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Custodians as reformers

Dr. Ikramul Haq

This week two developments made not only headlines but also created heated debates. The announcement by Prime Minister of establishing National Development Council (NDC) and appointment of Deputy Chairman of National Accountability Bureau (NAB) as head of National Investigation Commission to investigate the monstrous increase in our debts during the Decade of Democracy [2008-18]. Many raised the issue of why from 2008? Why not to touch the periods when military dictators were ruling the country? How can federal agencies and a retired police officer give independent reports when working under the Prime Minister? These and host of other arguments merit consideration as issue is of national importance. The report of Commission will show whether borrowed funds were abused and/or embezzled or spent as usual business of the government. As regards, NDC the issue of selection of members, especially nomination of serving chief of army staff, elicited criticism from certain quarters. In both the cases, if anything is done against the Constitution or any law of the land, the critics, especially the opposing political parties, must challenge the same before any court of competent jurisdiction—any high court of a direct petition before the apex court. Politically speaking, these moves by Prime Minister will keep on attracting condemnation from many quarters unless they bring some positive results.

Pakistan is a strange country where custodians of the system act as either complainants or reformers. Those who head state institutions, instead of reforming the same, complain and express helplessness about their malfunctioning, inefficiency and non-performance or under-performance but at the same time want status quo. The real issue is lack of a system of check and balances. We first allow things to deteriorate to the extent of no return and then ask those responsible for the same to come as saviours or reformers. Nobody is ready to admit that the real maladies are our outmoded and outdated legislative, administrative and judicial organs. These organs will never be able to deliver unless fundamental structural reforms are undertaken as suggested by DR. Nadeem Ul Haque in his book, Looking Back: How Pakistan Became an Asian Tiger by 2050. The custodians, now would be working under NDC certainly know, as we all, what actually ails Pakistan but the problem is that there is no will for all-out reforms as suggested by Dr. Nadeem and many others.

The fundamental issue is lack of dispensation of justice. No society can progress without a sound, reliable and speedy judicial system. There is an urgent need to revamp the entire judicial system, especially the criminal justice system to ensure justice for all, rule of law, fairness and equity as pointed out by the present Chief Justice of Pakistan in his speech of January 18, 2019 wherein he clearly mentioned that the Legislature had failed to perform its duty in this regard. Will NDC ask all the political parties to interact with all the stakeholders to achieve the goal of reformation of the entire justice system? This requires legislation and Opposition having majority in Senate is no mood to cooperate with the government after conviction of Nawaz Sharif and arrest of Asif Ali Zardari etc. 

It is an incontrovertible fact that our main failure has been non-democratisation of State institutions. The existing system is inherently exploitative and anti-people—the ruling elites thrive on people’s hard-earned money using police force, taxation and complex justice system to keep them under control. Empowerment of the people, both politically and economically, is the real essence of a true democracy but this would be a deathblow to the ruling classes. Thus, they work hand-in-hand to safeguard their mutual interests. They hoodwink the masses by arguing that they are the saviours and reformers and true custodians of the “system”. They know that perpetuation of the existing system alone can help them keep the masses subjugated.

In Pakistan, political parties lack the culture of healthy debate and discourse and working unanimously for national agenda after proper debate. All parties have an authoritarian, single-person-dominant model that itself is a negation of democracy. There are no bona fide elections within parties and no process for accountability. This lack of democratic values within political parties is the root cause of their failure to deliver. In all established democracies, political parties regularly hold elections and meetings of workers, publish their audited accounts, file tax returns, and disclose details of expenses and names of donors. But these elements are totally missing in our political milieu. The commitment to do work at the grass root level and empowering the masses is completely alien to all our political parties.

Our governments—civil and military alike—have been totally insensitive towards the poor and at present it is officially admitted that 60 million are living below poverty line. Income inequalities in Pakistan have increased sharply since 1977 and the trend continues unabated despite tall claims (sic) of poverty reduction. The main factors that govern personal income distribution include: distribution of assets; functional income distribution; transfers from other households, government and rest of the world; and tax and expenditure structure of the government. The single most devastating factor for increased income and wealth inequalities remains the regressive tax system. Incidence of tax on the poor since 1992 has increased substantively (35%) while the rich owning 90 percent of wealth of the nation pay less than 1% of total tax collection. We are facing chronic economic disparities and dearth of essential services. The Great Divide in today’s Pakistan between the rich and the poor is assuming alarming proportions and one wonders what NDC will do about it when the Finance Bill contains many regressive, anti-people and anti-business taxes.

The ruling elites work hand-in-hand to safeguard their common interests and despite occasional in-fights and pulling each other’s legs for grabbing more and more benefits and privileges, they immediately unite to hoodwink the masses by arguing that the “system” is more important compared to giving them their basic rights. They know that perpetuation of the existing system alone can keep the masses under duress to vote for them.

Is economic progress possible in a country where the existing power structures, whether related to executive, judiciary or legislation, belie good governance and democratic norms? Will NDC take any step to dismantle these structures? Our past shows that even politicians after winning popular vote vociferously protect the interests of civil-military bureaucracy, landed classes and unscrupulous businessmen. This unholy alliance not only denies empowerment of masses but also exploits them in the name of “democracy” and/or “national interest.”

The real challenge is thus dismantling of this unholy alliance. Will NDC accept this challenge as leadership in China and Singapore and many other countries did in the recent past? It requires vision, pragmatism, planning and rational policies, and above all honesty. Do we have all these? 


The writers Advocate Supreme Court, is Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

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