May Issue 2010
Still the President’s Man
With great power comes great responsibility, but in the case of the government of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, also great paradoxes. The ultimate beneficiary of the transfer of a large chunk of presidential powers to his office, Gilani does not give the impression that he is ready to carry the new burden of running the country effectively, efficiently or even on his own steam. In fact, the new power make-up may actually produce a far weaker and more ineffectual prime minister than the one who stood under the lengthening shadow of President Asif Ali Zardari.
Camp insiders claim that Gilani has no intention of taking charge of the country in a manner many expect him to. Those who work closely with him say that he remains a master of hollow ceremony, one who can hold and conclude a perfectly good meeting without achieving anything productive. A senior bureaucrat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the day after the president signed off his powers to the prime minister, there was nothing unusual in the prime minister’s routine. “If you are asking me whether he was a different man, ready to go and raring to roar, then the answer is no. The only thing that changed is that he received more than the usual congratulatory calls and a greater number of visitors fawning on him in the hope of receiving favours. Have we heard of a new vision? No. Has the prime minister’s secretariat produced a new strategy paper for governing this country better? No,” says the high-ranking government official.
This built-in lethargy has kept procedural powers in the hands of the prime minister’s immediate staff, his gate-keepers, led primarily by Nargis Sethi, a district management group officer, who started off as an acting principal secretary, and within a short time has become the main mover and shaker at the PM House. She, along with over 54 other bureaucrats, were promoted through the prime minister’s discretionary powers to grade 22 from grade 21 – a move reversed by the Supreme Court’s recent judgement. Sethi was generally believed to be the advisor behind the ill-fated promotion. The prime minister’s lack of interest in deeply studying the impact of such administrative actions may lead to further blunders.
On more significant matters, such as running a tighter, cleaner, more work-driven cabinet, the PM has shown no intention of making changes in his core team. The federal cabinet continues to be a house divided and dominated by exclusive interests so well entrenched that the prime minister never takes them on. The multibillion dollar plan to import liquified natural gas (LNG), taken note of by the Supreme Court in a suo moto notice and referred back to the Economic Coordination Council (ECC), is illustrative of this fact.
Informed political sources claim that the plan was pushed through by Naveed Qamar, the minister for petroleum, without the prime minister’s knowledge. When premier Gilani found out about it in a cabinet meeting, instead of taking notice of this procedural deviation, he apparently had it leaked to the press. While the ensuing media frenzy made the Supreme Court’s intervention inevitable, the court’s much talked about verdict only sends the deal back to the ECC without finding any real evidence of major corruption. The prime minister’s cagey style of getting around powerful ministers typifies a lack of self-confidence, which the new power dose of the 18th Amendment is unlikely to address.
Reinforcing the premier’s siege within the cabinet is the presence of presidential loyalists and favourites. Babar Awan in the ministry of law, Rehman Malik in the ministry of interior, and Qamar Zaman Kaira in the ministry of information, besides a host of others who hold sway over the proceedings. “The prime minister is constantly seeking presidential goodwill through his proxies in the cabinet. He is forever thinking of not alienating the president’s men who in turn treat him as a mere figurehead behind which lurks the larger than life persona of Mr Zardari,” says a cabinet source.
The president’s position as the co-chairperson of the party is the most effective check on whatever little chances there were of the prime minister growing his own wings and flying on the strength of his new constitutional role. It is evident that Zardari can and will use the long stick of his hold over the party to keep Gilani in line.
When he does need to take a stand, say sources close to the government, the prime minister tends to lean on the military establishment. The prime minister, theoretically the most empowered head of government since the days of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, is considered most dependent upon the support and backing of the military top brass. “The GHQ has taken over the decision making in all the crucial areas of foreign and defence policy. The prime minister has willingly and happily conceded matters of national concern to them. India, Afghanistan, China, the US in particular and important countries of the Gulf and the Middle East like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have become zones where the military increasingly exerts diplomatic influence. The prime minister is like the cover letter of an official report, which someone else authors and passes around in his name,” says a foreign office source. The source adds that the real decision making in foreign policy takes place between GHQ and the foreign office, headed by Gilani’s arch political rival, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, and foreign secretary Salman Bashir. “Most of the time, the prime minister seems content with being a procedural head, in spite of the fact that he now has the constitutional authority to lead from the front,” says the same source.
