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Sunday, October 5, 2014

Dismantling the elitist model by Ishrat Husan

THERE are two ways of drawing lessons from the PTI and PAT dharnas and protests. The government may feel it has been so bruised and weakened that it has no courage or conviction left to undertake tough economic and structural reforms. The fear of adverse reactions and protests by those likely to be the losers if reforms are carried out may lull the decision-makers into a state of continued inaction. If the losers happen to be their political allies and supporters the fear may be heightened.

A more charitable expectation could be that the ruling party and other leading political parties have sensed the general mood of dissatisfaction with the prevailing state of affairs and may be galvanised into taking long-postponed decisions and overdue reforms. They may realise that the political cost of not carrying out these reforms is becoming unbearable. These protests and general public sentiment should appeal to the conscience of the political leadership that status quo and business as usual are no longer acceptable.

Having mobilised the support of the opposition parties and forged a united front for the survival of democracy it is only logical that they should together repair and reconstruct the damaged apparatus of governance and the enfeebled institutions of state. After all, democracy cannot be meaningfully implemented in the absence of strong institutions and good governance. As these reforms are of a long-term nature, the consensus and support of the opposition parties are badly needed to neutralise the pressure tactics of those opposing them.

Viewed in this context, the recent appeal filed by the government against the Supreme Court decision in Khawaja Asif’s case is highly disconcerting. As per the decision, an independent commission of experts puts up a panel of three nominees for each post of the chief executive of regulatory and other key state organisations through an open, transparent process. This does not, in any way, take away the powers of the prime minister in making appointments, but facilitates him in choosing from among the panel that has gone through an independently conducted process of screening and scrutiny to determine suitability for the job.

The prime minister has always the power to reject the panel recommended by the commission and to ask them to submit a fresh panel. This process would in fact help strengthen the prime minister’s position as nobody could then accuse him of nepotism, favouritism or choosing a person on the basis of loyalty.

In most cases, the head of the organisation selected on merit through this transparent process would choose his own team on the same consideration. An autonomous board of directors appointed on the same criterion can then hold the chief executive accountable for results. This mechanism, if put in practice faithfully, can turn these key institutions of state around, place them on a sound footing and bring about a difference in their performance.

Imagine, for a moment, if the heads of SECP, CCP, Nepra, Ogra, Pemra, Pakistan Steel, PIA and of Gencos and Discos are selected this way. This would have restored confidence in the sanctity of these organisations, enhanced the latter’s capability and conferred legitimacy on their functioning. By insisting upon the old beaten track of complete centralisation of powers and the exercise of discretion by top decision-makers in making these appointments it is unlikely that these organisations can either achieve capability, legitimacy or efficiency.

Protests and dharnas are a manifestation of deep-rooted frustration with the way the country has been governed for most of its 67 years. It is time that these sources of disenchantment and lack of trust in the state and its institutions are gradually removed. The main goal for every political party should be to bring about a change from the present elitist model of state to one in which the benefits of growth are shared widely. This can only happen if the current process of decision-making dominated by personalisation, discretion and patronage gives way to a more inclusive and consultative process, adherence to rules and checks and balances.

This is easier said than done and would require a great deal of effort, time and perseverance. That is why the coming together of all political parties around this agenda is the first step forward. Responding to the genuine sentiments of the protesters and others who feel the same way, and utilising the present harmonious relations among all major political parties provides an ideal opportunity for initiating this journey.

The reform agenda for such change has to be comprehensive, encompassing the judicial and electoral, parliamentary, civil service, local government, economic and social sectors. In many instances, detailed road maps are available and can be viewed by the cabinet and parliamentary committees. In other cases, work is already under way as on electoral reforms.

For others, new blueprints have to be developed. One of the instruments which has worked well in democracies such as India is the setting up of blue ribbon commissions consisting of experts, practitioners, parliamentarians, civil society and provincial representatives etc. These commissions should be asked to have broad-based consultation with stakeholders including civil society and come up with recommendations and a time-bound action plan. The proceedings of these commissions should be open to the public and media.

The experience so far in Pakistan is that the reports of such commissions have been put in cold storage. The reason? Decision-makers have wanted to continue with the status quo and dare not give up their powers of patronage, privilege and pelf. Decision-makers should in the new and changed circumstances have no other option but to sincerely implement the recommendations after arriving at a consensus with all other political parties.

Let us hope that history will remember that this political crisis was turned into an opportunity for the transformation of Pakistan driven by an enlightened political leadership and a meritocratic, performance-oriented bureaucracy free from political interference.

The writer is the author of The Economy of an Elitist State. Dawn.com