For good and bad reasons, there is too much focus on President Asif Ali Zardari for everything that is wrong in the country, past and present. It works for those who would like to see Mr Zardari down and out from the political scene of the country. What we hear and watch these days on TV screens about the president falls in the contested realm of image politics; the worse it is for the president, the better it is for his political opponents. But overdoing image politics hurts the democratic process, as it undermines the legitimacy of the representatives of the people.
Politics in our time is becoming increasingly about image and in this the mass media plays a critical role. In a sense imagery cannot be separated from political gaming – and this is fair to that extent. But Zardari-bashing, even for the right reasons, has diverted our attention from other public-office holders who must be held accountable for many failures that are heaped on the doors of the presidency. The real problems that Pakistan confronts today fall roughly into three categories: development, law and order and governance (including delivery of public services). Who is to handle these problems? Fixing responsibility for failure in these vital areas would require carefully reading the division of powers within the system. The argument put forward by many people, that one individual – in this case the president – enjoys complete power does not help and we need to have a nuanced understanding of the system.
Constitutionally speaking, we have a system of shared governance within the federal government and between the federal and provincial governments. Being the chief executive of the country, the prime minister must answer for what is wrong with federal government departments and ensure that the problems we face in these challenging times are addressed. Provincial chief ministers have similar obligations in areas of their respective jurisdiction. After the passage of the eighteenth amendment we have returned to the parliamentary system with greater devolution of power to the provinces — something under process but not complete as yet. Unfortunately, a popular notion that the Pakistani system is unitary and driven by a single authority or person confuses the general public about who has what power and who can be held accountable for malfunctioning of government departments.
Of course, Mr Zardari must take responsibility for gifting Yousaf Raza Gilani to the nation by placing him in the position of prime minister (as he should also for the a few others who serve under him and who have sharp tongues).
All other things that he did and didn’t do over the past two years are actually part of survival politics that any individual with rational interest calculation would do in uncertain times and under unsettled institutional balances.
Many of the systemic and performance issues that we face could have been taken care of if we had a prime minister with some political skill and personal stature like Muhammad Khan Junejo. In a semi-presidential dispensation and a president in uniform, Mr Junejo acted like a true prime minister from day one. He had assumed power in more adverse situation than did Mr Gilani. Maybe we are comparing onions with oranges. But the expectation all along has been that Mr Gilani will grow up and come out of the shadows that envelope him has not been realised. He is too much a prisoner of his political ambition and is trapped by the same weaknesses that many blame the president for.
A fair media or legal accountability must bring in all from past as well present ruling cliques and hold them answerable for their acts of omission and commission. Focus on one individual such as this will not achieve much and could well undermine the very credibility of the accountability process.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 16th, 2010.
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