South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

THE most important part of the much-talked-about interview given by Federal Minister Fawad Chaudhry recently was not a clash of ambitions between some ministers that was reported to have been resolved with considerable fanfare. It was his observation that governance was being handled by non-elected functionaries, who had no stake in politics.

This complaint is valid and its repercussions in terms of distortion of the democratic system could be quite serious.

It is commonly believed that the prime minister has been trying to manage the affairs of the state largely with the help of his 14 special assistants and Federal Minister Asad Umar. The special assistants to the prime minister, except one, are not elected members of parliament, but they enjoy the status of cabinet members. The government’s law experts should examine the question of whether they can have this privilege because it is reserved for federal ministers, who must be duly elected members of parliament.

Article 91(6) of the Constitution says: “The cabinet and the ministers of state shall collectively be responsible to the Senate and the National Assembly.” Does this mean that ministers of state are not members of the cabinet?

The solution doesn’t lie in packing the cabinet with strangers.

The Constitution recognises the prime minister, the cabinet, federal ministers and ministers of state. It also recognises a maximum of five advisers to the prime minister that we already have. But it does not recognise any special assistants to the prime minister. Further, there is apparently no law that sanctions the appointment of special assistants. The government’s law experts should examine the question of whether the prime minister can confer on anyone appointed by him the status and privileges of an elected member of parliament and make him a member of the cabinet.

The 50 members of the cabinet, the maximum number allowed by the Constitution, include all the 14 special assistants to the prime minister. All of them are believed to be experts and specialists in their fields. They can do a lot of good if they want to without being allowed the privileges they might not be entitled to. However, the prime minister can appoint as many assistants as he needs in the highest echelons of the bureaucratic order. There are no doubts about that.

Sometimes confusion is created by declaring that so and so has been granted the status of a federal minister. This is largely a matter of protocol, or a way to enable the person concerned to meet and engage with a representative of a foreign country holding ministerial office. But this so and so can neither be a member of the cabinet nor can he address parliament. The only non-member who is allowed to address parliament is the attorney general.

All advisers to the prime minister enjoy the rank of federal ministers but they cannot address parliament. This year again, the finance adviser, Hafeez Shaikh, could not deliver his budget speech and it was read out by Minister Hammad Azhar and there were perhaps moments when both of them felt embarrassed.

This hybrid system should be unwelcome to the people as it denies them rule by a proper cabinet that is an essential pillar of the parliamentary system. One is sure the prime minister means well but it is the responsibility of the law ministry to ensure that the constitutional limits are not crossed.

One does sympathise with the prime minister if he doesn’t find among the parliamentarians in the coalition parties persons capable of delivering, and delivering as well and as fast as he might wish. This is a serious problem indeed, but the solution doesn’t lie in packing the cabinet with strangers. It should be addressed at the time of the next election. At least tickets for election as senators could be given to persons capable of contributing to good governance.

Another indication of the system having become hybrid is the tendency of the president and governors to rewrite their roles in a marked deviation from convention.

President Dr Arif Alvi is an extremely fine gentleman, learned and cultured. For his qualities of head and heart he is held in high esteem on both sides of the political divide. But he has difficulty in adjusting to the role of a constitutional head of state who is expected to say only what the government advises him to say. Perhaps he wants to be a combative president, always ready to bolster his former party’s position (at present he cannot belong to any party). The other day, he declared that the reference against Justice Faez Isa was correct. No head of state is expected to rubbish an apex court’s judgement, and one delivered by 10 honourable judges (though any Supreme Court verdict is equally sacrosanct).

He was also reported to have said that anyone having grievances against NAB should go to court. But he is not the president of NAB only; he is also president of the people who have complaints against the accountability institution. He is also reported to have said that the 18th Amendment must be reviewed. As president, he is not expected to take sides on a controversial issue.

These lines might appear heretical to some but somebody has to point out what needs to be pointed out in the interest of saving the democratic character of the polity and protecting the dignity of the presidency as well.

Tailpiece: An honourable lawyer petitioned the Lahore High Court for a declaration that the slogan ‘Virus se darna nahin, larna hai’ (We should not be afraid of the virus, we should fight it) be declared un-Islamic. The honourable chief justice has referred the matter to the Council of Islamic Ideology. All good Muslims should pray that the CII does not declare fighting an epidemic un-Islamic because then ghurbat se larna (fighting poverty), jahalat se larna (fighting ignorance), zulm ke khilaf larna (fighting oppression) could also be held un-Islamic. ‘Larna’, a beautiful word, might become obsolete. What would life be worth without the joy of fighting for rights, learning and justice?

Published in Dawn, July 16th, 2020