Pakistan’s successful transition from one democratically-elected government to another in 2013 was indeed a major step forward towards preserving democracy and so were the smooth transitions in the military and judiciary. But the electoral process, though crucial, is only one aspect of strengthening the foundations of a country. Equally critical is the government’s performance and strategic direction, especially when our country is besieged by huge challenges of militancy, law and order, economy, corruption and a volatile neighbourhood. Judged by these criteria, the current political leadership hardly meets our expectations, considering that it returned to power with such a heavy mandate.
It is also true that introducing a new strategic direction and reversing age-old policies will not be an easy task for the PML-N government. Several steps will have to be taken including, most importantly, mobilising public opinion to gain support for its policies and ensuring that civilian and military leadership is on the same page when it comes to issues of security and foreign relations.
No doubt, the present civil and military leadership enjoy a good personal relationship and there is constant communication between the prime minister (PM) and the army chief, but what seems to be lacking is the full actualisation of the Cabinet Committee on National Security (CCNS) and NACTA that have been specifically created for the very purpose of institutionalising decision-making. The recent confusion and dithering that prevailed among our political leaders in deciding the future course of action in dealing with the various militant groups could have been largely avoided if decisions had been taken on the basis of advice provided by the CCNS.
Moreover, to maintain civil-military relations on the right course, it is important that decisions of national level are taken with inputs from all major stakeholders in an institutional framework — a practice that is normal in all functional democracies. Going by the number of times the CCNS and the NACTA have met, it seems decision-making by the present government remains confined to a coterie of loyalists or close relatives. Use of arbitrary power by our civilian leaders negates the very spirit of democracy.
It is also true that when all institutions are working within their constitutional boundaries, it reduces friction and improves performance through greater accountability. And the best outcome of it is that the defence of the country gets a huge boost when the nation is fully behind its defence forces. This phenomenon is as much applicable when fighting an external enemy or against an internal insurgency. The indifference shown by the PPP-led coalition government from 2008 to 2013 in matters of security resulted in militants expanding their space, and the current vacillation by the PML-N government elevated the status of the militants politically and psychologically.
In functioning democracies, it is a matter of routine that the cabinet meets on a regular basis and the prime minister attends parliament regularly. It seems the prime minister is not interested in taking the people in confidence about his policies. The PM has mostly remained absent from the National Assembly and the Senate, although these are prerequisites of good governance and leadership. When the PM and his ministers speak in parliament, they also communicate with the people of Pakistan. Nawaz Sharif’s presence in parliament will force other parliamentarians and especially his party members, to take legislative business seriously. Interest by top leaders of government in parliament improves the overall process of accountability and governance. Not only does it speed up legislative work but also acts as a fillip for the various committees of the parliament to be energised. From what has been reported, it seems that apart from a few committees, many have yet to hold any serious deliberations. It is time that our civilian rulers are held to higher standards of performance than what is at present the case. In this, the primary role should be of the opposition parties. Regrettably, their performance so far has been equally disappointing.
For the PM to be truly assertive in the formulation of foreign, defence and security policies, he will have to make use of institutions. In the absence of institutional back-up and inputs from different agencies, decision-making is skewed with an adverse impact on governance and relations with foreign countries. An institutional approach is also a part of democratic culture. Managing foreign relations, developing national power, decision-making and strategic assessment all are part of governance and have to be taken seriously. Any neglect of these, especially at a time when the country is facing multiple challenges, will be at the country’s peril.
We also expect our leadership to be held accountable to the people and also remain restrained by a system of checks and balances. But if major decisions are being taken outside the framework of institutions, then accountability becomes difficult as checks and balances become vague. Reliance on institutions for decision-making compensates for inadequacies of leaders and responsibility is then shared.
For effective governance, the PM, in concert with the cabinet, should have taken hard decisions on the economy, security and foreign policy. No doubt, there has been a realistic appraisal of the state of the economy and matters concerning taxation. But political expediency prevented PM Nawaz Sharif from undertaking economic reforms and widening the tax base. Regrettably, the long-term consequences of having a dysfunctional and dependent economy for security and sovereignty are enormous, as we have witnessed in our short history of 65 years. Are we going to continue living on foreign sustenance or take concrete measures towards developing a self-sustaining economy?
Pakistani leaders have never given the economy the importance it merits, given the crucial role it plays in building the foundation of the state. The emphasis has been to depend heavily on foreign assistance for survival and minimal efforts toward socioeconomic development, restructuring and educational reforms. As a consequence, the economy has been in a downward spiral for several years. Logically, chronic economic difficulties have huge implications for the security and well-being of the masses.
Experience has shown that ensuring the continuation of the democratic process and strengthening institutions can overcome weakness in governance.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 26th, 2014.