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Sunday July 14, 2024

The powerful four

There are at least four ministries in any government that bear the brunt of policymaking and ultimately affect people and their wellbeing

By Dr Naazir Mahmood
February 18, 2024
A view of the National Assembly in session. — APP/File
A view of the National Assembly in session. — APP/File

The PML-N and the PPP have taken the right step by aligning together to form the next government. Though there are allegations of stolen mandate from the PTI, it appears to be a regular phenomenon now as no elections in the history of Pakistan have been free from controversies.

The PTI has emerged as a victim but its track record has been even worse in comparison with other parties that have lost elections in the past due to the undue meddling from certain quarters.

Irrespective of who is to be blamed and who is to reap the benefits of less-than-fair elections, it is time to outline a possible trajectory for the future. There are at least four ministries in any government that bear the brunt of policymaking and ultimately affect people and their wellbeing.

These are the ministries for defence, finance, foreign affairs, and interior. Though other miniseries such as education and health have a direct bearing on people’s lives, they have become more or less provincial matters and the federation has little to do with them. Indirectly, all federal and provincial ministries depend on the four major ministries and their decisions at the federal level.

The defence and finance ministries are perhaps the most significant and the other two – foreign and interior – appear to take their shape in the light of the decisions taken by the defence and finance ministries.

No matter which party comes to power, the four major ministries have followed a similar path through decades. This is perhaps because these ministries have rarely been under independent civilian control in Pakistan. Even if the ministers have been civilians, their steps have betrayed an influence of forces not entirely under their control.

This is one reason for Pakistan’s declining fortunes and the constant mess it finds itself in. The facade keeps changing but there has hardly been any major change that could herald a new era for the country and its people.

For any new government in Pakistan to effect a transformation that could have a positive impact on the people of Pakistan, there will be a need to rejig the four major ministries and their priorities that must be different from the policies that the Pakistani state has been following for decades.

A repetition of the same policies and priorities and the dominance of the same forces will keep producing the same results that have been disappointing for the people of Pakistan, to say the least. So what are the changes that must take place?

Let’s begin with the defence ministry which has seen 32 defence ministers in the past 77 years with an average of just 2.5 years for each. In the 24 years from 1947 to 1971, there were 11 defence ministers – most of them were also the head of government.

Out of the first 24 years of Pakistan, for 14 years the defence ministry was under the direct control of not a politician but uniformed defence personnel. General Ayub Khan was defence minister for nine years (in two separate terms), Admiral Afzal Rehman for three years, and Gen Yahya Khan for another three.

In the two wars of 1965 and 1971 – up until the dismemberment of Pakistan after a crushing defeat in the 1971 war – the defence ministry remained under Gen Ayub Khan and Gen Yahya Khan. These two wars – and the blunders before and after these wars – set the course for a defence policy that no civil or military government in the past 50 years has been able to change. In the 21st century, we have had civilian defence ministers such as Ahmed Mukhtar, Khawaja Asif, and Parvez Khattak but their performances have had nothing remarkable to display.

What we do – or do not do – in defence, directly affects our decisions in financial allocations. Two of Pakistan’s major outlays in every budget are for debt servicing and defence. That leaves little room for the development and welfare of the people who actually end up paying for both: debt and defence.

These two heads are mostly non-productive expenses that we must revise and revisit to reflect any change in our policies to take Pakistan out of its economic shambles. But no defence policy – and the resultant finance policy – can change unless there is a change in foreign policy.

That brings us to the million-dollar question of normalizing relations with our neighbours. Pakistan has had topsy-turvy relations with nearly all its neighbours sharing long borders. With Pakistan’s total border length stretching over 6,000km, Pakistan shares with China around 500km. Other than that, our relations with Afghanistan, India, and Iran have remained strained to varying degrees.

It is easier to blame others and shift responsibilities but it is harder to acknowledge one’s acute sense of insecurity, backdoor conflicts, and devious efforts. Fundamental change is the need of the hour to normalize relations with neighbours without pinning blame on them.

Our Afghan policy has been backfiring for over 40 years now; India has emerged in our textbooks as an ‘eternal enemy’; Iran has not been one of our favourites since the dark days of Gen Ziaul Haq. From Zafarullah Khan (seven years), Manzur Qadir (four years), and ZA Bhutto (eight years in two terms) to Lt-Gen Sahibzada Yaqub Khan (nearly nine years in three terms), Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri (five years) Sartaj Aziz (five years in two terms) and Shah Mahmood Qureshi (seven years in two terms) nearly all foreign ministers followed – or had to follow – a similar policy.

While Zafarullah Khan and Manzur Qadir were instrumental in placing Pakistan in the US fold, ZA Bhutto tried a slightly neutral policy. Then Yaqub Khan and KM Kasuri – serving under Gen Zia and Gen Musharraf respectively – once again did mostly the US bidding. SM Qureshi turned hostile in the cypher case and is now in jail. But overall, Pakistan’s foreign policy has not been able to deliver dividends in the shape of friendly relations with its neighbours. Unless that happens, defence spending will keep spiralling and the finance ministry will have little room to manoeuvre.

The finance ministry has had the longest-serving federal ministers such M Shoaib (eight years under Gen Ayub Khan), Ghulam Ishaq Khan (eight years under Gen Ziaul Haq) and Shaukat Aziz (eight years under Gen Musharraf) and all could not improve the lot of the people of Pakistan apart from claiming some growth in GDP. This proves that the so-called stability under military dictatorships did not produce the desired results for various reasons – such as an increased concentration of wealth in the hands of the elite, and civil and military bureaucracy. This finally needs to change.

Finally, the interior ministry has also had long-serving federal ministers such as Abdul Qayoom Khan (five years with Z A Bhutto), Mahmoud Haroon (six years with Gen Ziaul Haq), Maj-Gen Naseerullah three years (with Benazir Bhutto) Rehman Malik (five years with Zardari), and Ch Nisar Ali (four years with Nawaz Sharif).

All failed to reduce internal conflicts in society by negotiation and reconciliation. Be it problems in Balochistan, erstwhile Fata, or Karachi, the interior ministry – either on its own or under somebody else’ command – has nearly always appeared paralyzed. To top it all we had interior ministers such as Ijaz Ahmed and Sheikh Rasheed.

With Imran Khan, they pushed Pakistani society to the brink. All this shows that we need much more capable and intelligent ministers for defence, finance, foreign affairs, and interior.

In the past, both long-term and short-term appointments failed to make any major changes in the four most significant ministries and their policies and practices. Now is the time to reformulate and embark on a new journey.


The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets/posts @NaazirMahmood and can be reached at: mnazir1964@yahoo.co.uk