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Grand National Dialogue: Let’s Implement The Constitution And Think Of Radical Reform

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This is a transcript of a talk I gave at a recent seminar held by Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), Pakistan

In the past few weeks, the idea of a Grand National Dialogue has generated an intense debate. The need for such a ‘dialogue’ has been presented as an antidote to political instability. Pakistan is currently mired in immense polarization, conflict and threat of collision among its institutions. The need for a Grand National Dialogue was earlier floated by influential people like Senator Raza Rabbani and former Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa. It is as of yet a vague idea, whose agenda and modalities still need to be determined. The big questions are whether we really need to have a Grand National Dialogue; and if we do, what are the specific issues of governance that we hope to ameliorate with it.

I am of the firm opinion that we have to focus on the collapse of governance and dysfunctional state institutions in Pakistan.

The Constitution of Pakistan delineates the powers and limitations of all civil institutions of the country.  However, since our last transition to democracy in 2008, the state institutions have increasingly transgressed from their given jurisdictions. A case in point is the Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chauhdry’s annulment of the Steel Mills’ privatization case in 2006 when it was clearly not a judicial matter. This is not to say that the move to privatize the Steel Mills was itself a good or bad one; but the decisions in the matter were for the executive, not the judiciary, to take. This interference from the judiciary had both structural and economic repercussions. In another example, former Chief Justice Saqib Nisar saw it fit to start the Diamer-Bhasha dam fund. More money was spent on advertising the funds collection drive (Rs. 12 billion) than what was collected through it (Rs. 10 billion). It’s unfortunate when institutions work outside their designated domains, and it invariably has serious and long-term effects. The judiciary is only one example of an institution which transgresses its jurisdiction. In addition to the judiciary, there are many instances of institutional overreach from the military and sometimes the politicians too.

The need is for us to move towards constitutionalism. A culture of remaining strictly within one’s constitutionally defined roles, not interfering in others’ domains, and being able to work together in harmony needs to be established. Achieving such an “equilibrium” is necessarily a long and drawn-out process. There are no quick solutions. To begin with, we have to lay out how the judiciary, executive and parliament work together to take the country out of the crisis. More specifically, what we need is to set the rules of the game, as well as to decide who will enforce them, and who will set the incentives for compliance and punishments for noncompliance.

As of right now, the regulatory system is in shambles. It has to be strengthened. Take the example of the Competition Commission of Pakistan, which has by and large been rendered ineffective. For instance, to protect the interests of a small privileged group, restrictions have been placed on importing used cars that Pakistanis are forced to buy cars for exorbitantly high prices. The very recent crises of wheat and sugar supplies (and prices) are other examples in which, as much as one feels compelled to do so, one cannot hold the incumbents solely responsible for mismanagement or lack of foresight. Cartelization translates into inefficiency and corruption. We find the same pattern of cartelization and lack of regulation repeated in all institutions at the sub-national levels. The lack of regulation and observance of due process also apply to the entire judicial-legal nexus, comprising of judges, prosecution, attorneys, police, civil servants etc. We can directly link the absence of the rule of law in the country with these institutions’ incessant desire of working like cartels. These demonstrable facts demonstrate that there is a dire need for a Grand National Dialogue in which all players can come together, both to set the rules of the game as well as to develop a consensus on a regulatory mechanism which can ensure every player’s compliance.

