracy may be an inherent desire of the people but it has to be institutionalised. It is not a one-time affair restricted to national and provincial elections and that too usually leading to serious controversies about their fidelity.
The government should have made use of state institutions to integrate the coronavirus policy at the national level. The Council of Common Interest (CCI) is supposed to be convened within 90 days where all provincial matters of coordination are to be discussed. All issues whether they pertain to education, health, environment could have been streamlined. Instead, every province is going its own way or having independent priorities.
Other national forums and inter-provincial meetings are being deliberately bypassed.
Eminent politicians and intellectuals maintain that the problem is the government’s mismanagement of resources and not with the 18th Amendment. Inappropriate distribution of resources is aggravating the federal government’s problems and this is not peculiar to the present PTI government. It was as much present in the past with the PPP and the PML-N when they were in power. The provincial governments too are seldom credited for good governance either.
As the PTI government has taken upon itself several functions that should have been left to the provinces, it has increased manifold the number of ministers and advisers that were not envisaged in the Constitution. This works against the spirit and substance of the 18th Amendment.
Health and education sectors were always provincial subjects even before the 18th Amendment so the discussion that these revert as federal subjects is unsound.
It is time our leaders and intellectuals reassess some basic assumptions about how the country should be governed. The government must seriously focus on improving its relations with the opposition parties. The present hostility between them is seriously undermining democracy and good governance. Moreover, the cabinet must be reduced to a manageable size. With a large number of advisers and experts, it gives an impression of a presidential system of governance. Perhaps it is this type of governance that is giving rise to the demand for revisiting the 18th Amendment.
The government should maintain stability in bureaucratic appointments. Frequent change of IGs and chief secretaries of provinces betrays a sense of unease and incoherence. The present practice of ignoring parliament and using the media as a primary tool of governance has serious drawbacks. We have to broaden the scope while dealing with our neighbours and the world at large — building partnerships and relations on the basis of mutual respect and understanding.
Imran Khan and the PTI had come to power with the mission to change Pakistan. Is it not time they replace it with the sense of example?
Published in The Express Tribune, May 6th, 2020.
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