Of representative rule
From the Newspaper | I.A Rehman
THE prime minister has proclaimed during a conversation with his law minister that as the state has to be managed by the representatives of the people, its executive authority flows from him.
That the prime minister’s authority is not absolute even the law minister will concede. It is subject to two limitations, one constitutional and the other political. These restraints are derived from different sets of arguments and are not interchangeable. It is possible for an executive to stay true to the constitution and fail the political test for a representative government, and the people’s representatives can make demands the constitution cannot permit.
The constitutional limits to executive authority have been abundantly discussed over the years. A huge contribution has been made by experts in the media. Indeed the basic law is in danger of being conceived as only a means of tethering the executive. There has been little discussion on the political limits to the authority of representatives of the people. They are expected to exercise the powers delegated to them solely in meeting the aspirations and demands of their electors. Secondly, they are required to continue strengthening the system of democratic governance by making it not only responsible but also able to withstand challenges from any quarter.
The crisis of governance that Pakistan has faced throughout its existence cannot be overcome unless the political criterion for representative rule is met. And in this area a civil-society discourse can be of substantial benefit to both the rulers and the ruled.
Let us take the requirement that an elected government should concentrate on satisfying the people’s interests. In normal societies the task is fulfilled, to varying degrees, by parliament. But this august body can discharge this duty only if its members maintain a regular and living link with their electors and keep on voicing their concerns. That legislatures are increasingly running in default in this regard can easily be ascertained. Take the record of adjournments and cut motions moved on public issues in the legislatures or questions put to the government over the past decade and compare it with the record of the ’50s, even the ’60s, and you will find that if once an instance of police excess or eviction of tenants or closure of a school could be raised in the legislature, the practice has greatly declined, if not been abandoned altogether. About legislators’ links with ordinary citizens, the less said the better.
There are other methods of judging the pro-people functioning of an elected government. The first question is: to what extent does a government respect the people-friendly provisions of the constitution itself? Which one of the post-1973 governments has shown respect for Article 3, which calls for an end to exploitation? None. Simply because the millions who are ruthlessly exploited — and they are in a majority — have no say in any of the state’s majestic organs. Are fundamental rights respected in letter and spirit for the equal benefit of the privileged and the marginalised? Does the justice system maintain equity between the bonded hari and the wadera, between the worker and the employer, between non-Muslim and Muslim, between woman and man? How long will it take to transfer the rights to health and social security from the unenforceable principles of policy to the fundamental-rights chapter, and when will the people’s representatives be obliged to explain the reasons for the delay and their lack of interest?
Another way to judge a government’s regard for the people’s aspirations is to see how much of its legislative work has been motivated by a desire to make the state or its functionaries more powerful or richer and how much of it addresses public concerns. In this regard the current government has rightly claimed considerable distinction. The 18th Amendment and the laws adopted to promote the interests of women are surely people-friendly achievements, but the balance is still in favour of state interests. The argument that making state institutions and personnel stronger and richer is ultimately in the public interest is not valid. It is within our direct experience that whenever the state became stronger the people’s rights were abridged, and whenever the state and its hangers-on became richer the people became poorer.
The point being made here is that however resounding their electoral success, the representatives of the people can retain their title only so long as they are perceived to be serving the public interest. True, no politician can be expected to eschew personal interest. But no reward is higher than being accepted as a representative of the people and all hankering after pelf and prestige is self-aggrandisement, pure and simple.
A regime that claims to be democratic and cannot prove its commitment to public interest clearly undermines the scheme of representative and responsible government. The fact is much too well-known in Pakistan. Poor performances of elected governments have been alienating citizens from democracy and politics itself.