There are five specific issues where the need for dialogue to bring about reform becomes clearly evident:

  1. Strengthening the parliament: The parliament is practically dysfunctional right now. There have been instances in the past as well when this happened, but it was still able to pass some very effective laws. A case in point is the 18th Amendment, which was an important step leading toward federalism, albeit its many gaping shortcomings. Again, it is the parliament’s job to rectify shortcomings in the laws that it passes. However, as things currently stand, we see that the parliament is wholly incapacitated to oversee or regulate the executive. This important function of the parliament urgently needs to be revived. Without parliamentary oversight we cannot improve the way governance works in Pakistan.
  2. Fixing public sector enterprises: There is also a serious budgetary/fiscal crisis that we face. A major cause of this are public owned enterprises which are bleeding the country of over 1 trillion rupees of taxpayers’ money. There are many models which we can follow to correct this, however. Our neighbour China fixed many of its public enterprises in only a few decades. Other examples are South Korea and a number of countries in Latin America. It is important to realize that this is something that the state, civil society and economists need to work on together. The cost of failing to do so is for us to continue to depend on the IMF for loans, which, in turn, would continue to strip us of the liberty to set our own governance policies. It’s also sad to see that there is practically no public debate on this topic.
  3. Legal and judicial reform: The entire justice sector needs to be radically changed. One cannot emphasize the urgency of this point enough. We managed to achieve a certain amount of improvement in this area during General Musharraf’s time (even though this is an unpopular opinion to hold). However, all of Musharraf’s reforms were reversed, one after the other, by successive governments. There are millions of cases that are pending in courts today, while the procedures and laws by which the courts operate, like laws relating to giving testimony in court etc, are the same as from colonial times. These outdated laws are obsolete and irrelevant today. No wonder the system is crashing, due to the adverse economic, social and political consequences from this. The one-sided accountability we currently see in the country is due to the system having become completely dysfunctional. The way to correct this now is either through a radical transformation or a complete dismantling of the present system.
  4. Federalism: We also urgently need to strengthen federalism. Pakistan’s history clearly shows that we cannot function without a federalist structure. The great tragedy of 1971 (even as it continues to suffer a deliberate erasure from the public memory) gives us this lesson all too well. In this regard, again, the 18th amendment was a promising development. However, since its enactment in 2010, the ministries which were handed to the provinces have, one by one, become centralized again, including environment, education, etc. Today, the same functions of the government are being controlled by both the provincial and the central government, simultaneously, while a huge bureaucracy continues to bleed the public exchequer. We have neither a truly centralized nor a decentralized system. The parallel tracks on which the government is running is an unmistakable recipe for chaos.
  5. Local governments: Lastly, the third tier of governance – local government – is missing. It is perhaps the time to make adherence to the constitutional provisions about local governments binding upon provincial governments, with clearly set time plans and deadlines, while also ensuring that local governments keep running under all conditions. The present government of PTI had made many promises of ensuring the transference of power to local govts during its tenure. However, even after 2.5 years, we see no signs of this happening; nor does it seem very likely to happen in the remaining 2.5 years of this government. Without local governments, service delivery is impossible; so too is building the public’s confidence in the state. 80% of Pakistan’s development projects are contingent upon an effective local government system, including the achievement of SDGs and climate goals. This is an extremely urgent matter, even though it has relegated to being among the lowest of the government’s priorities. It is also important to note that although we do have “local body elections”, they are nothing but a spectacle and a farce. This is clearly evident from the mercurial way in which they are held, viz. alternating between party-based and non-party-based election, and in that no funds are ever transferred to the local bodies.

One notes it with a lot of trepidation that during the past twenty years, starting either at the same time or after the decentralization project which Musharraf began, many countries – Indonesia, the Philippines, Chile, Cambodia, among others– have successfully decentralized powers, with very promising results indeed. Indonesia is a good example of this. Pakistan also needs to follow these countries’ example if it wishes to see economic growth and progress. We need to realize that a trained and capable workforce is possible only with a decentralized education model and decentralized vocational training. Moreover, we need to have our governance models evolve.

The context in which the 1973 constitution was made was one in which Pakistan was predominantly a rural society, whereas we are very much an urbanized county today. Our demographics have radically changed but our constitutional, legal and institutional structures remain stuck in their nearly two centuries old forms. It is time to clear the ruins of a no longer effective edifice and erect a new structure in its place, or to restore it in such a way that it can weather all the new kinds of challenges that our country faces in the twenty-first century.

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