Monday July 22, 2024

State of institutional decline

Bigger danger is the damage done to state institutions to keep opposition at bay, says Shafqat Mahmood

By Shafqat Mahmood
June 20, 2024
A vendor holds a Pakistani flag as he waits for customers beside his stall alongside a street in Islamabad on August 13, 2020. — AFP
A vendor holds a Pakistani flag as he waits for customers beside his stall alongside a street in Islamabad on August 13, 2020. — AFP

One Eid gift to the nation was this wish by [professor, doctor, minister] Ahsan Iqbal that Imran Khan should be jailed for five years. This was special because it came from the most – in terms of degrees – educated in the current cabinet.

A gift of a different nature was this promise by non-doctor minister, chairman PCB that a ‘deep surgery’ – the tenth in the last ten years - awaits the Pakistan cricket team when it comes home. Quaking with ‘fear’, most players have decided not to return.

Non-mandated PM Shehbaz decided not to be left behind. After declaring earlier that there are black sheep in the judiciary, he has had a change of heart. Now he says all such sheep have retired. Pigment it seems has this amazing propensity to change colour, in office and out.

Other newly minted spokespersons are contributing their bit through one outlandish statement or another. One Barrister Aqeel is threatening to ‘clamp down’ on overseas Pakistanis who indulge, according to him, in anti-state propaganda. How will this ‘clamp down’ take place? Are we going to impose Section 144 in London and New York?

One would ignore all this as the normal ridiculous fare of politics if the issues we faced were not so serious. This motley lot, imposed on us through Form 47, deliberately keeps reducing critical national issues to comic one-liners. Reconciliation or accommodation is not in their interest. They couldn’t care less if the nation suffers as long as they can continue to hold office.

And the nation is suffering – not only because of internal political discord. A bigger danger is the damage done to state institutions to keep the opposition at bay. We keep talking about the economy because it is indeed one of the most difficult of our challenges. Unless we fix our budgetary imbalance, control inflation, create jobs, and improve our foreign exchange reserves, we will not get very far.

But it needs to be recognized that violation of a state’s organizing principle and damage to its institutions are no less of a challenge. A state in its pristine sense is ordered by the constitution and functions through rule of law. The pillars of the state are its judiciary, bureaucracy, and military. They are mandated to protect the constitution and ensure that rule of law is enforced. If this primary duty is compromised by some, as we see repeatedly, it undermines the institution itself in the first place and then the state.

Some would argue how this or that action, being done or not done, has such a profound impact. It does because the social contract of the state is its constitution. Violations tear apart this contract and lead to what can only be called anarchy – the dictionary meaning being non-recognition of authority, lawlessness, disorder etc. If this is not an impairment of the state, then what else is?

Let us take the most egregious example in a civil dispensation that has no precedent. The Supreme Court twice ordered provincial elections to be held and even gave a date. The Election Commission of Pakistan was least bothered and through one stratagem or another refused to carry out this order. The implications of this are profound. It has opened the doors for further violations as no one has been held to account or punished. What stops another institution from doing the same using similar excuses? This one example literally brings down the authority of the Supreme Court to willful acceptance by others. There can be no greater example of a state in crisis.

The state also diminishes when its institutions stop functioning effectively. One reason they don’t is because of two contradictory essentials. One, when their autonomy is compromised – meaning they are not allowed to freely operate within their designated framework. Second, the lack of any check – that is if the institution steps out of its legal framework and is not stopped. Third, and equally important, is when the institution refuses to accept the authority of another applying the check.

There can be no better example of this in recent times than the Election Commission of Pakistan. While on paper it has the kind of autonomy envisaged by the constitution, its determinations in the public eye suggest otherwise. It has also locked horns with the courts that have tried to check its overweening authority as on the issue of election tribunals.

Over the last four years, the ECP has become the most controversial institution in Pakistan. It fails the test of a functioning institution on both counts. It neither appears to be autonomous nor is it freely letting checks and balances of the constitution operate on it.

The ECP having been reduced to the state that it is in, is a tragedy because the nation needs an independent and trusted institution to conduct elections. Our neighbours somehow have managed it. Sadly, we have a long way to go. Other than 1970, not a single election has been without controversy. This is neither good for democracy nor the country.

Human rights is another sacrosanct area in the constitution. In it, a delicate balance has been kept between the imperatives of the state and the rights of its citizens. The state may assert the primacy of its goals but the constitution ensures that it is not done at the cost of rights and freedoms. This is where the instruments created by the constitution should step in to adjudicate and protect.

This adjudication is primarily the role of the judiciary but in an ideal sense, it is not confined to it. Other state organs – in our case, the district administration and the police – have to do their part. If they see violations and stand mutely on the side, Or, as in many cases, actually become the principal violators, the moorings of the state are shaken.

Law–enforcement agencies have not only to protect citizens but vigorously enforce rule of law as well. What we have seen them do over the last two years is the exact opposite. They have become instruments of oppression rather than relief. Thousands have been arrested on flimsy charges, their homes ransacked, their women and children mistreated. Misusing their authority, entirely false new cases have been heaped up on people whom the courts have granted relief.

This is terrible because we want a good police force and a good civil administration. They are responsible for governance at the most basic level. If they work well, the foundational pillars of the state become strong. If they become controversial or hated in the public eye, the state weakens.

At the risk of being obtuse, let me say again. The organizing principle of the state is the constitution. Any infringement of it weakens the basis of the state. Two, a state can only function effectively if every citizen is equal before the law. If rule of law is compromised it weakens the state. Three, within their designated framework autonomy of institutions is a state’s strength as is a system of checks that stops any transgression. If this is violated the state suffers as do the institutions. Four, the rights of citizens as enshrined in the constitution are inviolable, meaning never to be broken, infringed or dishonoured. If they are, the state diminishes.

The writer served as the federal minister of education in the PTI’s federal government. He can be reached at: