Are these events harbingers of change?

This vision of civil supremacy is certainly within reach provided political leadership remains committed

Talat Masood July 31, 2020

In the recent past Pakistan witnessed a few significant events. The Supreme Court (SC) verdict that threw out the presidential reference against Justice Qazi Faez Isa, terming it “invalid”. There are certain caveats in the judgment that are problematic but that aside it was a triumph of justice and reaffirmation of the rule of law. The abduction of journalist Matiullah Jan and his subsequent release by the administration was another episode that captured headlines during the week. Its significance was that the reaction of the national and international media and human rights organisations was so strong that the government had to yield to an individual’s right of freedom of expression. The grant of bail to Saad Rafique, a prominent PML-N leader, and to his brother, is another major development indicating that our honourable judges will not tolerate any breech of law and the rights of citizens. There is a common thread running in these recent judgments for all concerned. They uphold the principle that the government has to abide by the rule of law, indicating it cannot be influenced by partisanship or operate on the basis of its whims and prejudices.

Moreover, the government’s efforts at legislating matters related to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) apart from meeting the demands of the international body and preempting the possibility of being blacklisted will ensure fair and ethical financial transactions that are clearly in Pakistan’s interest. I could stretch the point further that the way the case of Kulbushan Jadhav is being dealt with now to strictly conform to the legal requirements and orders of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) reflects the state’s adherence, even be it under international pressure, to act in conformity with the prerequisites of international and national laws.

The question is whether all these are merely one-off events with the state compelled to redress its omissions and act under domestic and international pressure. Or the beginning of a realisation on the part of government and state institutions that Pakistan cannot continue to operate without the anchor of the rule of law and outside the bounds of the Constitution.

Let us stretch the point to broaden the canvas of the debate.

As Pakistan came into being in 1947 under extraordinary circumstances, the military and bureaucracy played a central role in stabilising the state. The contribution of military — whether it is defending the state against Indian aggression or shielding the Afghan border from militants, settling millions of refugees, fighting insurgency and coming to aid during national calamities — is commendable and well-known and documented. This year alone there have been multiple incursions where our young officers, junior commissioned officers and other ranks have laid down their lives defending the borders.

The military coups and heavy involvement in politics and governance were certainly the dark side of our history. Thankfully, that chapter has been closed. But there is considerable scope for further improvement as the civilian leadership has yet to fully take charge of foreign, defence and security policies and their faithful implementation. The military’s input is invaluable in policy formulation considering the serious regional and global security situation, but it is for the civilian government to formulate and implement these policies weighing all other factors into consideration.

This vision of civil supremacy is certainly within reach provided political leadership remains committed to its realisation. This would require greater cooperation among political parties and a full activation of parliamentary practices, which is sadly lacking providing greater space to non-democratic state institutions that include the security establishment, bureaucracy and media.

The opposition has the right to criticise but mere empty rhetoric is boring and meaningless. It has to present substantive alternative plans and policies to raise the level of parliamentary discourse.

The PPP leadership’s criticism will not be taken seriously if it has not much to show its own in Sindh. A more fundamental requirement is to reorganise and shed the party from its feudal influence to cope with modern day challenges confronting the province and the country. This is despite the fact that it has some of the most experienced and able politicians in its ranks that remain in the background.

The PPP leadership cannot neglect Karachi on the pretext that its residents did not vote for it. I would have thought that was one good reason why it should prime the PPP leadership to focus on solving Karachi’s perennial and rather appalling problems of water shortage, sewage collection, power failures, dilapidated infrastructure and shoddy governance as a whole. What is disappointing is that it has neglected rural Sindh, which is its political base. Even Larkana, the hometown of Bhutto, has not much to show.

The PML-N too should shed its profile as primarily a party of Punjab and expand its base. It has several competent and highly experienced leaders but with Nawaz Sharif in self-exile and Shehbaz Sharif not well, it is unable to exercise its full potential and play an effective role in parliament. This state of flux and uncertainty should end soon.

With the PTI, people had high expectations and many continue to have despite the free fall in governance. Imran Khan’s charisma, perseverance and clean record are great attributes but unless these contribute towards better governance, improved economy, strengthening of political institutions, and greater tolerance and interaction with the opposition leadership, it could turn into a mirage.

Experience reminds us that transformational changes cannot be affected unless our political and institutional leadership confronts jointly the fundamental weaknesses that the country is facing. For this the government, opposition and state institutions have to play their role. So far, our greatest weakness has been that we have not been able to gel as a nation. On the contrary, we have been pulling in different directions, defying the very spirit of democracy and weakening the state.

It is in this background that any development that has the potential to strengthen democracy and the rule of law generates hope in its citizens. This moment should not be allowed to go past without using it for strengthening institutions and democratic norms.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 31st, 2020.

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