Restoring Public Trust In Institutions

Restoring Public Trust In Institutions

Democratic systems have lately been showing strong signs of decay and de-Institutionalisation from India to America. Robust and responsive institutions are the difference between poverty and plenty; order and anarchy; law of jungle and the rule of law. Historically, Pakistan has never inspired any confidence when it comes to strong and vibrant state institutions committed to the principle of constitutionalism and public service.

Inefficiency, ineptitude, corruption, constitutional overreach, elitism, arbitrary conduct and personality preponderance are the unenviable hallmarks that characterise them. If the annals of history are any empirical evidence, these characteristics kill institutions in slow motion. The country has been suffering from the debilitating effects of the cancer of de-institutionalisation since its independence. The newly born nation inherited the modern civil-military institutions from British India. Since then, we have been de-institutionalising the country rather than building on the positives and neutralising the negatives of the colonial institutional legacy.

Whether military or civil, almost every government and state institution has contributed their corrosive bit to the festering institutional rot by the way of undemocratic and unconstitutional behaviour. However, the current wave of de-institutionalisation unfolding since 2018, is unprecedented in terms of brazenness and sweep even by all the previous accounts.

It is important to know what exactly the process of de-institutionalisation means. But to understand that phenomenon, it is important to understand what an institution is in the first place. A state institution refers to a set of rule, laws, frameworks, regimes, behaviour, patterns, values, principles or ethos that organise and govern the interaction between state and its citizenry.

Generally speaking, it is not the brick-and-mortar building of Supreme Court of Pakistan that is called the SC. As a matter of the fact, it is the rules, norms and values that give the objective shape to the highest institution in the country.  Further, an institution is like a software that runs a state that is an abstract idea that only finds its concrete expression in form of its various organs we recognise as state institutions. For instance, the Parliament, the Judiciary and the Executive (civil-military bureaucratic apparatus) are the quintessential state institutions around the globe.

From the country’s apex accountability watchdog to the most powerful (not-to-be-named) institution; from the House of Federation to the highest justice-dispensing institution; from the election overseer to the state broadcaster - all stand badly exposed and bruised by myriad and varied controversies ranging from moral turpitude to monetary misappropriations. Abuse of public authority, horse trading, political witch-hunt, dispensation of selective justice to outright partisanship are all rampant practices. Controversial Panama Trial, disputed 2018 general elections, blanket suppression of free speech, the damning confessions of the late judge Arshad Malik, Rao Anwar case, Sahiwal tragedy, the private housing scheme settlement case and the dubious dam fund are some of the clear indicators suggesting an accelerated de-institutionalisation of the state at the hands of its constitutional and self-styled guardians mentioned above.

The aforementioned cases and controversies are vividly illustrative of the disregard for constitutionalism, due process, violation of democratic norms and values that constitute the bedrock of a functional and healthy democratic state. Of all, the undemocratic role of the ubiquitous and powerful establishment, stands out in the current context. Apart from its traditional and unconstitutional political role, it has been turning and twisting all other institutions to its political agenda with unprecedented flagrance and force since the outbreak of the Panama scandal.

Undoubtedly, institutions die when they lose legitimacy and public confidence shattered by state actors’ arbitrary and unconstitutional ways. The drivers of the phenomenon of the de-institutionalisation vary from country to country. The corrosive process may be triggered by multiple endogenous and exogenous factors, or the combination of both. Foreign invasion is a major external causative factor whereas the erosion of constitutionalism, non-observance of rule of law and the dominance of personalities in the institutions, disregard for public service, manipulation of institutions for personal and group interests, internal factionalism, are some of the key endogenous causes of the institutional decay in question. In case of Pakistan, the internal drivers provide the best analytical lens to examine the institutional degeneration in the present milieu.

The so-called accountability drive set in motion by the Panama Scandal, has ended up further corrupting the concerned state institutions in the country. Institutions are meant to manage the selfish side of human nature by rationalising the acquisition and exercise of power in a polity where rule of law ensures the peaceful coexistence of the powerless and the powerful. Unfortunately, once in the power saddle, powerful individuals have been abusing authority to the detriment of the institutional norms and values in Pakistan.

The personality-dominated state institutions develop the arrogance of power and mutate into the predatory and exploitative structures oriented to the protection of elite interest at the cost of public good. Worse still, such predatory and elitist institutions tend to prey upon the poor and the powerless while protecting the parasitic power elite of all shades. Cesar Chavez, a civil rights activist once aptly put it, ‘‘History will judge societies and governments — and their institutions — not by how big they are or how well they serve the rich and the powerful, but by how effectively they respond to the needs of the poor and the helpless.’’

Thus, when institutions are subordinated to individual whims and will, the public authority-wielding individuals morph into autocrats with authoritarian behaviour intolerant of any constructive dissent inside and outside the institution. The dissenting members are shunted out of the fraternity as exemplified by the removal of Justice Shaukat Siddiqui and the ongoing trial of a sitting Justice, Qazi Faez Isa. The system that cannot accommodate legitimate internal difference of opinion of its own members, tends to crush external critique with iron hand as highlighted by the countless incidents of the brutal use of state violence even against the peaceful protestors-from farmers to low-ranking government employees and students who only exercise their constitutional right to peaceful assembly and protest.

Moreover, national interest is used as a shield to evade accountability and as a spear to silence the voices of dissent. The movers and shakers of the country have to stem the growing institutional rot as its corrosive effects spare none, no matter how strong and invulnerable apparently an institution appears. Sooner or later the establishment will have to realise that in the age of hyper online connectivity, a populous and multi-ethnic state like Pakistan cannot survive without strong institutions committed to the constitutional principle of separation of powers, rule of law, civil supremacy and public service.

Climate change, discontented youth bulge, overpopulation and economic stagnation have been conspiring to propel Pakistan towards a debilitating implosion. It is imperative to see beyond the narrow personal and institutional interests holding us back from appreciating the gravity of tectonic shifts caused by changing regional security architecture, social media savvy public and the growingly popular demands for human security from Khyber to Karachi.

The solution is to develop institutions subordinate to the indispensable principle of constitutionalism that will put us on the path to a democratic, peaceful and prosperous Pakistan in tune with the ideals of our founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah.