THE PPP and PTI are likely to find many people who will share their fear that the new Supreme Court ruling on appointments to high posts might free the executive’s hand to indulge in favouritism — the curse that has undermined public administration throughout the decades of independence.

The latest ruling reverses a barely 17-month-old decision of an earlier bench on the subject which was bound to be set aside sooner or later. The issue before the 2013 Supreme Court bench, headed by the then chief justice, was essentially related to limits of the administrative authority of the caretaker government that had been installed to oversee the general election.

The court declared all postings and transfers made by the caretakers illegal. It did not stop at that and directed the new government to create a commission to manage appointments to top positions in all autonomous and semi-autonomous statutory bodies, regulatory authorities, and public-sector corporations.

The reason behind the empty posts is non-availability of the competent authority’s errand boy.
The proposed commission was to have wide powers. It had to ensure that no public appointment took place without its recommendation. It was required to “monitor compliance with the code of practice, ensure regular audit of appointment processes within its remit, issue an annual report giving detailed information about appointment processes, complaints handled, and highlight the main issues which have arisen during the previous year”. The report was to be submitted before parliament each year by March 31.

The Supreme Court has now ruled that the restraint placed on the executive’s authority in the matter of appointments is in violation of Article 90 of the Constitution.

This aspect of the matter could not have been missed in 2013 but it was apparently disregarded by the Iftikhar Chaudhry court in the exuberance that characterised it in those days, and it assumed the role of a service reform commission. The court also ignored the reality that in a country where the executive had developed the art of bypassing the Public Service Commission a new commission for autonomous bodies had extremely limited chances of success. The new government wasted little time before it sought to be freed of the 2013 bar.

The government does possess a fairly developed code for deciding on appointments, postings, transfers and sackings. And the institution of public service commissions inherited from the British has not been abolished though sometimes they look like recovery and recoupment centres for retired bureaucrats. The confusion is much greater in autonomous corporations and regulatory authorities.

Theoretically, appointments to high posts in autonomous bodies are made in accordance with the procedure laid down in the laws under which they are founded but the very concept of autonomous public institutions has been thoroughly abused in this country. The idea behind creating these bodies was to allow experts in selected fields to promote development in freedom from bureaucratic red tape.

However, more often than not successive governments have turned these bodies into agencies for providing their favourites with sinecures in the hope of reaping political dividends. In many cases, the heads of autonomous bodies were found to be less interested in their assignment than in their own development. Some of the capable ones among them became known for changing their organisations into personal empires.

Since one sees little prospect for change of heart on the part of the government the fear that the culture of favouritism will prevail is well-founded. The ongoing haggle over the choice of a new chief election commissioner is a prime example of the cult of cronyism.

One problem is that the idea of choosing the chief election commissioner through parliamentary consensus has been handed over to groups and individuals that are not blessed with political maturity and the quality of selflessness. The process of consultation has degenerated into a shallow farce. It is possible to shoot down a qualified candidate for nothing more than a streak of vengefulness or sheer caprice. Besides, the objections to which the short-listed probables have been subjected are in such bad taste that they have forced more than one dignitary to decline nomination.

The real hitch, however, is that each actor who has a finger in the pie is in search of a person who will be good to his party or at least not hostile to it. The thesis is based on the premise that the election commission chief can materially affect the electoral process.

Similar considerations have usually influenced the executive’s choice of heads of autonomous bodies and even senior bureaucrats’ posting, especially in the police forces. If scores of posts have been lying vacant for months the reason in all cases is not non-availability of a qualified person, the reason quite often is non-availability of the competent authority’s errand boy, who could be preferred to a person eligible on merit.

One does not have to say much about the price Pakistan has paid for ignoring the Quaid’s August 1947 call to root out favouritism. Dynastic politics, bureaucratic alliances, and cronyism are the inevitable manifestations of this evil. An administration that puts a premium on cronyism and suppresses merit will be incapable of maintaining the minimum standards of efficiency, justice and probity. And the frustration caused to all those who are unjustly passed over also takes a heavy toll of human resources.

The answer lies in strengthening the system, eliminating discretionary powers, ending ad hocism, creating intra-department checks and balances, and raising independent accountability mechanisms. It is in these areas that innovative ideas, if sincerely implemented, can yield huge rewards.

This case has offered a sound lesson to politicians — do not dig wells for your rivals for you too may fall in them. It was a PML-N stalwart who had challenged the free hand enjoyed by the caretakers and the same party chose to seek the freedom it had objected to when seen in the hands of others. Pretty clear, sir?