Accountability: an endless affair – I.A. Rehman

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IT seems that the Pakistani government has invented a new myth for evading accountability. It argues that it has a mandate to manage the state for five years and that it should be called to account for its performance at the end of this period. Nothing in its contract with the people, who are the real sovereign, provides for such claims by the rulers.

In fact, the government’s status is that of a leaseholder. The state has been placed under its management for improvement in its resources and overall health. If this term of agreement is violated, the contract can be rescinded. Sometimes this may necessitate resort to violence. For this reason, the people have a right and a duty to monitor the government’s performance from the beginning of its mandate to its conclusion. If such monitoring is not done or if it is not effective, the possibility of the state coming to serious harm cannot be ruled out. All responsible governments therefore like to have a built-in mechanism that ensures continuing accountability.

Besides, accountability is meant to secure improvement in the manner that an organisation is being managed. Any such exercise that is carried out only at the end of the mandate will be futile because there will be no time to apply the lessons of stocktaking. The risk that an organisation could come to grief for want of accountability is far too great to be afforded by any sensible party. There is no merit in always taking ‘accountability’ in a negative sense of the word because an exercise in accountability can be undertaken to find areas where a little extra investment can result in a considerable increase in returns.

It has been seen that those who reject accountability during a mandate’s term often find themselves paying heavily for misplaced confidence in the correctness of their course. No harm can come to an organisation from periodical checks on its affairs. Indeed, an organisation can gain much from stocktaking that is done at regular intervals.

An organisation can gain much from stocktaking that is done at regular intervals.

Many organisations believe in carrying out mid-term reviews of their projects to reassure themselves that they are staying on the right course. No healthy organisation is afraid of periodic reviews of its programmes, and those who shun such reviews betray their lack of confidence in the strength of their enterprise. The government perhaps misunderstood the suggestion for an assessment of its performance and thought it was a ploy for fault-finding whereas it could be seen as friendly advice from its well-wishers. Maybe the government’s reaction is a symptom of hypertension. Otherwise it should have seen the advantage in accepting what is indeed a friendly piece of advice.

In the parliamentary system, the houses of representatives provide extremely productive forums for thrashing out all matters that are of public concern. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s immature and insecurity-driven politicians have become allergic to parliamentary discourse which is in fact the arena for the training of politicians of substance. That parliament has been downgraded to a body used for legitimising the executive’s fads and foibles is no exaggeration. Eventually, the people are the losers because they are deprived of their right to take part in the management of their affairs which is possible only when all matters are decided through parliamentary discussions.

The absence of having regular debate in parliament has also deprived the people of opportunities of political education. No greater disservice to democracy can be imagined than this downgrading of the houses of the people’s elected representatives. Is this a fortuitous occurrence or is there a design in this madness? Whatever the case may be, the people are the ultimate losers because they are deprived of access to institutions of political education. Future historians are unlikely to forgive successive generations of Pakistani politicians for their failure to develop political institutions for the education of the people in the ennobling art of politics.

In mature democracies, the assemblies of elected representatives meet for as long as feasible, while in imperfect systems such as Pakistan’s all sorts of devices are used to meet the minimum number of days fixed for legislatures’ sessions. Indeed, Pakistan seems to be keener to dispose of business of the state during parliamentary recesses than through elected assemblies. Nobody seems to mind this travesty of the parliamentary system.

Every now and then, some people indulge in ritualistic mourning over the lack of democratic traditions but no thought is given to the fact that traditions grow on the back of consistent practice of democratic norms. Unfortunately in Pakistan, democracy has progressed in fits and starts. In a society where politics has been reduced to a game among cheats — or, worse, blackguards — there is no possibility of the flowering of the people’s genius for politics. Many developing countries including Pakistan have had little exposure to democratic politics let alone democratic governance. The result is that they have yet to learn to appreciate the finer points of a truly democratic dispensation. But this should not cause despair in the people so long as political parties have the will and the capacity to stay on the path of democracy.

In many countries, including Pakistan, intra-government accountability mechanisms have been eclipsed by the loosening of parties’ hold on their governments. Wherever political parties retain control over their governments and parliamentarians their system of checks and balances does not get rusted. But all over the world, governments have succeeded in ousting their parties from the driving seat. As a result, democracy has suffered a certain devaluation. Immature societies view accountability as a form of punishment or a drag on the parties’ smooth functioning. Nothing could be a greater error as accountability acts as a lubricant does for machinery.

Published in Dawn, March 25th, 2021