It may be enough for Mr Gilani that he has made it to the seat of prime minister of a country that is located in the world’s most important region, one that holds the crucial balance of global conflict and peace. But just as clear is the fact that Gilani’s wonderland is coming under increasing pressure and its deceptive calm is threatened by the gathering upheaval at his doorstep. One source of obvious trouble is a judiciary that is out to aggressively push its concept of constitutionalism and rule of law down the government’s throat. The 18th Amendment has already been challenged before the court primarily for the new criterion of judges’ appointment that allows the parliament oversight over the final selection. There is every possibility that the court will recommend strong modifications in the manner of the judges’ selection, causing ruling coalition partners to lose patience with the judges’ intrusive attitude. The prime minister, who has been playing both sides in this long tug of war between the judiciary and the ruling parties might have to decide to take a stand.
As it is, the judges have made minced meat of his judgement in the bureaucrats’ promotion case, describing the exercise of his discretionary powers as an arbitrary contradiction of the fundamentals of merit and probity. As a result, those the prime minister had anointed with the honour of promotion to the coveted grade 22 are now holding on to their positions by the skin of their teeth and that too only temporarily.
“This is a snub and a huge challenge to the prime minister’s authority. It is an indirect accusation of gross abuse of power. He needs to wake up. The world around him is changing fast,” says one of the dozens of bureaucrats who were superseded as a result of the prime minister’s controversial decision, now overruled by the Supreme Court.
An even stronger wake-up call has come from the United Nation’s three-member commission report on the murder of
Benazir Bhutto. The report takes a direct dig at the country’s formidable military and intelligence agencies implying that these institutions had a hand in the epic tragedy of Bhutto’s death. In order to clear its name, the army is pushing the prime minister to start an objective criminal investigation that could unravel the murder mystery. While most appropriate, the recommendation is pregnant with the danger of some close associates of President Zardari falling into the net of suspicion. The UN report’s take on the role of Interior Minister Rehman Malik leaves enough ground for criminal investigation to focus on his acts of omission and commission. Taking on Rehman Malik and Babar Awan – two of the four other occupants of the back-up vehicle of Bhutto that left the scene hastily, minutes before her killing – would be akin to taking on the president. This may be a fearful prospect, yet it is an issue the prime minister cannot keep at bay for long.
Neither can he rest for long on his 18th Amendment laurels, oblivious to the stresses and strains the constitutional change has brought about in other aspects of national life. It is no doubt, a great achievement to finally abolish the concurrent list – comprising subjects where the centre and the provinces had a joint role. However, the provinces simply do not have the capacity to take on the stupendous task of doing much of the work they previously could pass on to Islamabad’s bureaucracy. The process of this transfer now requires legislation, framing of the rules of business, delineating procedures and creating new departments. That is a lot of work which will require much help and coordination with the central government. This is where is the rub is going to be. The centre is consumed by an all-encompassing lethargy that does not inspire much hope that this assistance from the federal government will either be forthcoming in time or will ever come at all.
It was this inertia that allowed the Hazarawals to erupt in anger against the change of the name of the province from NWFP to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Of the many factors, including the Pakistan Muslim League Q’s self-serving attempt to stump the Nawaz League, the most important one was the simplest: no one had bothered to keep the Hazarawals informed of the constitutional reform committee’s emerging consensus on the issue. As a result, bottled up frustration was compounded by sheer insensitivity and events took a bloody turn. Now that the genie is out of the bottle, the government at the centre has outsourced the handling of the challenge to its coalition partner, the Awami National Party, whose credentials as neutral mediator are not accepted by those making the demand. This can have serious repercussions for national stability in a strategically important area. It can have a domino effect elsewhere – in the Seraiki belt for instance. Also simmering is the demand for a Pashtoon heartland in the northern sphere of Balochistan. But in the corridors of power a celestial calm continues to prevail.
Only time will tell if the constitutional amendment, welcome as it is, will succeed in moving the present dispensation out of the old groove – a groove that has kept this country tied to the totem pole of inefficient governance and lacklustre leadership.
The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV hosting a prime time current affairs program.