On Pakistan Day, taking a look at what the constitution was and is

A viable democratic constitution with enduring fundamental features has eluded us

On Pakistan Day, taking a look at what the constitution was and is
As writing editorials and articles for Pakistan Day goes, every year, inevitably much of what is written becomes clichéd. The sordid story of Pakistan’s politics continues to unfold in the same bizarre fashion that has been its trademark for the past 70 years.

The government insists that there is a lot to cheer about, such as the economic turnaround and improvement in law and order. Without belittling the government’s successes on the economic front, we would like to see the larger picture which unfortunately gives reasons to be gloomy.

What has not changed is the bleakness of the life of ordinary people and the monotony of the political landscape. International monetary institutions have applauded the government’s economic programmes and key figures in it have so far generally been free from the taint of corruption.

The government is keen to project a soft image of Pakistan, and there is no doubt that we get bad press abroad, often because the good here does not make news. Terrorism, honour killings and gang rapes regularly hit world headlines.
It is infinitely tragic that we should take decisions in our national interest only after events or powers abroad should force us to

It is also unclear whether the promise of a liberating spring in the air is going to endure, or also lead to a dreary autumn. Has there been a genuine change of heart and direction? Many, including those who back us and applaud us from abroad, believe that the government is sincere in its commitment to get the country back on track.

A fundamental point is who decides what is best for Pakistan. The military has for too long arrogated to itself this right, which belongs to the people and the electorate. Politicians, even those who were elected, grossly distorted the political process. But if there had been no military interventions, from 1958 onwards, we too might have had the kind of democracy that falters in many key areas across the border but also delivers in many others.

If March 23 means anything, it means liberating ourselves from the delusions that we have nursed so far and seeking to build a more modest but a more durable identity for ourselves. It is the strength of our political institutions and our economy that will determine the respect we get from our own people and the international community. This strength can come only through consensus, and no better way has yet been found to arrive at a consensus than free and fair elections. We must be honest about them, and they must be transparent for all to see. Electoral engineering has been tried before by both politicians and military rulers; it has only led to greater chaos. This is a critical time for Pakistan. But when have times not been critical for Pakistan?

It is infinitely tragic that we should take decisions in our national interest only after events or powers abroad should force us to. We should be able to do so on our own. The biggest disappointment is our failure to have a sound political system even 70 years after independence. The most crucial component of a state is the constitution; that is why it is called the Basic Document. In our case, a viable democratic constitution whose fundamental features would endure has eluded us. In the initial stages, the federal character of the country was denied and thus the spirit of the Pakistan Resolution was negated. This ultimately led to the separation of our eastern wing. The 1973 Constitution, although still nominally in existence, has been so badly pummeled that it has been knocked out of shape. This is particularly tragic because there was almost unanimous agreement on it among all sections of representative political opinion.

While this day is celebrated in memory of the historic Lahore Resolution presented on March 23, 1940, we tend to forget that it was also on March 23, 1956, that Pakistan’s first constitution was adopted. This day is, thus, as much a day for remembering the Pakistan resolution as it is for dedicating ourselves to constitutionalism. Here, regrettably, our record is dismal.

Promulgated 62 years ago, Pakistan’s first constitution lasted slightly more than two years, being abrogated by the then president with the full backing of the army chief in October 1958. The next constitution, enacted in 1962, was torn up by General Yahya Khan, who replaced Field Marshal Ayub Khan in 1969, following countrywide disturbances. The only redeeming feature in this otherwise bleak record of despotism is the survival of the 1973 Constitution.

Unanimously adopted by the people’s elected representatives, the Constitution has survived despite countless unconstitutional and extra-constitutional irregularities. First General Zia-ul-Haq carried out arbitrary changes in the basic law to consolidate his rule and foist a theocratic dispensation on the country with the help of some religious parties. The amendments made by him included the infamous 58-2b clause, which gave him the right to dissolve an elected National Assembly and sack the prime minister even if (s)he enjoyed the assembly’s confidence. He used this clause to dismiss his own chosen prime minister.

The deviations from constitutionalism and the four military interventions have done enormous harm to Pakistan’s very soul. Their most pernicious effects are to be seen in the weakening of the federal structure and the rise of ethnic, sectarian and parochial forces. The crisis in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is symptomatic of this malaise. Given the peculiar nature of Pakistan’s demography, provincial autonomy assumes special significance in our kind of federation. Yet, the quantum of autonomy does not seem to satisfy the small provinces. To them, and perhaps to most neutral observers of the scene, Pakistan’s federal structure is based on centralism and in practice intrudes into the provincial share of economic and administrative powers. More unfortunately, while accusing the politicians of being corrupt and unprincipled, the military itself has shown a lack of scruples. Nothing illustrates this better than the way the accountability process has been conducted; favorites have been forgiven and inducted into the government, while those not falling in line have had their due share of trials and jail terms.

All this has served to weaken the government’s moral standing and contributed to a lack of national consensus not just on the political system but on all major facets of national life. Events since 9/11 have turned the world’s focus on Pakistan, our internal scene is monitored abroad the way no other country’s is. Yet chaos, uncertainty and a lack of consensus on all vital issues, from the need or otherwise of big dams, to terrorism, characterize the domestic scenario.

In a protracted struggle between politicians and the army, both have suffered a loss of popular trust. The people have seen the two wrangle as economic and social problems have piled up. It is not as if there has been no progress and development: it would have been impossible to stand still for almost seven decades but the benefits of development have been unevenly spread, and mostly have accrued to the privileged classes.

Most of all, there is a sense of general disorientation: we do not know where we are heading and what we want to make of our country. There has to be a future for Pakistan beyond all the skullduggery of the past and the present. In recognized democracies, constitutions form the bedrock and are honed as they evolve and work without interruptions. Pakistan unfortunately never have had a long and uninterrupted period of constitutional rule. No wonder, we never got a chance to work a democratic system. Every constitution needs amendments if it is to respond to changing political realities and stay as a basic law. These amendments are done through a built-in mechanism in every democracy. In our case, however, amendments are invariably made by Bonapartist rulers to suit their purpose.

At present the 1973 Constitution needs many changes, the most important being in the clauses relating to provincial autonomy. Regretfully, provincial autonomy has fallen victim to political rhetoric even after the 18th constitutional amendment. How else can one explain the absence of a serious debate on the issue? In fact, even those shouting the loudest about provincial autonomy have failed to come up with a clause-by-clause analysis of the Basic Law and present a realistic scheme of division of power.

Pakistan can head towards stability and consolidation if the constituent units are given a strong stake in its strength and vitality. This means not only economic development in ignored provinces and regions but also a proper devolution of powers from the centre downwards.

For the people at large, democracy essentially means a proper sense of participation at all levels of government, federal, provincial and local. There is neither freedom from want for millions living in urban slums and the less developed regions nor freedom for the creative urges of the people to find expression that lend dynamism to a country. It is no pleasure, year after year, to repeat a litany of failure. But we must squarely confront the challenge of discovering our political direction and identity if we want the times to come to be more purposeful and productive.

The writer is a barrister-at-law and managing director of the Pakistan Bait-ul-Mal