More like a private limited company than a parliamentary democracy

Mian Nawaz Sharif’s highly personalized style of running the country is identical to the one the PML-N introduced during it two tenures in the 1990s. Nawaz Sharif’s concept of governance comprises three fundamental components: centralization of authority in the hands of the prime minister, disempowering the cabinet and sidelining the parliament.

As was the case during the 1990s, the country is being managed on the model of a private limited company owned by a family, a la the Ittefaq Foundries which was presided over by the patriarch with the control lower down entrusted to the kin, trusted friends and loyal servants but with the main decision-making in the hands of top man.

But when a big country facing a host of complex issues is treated like a family enterprise, this can lead to tragic consequences.

Four additional portfolios which were acquired by the PM including defence, foreign affairs, communications and law are just one indication of the desire to monopolize power rather than delegate it to the cabinet members. Acquiring so many responsibilities also reflects that the PM has little faith in the capability of his colleagues in the cabinet. Each one of these portfolios requires a full time minister. Taking over these vast responsibilities is beyond a single man’s competence. This has increased Sharif’s reliance on bureaucracy and on arrangements which are alien to the system. While two former bureaucrats, Sartaj Aziz and Tariq Fatemi, help respectively as advisor and special assistant on foreign affairs, Sahahbaz Sharif is sharing the burden of his elder brother at the centre.

Besides being the chief minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif also keeps tabs on various federal departments. Bureaucrats have been instructed to regularly send progress reports on federal government departments to the Punjab CM. This is affecting the latter’s performance as the chief executive of the largest province of Pakistan. The rise of the Dengue epidemic and the terrorist attack in Gujrat on an army officer’s vehicle signify loosening of the government’s grip on the province.

Like 1990s the cabinet is again being treated as a rubber stamp. Decisions are taken on other forums and the process of implementation immediately started. They are then taken to the cabinet for briefing, ratification and ownership. The idea to call an APC on terrorism, for instance, was PM’s own brain wave. A meeting of the parties was called soon after an announcement was made by the interior minister. The APC led by the PML-N leaders decided to hold talks with the militants. The cabinet was taken into confidence afterwards. Insiders claim that ministers dare not ask any questions in the meetings let alone offer views that differ from those of the premier.

In the US, the president decides when the cabinet is to meet. In Britain the cabinet meets every Thursday. Under Sharif the practice is more akin to the presidential form of government than parliamentary form of democracy. Despite the pressing issues related to law and order, economy, relations with India, Afghanistan and the US, the cabinet meetings have been few and brief as they are considered unnecessary. The concept of the decentralisation of power and collective responsibility, which forms the core of the parliamentary form of government, is alien to the PML-N leadership’s thinking

Several media reports indicate that ministries are being micromanaged. An outstanding example is the federal ministry of water and power. Khawaja Asif is merely the portfolio’s figurehead. The power ministry indeed is being run by a three-member coterie headed by Shahbaz Sharif, with adviser to the prime minister on water and energy Dr Mussadaq Malik and former finance minister Shaukat Tareen being the two other members. Newspaper reports cite crucial decisions with regard to the government’s tariff policy having been taken by this unofficial group. The state minister Abid Sher Ali rather than Khawaja Asif was entrusted with the task of announcing major decisions.

It is maintained that the PM’s office not only keeps close tabs on all ministries but also intervenes in their routine affairs, to the extent that ministers are not even allowed to hire personal secretaries of their choice. Similarly, ministers have been barred from appointing and transferring staff in their departments without prior approval of the PM’s office.

This has led the cabinet members to take little interest in parliamentary proceedings. The issue of the absence of most of the ministers from the sessions has been raised on several occasions in the National Assembly. As they are often not responsible for the policy decisions taken in their name, they tend to avoid fielding embarrassing questions put by the members.

Whenever information is supplied by the bureaucracy to the members’ queries the ministers rarely apply their mind to determine its accuracy. The latest imbroglio in the senate was caused by the interior minister reading out the statistics on mortalities caused by the terrorist attacks avowedly provided by the KP government. Had Ch Nisar taken the trouble of applying his mind to the date presented, he would have discovered the figure of 136 mortalities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa since June as patently incorrect. He must have known that in September alone 125 people died in four terrorist attacks in Peshawar including the one on All Saints Church and the other on Qissa Khwani Bazaar. Over the period there were several other attacks in the province that killed scores of others.

While the opposition in the senate was protesting against these incorrect figures two more complaints emerged regarding false replies having been supplied to the senators’ questions. One of the objectors was Senator M. Hamza, the veteran PML-N leader, while the other was MQM Senator Tahir Mashhadi. Federal Minister Birjees Tahir conceded that the reply in the latter case was incorrect while Sen. Hamza’s stand was vindicated by two other senators.

While the cabinet is being used as a rubber stamp, the PML-N leadership lacks interest in the parliamentary proceedings. During the five months of his tenure Nawaz Sharif has put up appearance in the National Assembly only rarely. This indicates a disregard for the house he is supposed to lead.

The government’s attitude to the setting up of the parliamentary committees was indicative of the same mindset. These committees which form the backbone of the house’s proceedings were to be appointed within 30 days after the government’s coming into power. The deadline was missed. It took more than four months to appoint their chairpersons. As a result no legislation could be undertaken by the parliament other than passing the budget document during the last five months. Important bills including the Pakistan Protection Ordinance could not be introduced because of the absence of the relevant committees.

It is quite obvious that running the government like a fief, without delegating responsibility, is no solution to the myriad problems faced by the nation at this crucial point in time. But to be fair, the malady is not exclusive to the PML-N. Previously President Zardari and PPP ran its government with most decisions being taken in the presidency and not the cabinet. No wonder the consequences were detrimental to the national cause. But now this is for the PM and the PML-N to decide whether to continue on the path so far preferred or change tack and form a government that harnesses the leadership qualities of the best amongst this legislature to the benefit of this hapless nation that deserves a whole lot better from its principal political personalities.