Trust and Confidence By Najam Sethi

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Pakistan’s ruling party, the PTI, is riven with bitter personal and political discord. Its alliance partners are on the verge of jumping ship. The economy is locked into a crash dive, with resultant jumps in poverty and unemployment. The health system is overwhelmed by soaring Covid-19 infections and deaths. The federal system is groaning under the weight of constitutional encroachments by Islamabad. The judiciary is increasingly wary and assertive. The opposition is looking for an opportunity to plunge the knife. India is gearing up to create mischief. Donald Trump’s support is evaporating as the Afghan conflict shows no signs of resolution and his own fortunes take a fateful dip. Predictably, our “national security” establishment is openly being blamed for this state failure because it fathered this dispensation.

Chaudhry Fawad Hussain, Minister for Science and Technology, has spilled the beans. He says Imran Khan is a leader without a team, that’s why governance is a big zero. The PTI’s elected MNAs are split between the old ideologues and the new lotas. Both resent the horde of unelected Advisors, Special Assistants and bureaucrats who have the leader’s ear and rule the roost. Personal rivalries and ambitions among the top dogs, each of whom fancies himself as a PM in-waiting, have destroyed the stability and unity of the cabinet. No team, no delivery.

The PTI’s alliance partners are thinning dangerously. It requires 172 MNAs to rule. Prime Minister Imran Khan is now left with 178 after the BNP quit. The PMLQ, MQM, BAP, GDA and JWP are bristling, just waiting for a signal to bolt.

The economy started diving as soon as the PTI seized the reins. Now it is in free fall. For the first time since independence, it is primed for negative growth this year and the next. There is no money and there are no ideas or management to kick start it.

The higher courts are desperately trying to reclaim their lost credibility at the hands of ex-Chief Justices, Saquib Nisar and Asif Khosa, who whimsically triggered the demise of the old democratically elected order and cleared the path for the present selected one. The attempt to disqualify Justice Qazi Faez Isa, because he stood up to the establishment, has backfired. The attempt to browbeat a revision in the National Finance Commission Award has been effectively challenged.

Covid-19 misappraisal and mismanagement is resulting in dire consequences. While the rest of the world is preparing to rise and shine, we are faced with a surge of unimaginable proportions – reliable estimates put potential infections at several million in the next month or two. Those very PTI leaders who said it was a common flu, nothing to worry about, are now blaming the people for their own misery, adding insult to injury.

The border situation is precipitous. Pakistan’s inability to influence the Taliban to accept Donald Trump’s peace and power-sharing plan is not without adverse consequences. Similarly, Narendra Modi’s desperation to distract attention from his own problems (failing economy, covid-19 casualties and China-humiliation) by adventuring across the LOC doesn’t augur well for a politically divided and bankrupt country.

Most significantly, an increasing number of potent voices are now openly criticizing the fathers of the current failed system. This is evident on social, electronic and print media, despite disappearances, censorship and clampdown. This denunciation is echoing in decision-making chambers in powerful foreign countries. And it has spilled over into parliament itself. Hounded and harassed, the opposition is increasingly pointing the finger in the direction of the original sin and finding resonance among lay folks and state institutions. A little bird quotes one founding father as saying that “we bet on the wrong horse, now we don’t know how to get off it”!

That’s only partly true. Getting off a mule shouldn’t pose any risks. There are any number of ways to do so. One precondition for course correction, however, requires the Founding Fathers to elevate institutional interest above personal ambition, to allow the political system of parliamentary democracy to filter out its impurities and straighten out its imperfections. A second is to accept the elementary principle of a constitutional democracy that each organ of state and government must commit to remaining within its respective constitutional limits.

The first step in this direction is a “national” or “interim” civilian government for a year or so to restore confidence and trust in its ability to stop the dangerous slide into anarchy and breakdown. The second is to fashion a constitutional consensus on key parameters of state and society for restoration of the freely elected civilian order. The necessary condition for economic revival will depend on sustaining political consensus and stability. The sufficient condition will be subject to the harsh lessons that institutions of the state and government in general and the leaders of political parties in particular should have learnt from their mistakes or misplaced policies and priorities in the past.

A country can survive loss of confidence in government. That is what periodic free elections are all about. But it can’t survive loss of trust and belief in its state institutions because that is the bedrock of the modern nation state.