Governance crisis cannot be treated by old formula of changing faces

An old piece that I could not post earlier:

Commenting on the melting state of the economy, a reputed economic analyst stated how the ‘deplorable state of governance’ was responsible for the ‘mismanagement of public goods’. Luckily, he also reiterated how such accountability was best undertaken through an election. A common misnomer that plagues public discourse relates to how ‘governance’ is viewed as the job of an elected government and that the state and the government are interchangeable entities. It is important to note that the state of Pakistan – post-colonial, encroached and bitten by its non-state offspring – remains the dominant power centre and most elected governments have been at subordinate to these permanent interests.

The most glaring manifestation of this reality came about when the federal government in the memo-case (concerning the alleged treasonous act of authoring a memo addressed to the US against Pakistan’s security establishment) submitted before the Supreme Court that it had no control over the operations of the military and the premier spy agency – the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). This has been said before as well in other judicial proceedings but not so directly. Everyone knew that but the government’s admission makes it clear that ‘constitutional governance’ is but a pipedream in the land of the pure. Without prejudice to any institution, this has been the case for decades and is not going to change overnight.

A new state within the state may have emerged. During the hearing of the same case, an honourbale judge of the Supreme Court remarked in his obiter dicta that the Judiciary was not answerable to anyone but the ‘people’. This statement defies logic as judges are not ‘elected’ by the people; and they are also servants of the state, paid by the taxpayers who are represented by the Parliament. These developments have prompted a beleaguered government and its Prime Minister to announce that Parliament was supreme and that there ‘states within states’ cannot be tolerated.

Leaving aside the torrential decade of 1970s, the evolution of an autonomous power centre within the state apparatus in the form of the intelligence agencies is a well-recognised fact. A martial state since 1950s has been a player in the global power games in the region; and the redirection of state unlike India was almost inevitable. The 2008 elections were, therefore, a transitional moment and during transitions from military to civilian rule, power is shared and not exercised by the elected officials. The addition of another power-centre i.e. the Judiciary is a recent and in its nascent stage of development. Its future course remains unclear whether it can arrest the dominance of the military-intelligence complex.

Pakistan’s changed demographics and the existence of an urban middle class (estimated between 30-60 million) also complicates the future of democracy. The urban Pakistan is not an avid supporter of constitutional democracy; and its formulae for ‘change’ (judges in 2007 and Imran Khan in 2011) border on authoritarian models of a messiah fixing all the problems. Luckily, this segment of the population has little appetite for direct military rule. Yet, its influence and outreach is tremendous. It is the recruiting ground for the civil-military bureaucrats and of late the major supplier of human resource to the growing media oligarchies. Electronic media also thrives through its urban middle class consumers. Hence, the media campaign in the recent times against the democratic process articulates and reinforces impatience with civilian rule in favour of a deliverer.

Furthermore, these developments are taking place in a country where the majority of the population rejects the US and West as ‘enemies’ of Pakistan and back the emotional appeals to guard a militaristic conception of sovereignty and honour. Thus, the capture of political discourse by Islamist groups is a sad reminder that perhaps we are living in a new Pakistan where the old configurations and alignment of political forces are becoming somewhat irrelevant.

It is also an established fact that the civilian government has blundered on several counts and its promotion of incompetent people to deal with the various issues of economy has been far from satisfactory. Yet, its real watchdog is the Parliament and ultimately the electoral process. Elections are not too far and can be as early as next year. However, it remains to be seen if there is a ‘change’ effected through court orders or military diktat before the term of the assemblies ends in due course. Such is the perilous nature of a 3-4 year old democratic process that the media oligarchs and their employees are citing prescriptions of a ‘coup’, a technocratic government, as ‘viable’ and ‘legitimate’. Dissent to this narrative is equivalent to being treasonous. Journalists and commentators who are on the margins of the mainstream discourse are either facing threats or being silenced.

The plain reality is the unelected institutions – the military and the judiciary – backed by the media appear to be impatient with the civilian government. The latter may survive just because constitutional deviance appears to be unfeasible. But the damage to the credibility of the electoral process has already been done.

The enduring problem with Pakistan’s governance is that regardless of the government in power, the ‘state’ remains disconnected and disengaged with the citizens. The argument on mis-governance by a coalition government is untenable when unelected institutions of the state are unaccountable and unwilling to accept the oversight of public representatives. This is why we are trapped in yet another cycle of political instability.

The latest statements by the Army Chief and the Chief Justice are heartening. A military coup has been deleted from the available options. However, improved ‘governance’ will not result from implementing the game plan – of dismissing the elected government before its term is up. This fallacy, propagated by an unregulated media and an establishment under tremendous international pressure, to install improved ‘governance’ without structural reform is a mirage. Any non-democratic stint will further damage the federation. Pakistan is too plural, diverse and factionalised to do without democracy.

Strange that we have not learnt anything from the 1971 tragedy when Pakistan was dismembered and a national humiliation was suffered. Forty years later, the script has changed little. A civilian head of the state is an alleged ‘traitor’, ‘national security’ equals nationalism and loyalty to the country; and the Baloch leaders are saying that they will be happy to be ousted from Pakistan.

Where does the political class stand in this morass? Frankly, their role has not been befitting of responsible, transitional actors. They have tried to undermine each other, squabbled over non-issues and despite the rhetoric have not touched the core area: civil-military imbalance.

The victory of politicians in drafting and approving the 18th amendment notwithstanding, they almost without exception, have played their own bargaining game with the security establishment. After all, the military establishment presented itself before the Parliament at least notionally. The memogate petition was filed by a ‘civilian’ leader; and current President and Prime Minister cannot escape some level of responsibility in building a consensus around structural reform. Perhaps consolidating power was the key goal, which, as it turns out, is no substitute for performance in the limited sphere of ‘civilian’ action.

It is fervently hoped that that an unconstitutional regime change will be avoided. The odds are against this but then this is not the Pakistan of 1990s. The country has moved on; and so have the power-players. Old formulas are proving to be difficult remedies of a festering governance crisis.


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