Some focus now, please – Abbas Nasir

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ON a number of occasions over the course of his political life, Prime Minister Imran Khan has expressed his admiration for US-style presidency where the incumbent is free to name anyone to key positions in the administration.

This when, in a parliamentary system, the elected leader of the house ie the prime minister is restricted to mostly choosing his/her cabinet or ministers from among elected parliamentarians with a limited number of unelected ‘advisers and special assistants’ allowed by the law.

To be honest, it is not just the prime minister but also the most potent political force in the country that has also made public its own preference for a government of technocrats as a panacea for all that ails the country.

In parliamentary democracies, where parties form a government with paper-thin majorities in particular, they have to show accommodation to different groups in the elected house to be able to sustain their majority and do consensual politics.

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A bevy of technocrats is at the helm even if it is not clear who they report to.

Of course, this takes such a government away from any authoritarian tendencies even if it had them, and the governed are able to breathe a bit more freely. Then there are what are called hybrid regimes or governments with strong backing from a potent force outside parliament.

Such a government has no fear of losing support in parliament as powerful forces are pulling the strings and keeping even the strong-headed in line. While this creates an illusion of harmony between institutions, what it actually does is tilt the balance of power away from the elected house.

In our case, where the prime minister and his backers appear to be on one page is in assembling a team of so-called technocrats. The main drawback of such a system is that those making key decisions are not really answerable to parliament.

In any case, the elected house and all the issues it raises is viewed with disdain by the potent political force as if it was a fish market din that everyone would be wise to disregard. Hence, a bevy of technocrats is at the helm even if it is not clear who they report to.

Hafeez Shaikh is running the economy and our finances (with Reza Baqir tweaking the monetary policy end), Razzak Dawood commerce ie exports, Sania Nishtar the social safety net, Zafar Mirza health and Moeed Yusuf also doing something important, though I admit I don’t know exactly what it is. Asim Bajwa (information) is the latest addition to the list.

This is not an exhaustive list by any means. But a common thread runs through it. At one point or the other in their lives most of those on the list have been called upon to serve the establishment and it seems they have responded without any hesitation whatsoever.

Given the post-Covid-19 challenges in particular, one earnestly hopes their performance is better than some of the elected PTI ministers who came into office with such hopes pinned to them but now appear no more than caricatures of themselves.

Think water and power minister and the only image that comes to mind is him arriving at the Chinese consulate-general in Karachi that had been under terrorist attack, donning his bodyguard’s flak jacket, and rushing over to assembled journalists with a pistol stuck in the belt on his hip.

By that time the police officer in charge, a gusty young woman, SP Suhai Aziz Talpur had led the assault and neutralised the terrorists. Even that did not seem enough for the minister as he was nearly shouting patriotic lines and frothing at the mouth before the cameras.

The next image is of a minister who keeps saying he will be answerable to God when he dies as if that is a fate unique to him and not all believers. Another elected minister wants to behead blasphemers when, gratefully, there has been no such incident.

Another pledged to bring back the looted ‘200 billion dollars’ the day his party’s government assumed office and is predictably yet to deliver on that promise. Does that embarrass him? Never. He remains as combative as ever.

When a number of people died on land in the port area in Karachi, the cause was first suspected to be a gas leak. Some experts blamed it on an allergic reaction to soya dust while others said it was due to some unknown choking agent.

But the response of the ports & shipping minister was epic. He released a video of himself standing tall in a speedboat leaving foam in its wake, touring the port waters and declaring all was well and the issue had nothing to do with his ministry.

While we are governed by a heady mix of technocrats and ministers, one hopes that together they will deliver as the future that is looming is filled with great uncertainty, hardship and challenges. They need focus, as does their leader. No room for confusion, mixed messaging.

And also no need for raising red herrings at this time to deflect attention away from acts of omission and commission in the name of governance, in economy and in response to Covid-19. With such a thin majority how else would you view the expressed desire to scrap/change the 18th Amendment?

The unhappiness, as some claim, is because power and resources are not being devolved to the very grass roots. This can easily be addressed by the PTI ordering immediate local bodies elections in the provinces it or its allies control.

Whether we keep faith with our parliamentary system (I, for one, see no reason not to as it guarantees national cohesion and unity), or keep lusting after a US-style presidency, there can be no denying the rights of the federating units.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas.nasir@hotmail.com