New agenda for new beginning
By Dr Iram Khan, Dawn, April 1, 2008
THE new prime minister has taken the oath of office. The post-election euphoria is now over. The time for serious business is here. Perhaps never before in the history of Pakistan has any prime minister faced bigger challenges.
But all hope is not lost and with the new government there is talk of a new beginning. This can definitely be a fresh start for a democratic dispensation. This writer would like to suggest some measures that the new government should be taking in its first hundred days.
Turn the president’s house into a library: We are no bibliophiles. Our literacy rate, the number of books published and per capita readership of newspapers is sufficient proof of that. However, this does not mean that we do not have centres of excellence or the country is without impressive libraries. Quaid-i-Azam Library in Lahore, one of the finest around, has been housed in a palatial building that once accommodated a club. Its conversion into a library has symbolic meaning and importance. I propose that the new chief executive should set a precedent by relocating the National Library of Pakistan to Aiwan-i-Sadr. The latter, situated in the heart of Islamabad and representing the spirit and mood of the city, is an ideal location for the library. Placing it at a pivotal point will give the library the prominence it deserves and will symbolise the furtherance of a tradition of scholarship and learning.
Move the PM to ‘modest’ premises: The prime minister currently lives in a Spanish/Portuguese-style villa hidden well behind the Federal Secretariat in the middle of nowhere. This newly built outhouse is reclusive though exclusive and creates the impression of someone living in solitary confinement. The prime minister represents the people of Pakistan and should ideally live amongst them, and if possible in a house similar to theirs. Think of 10 Downing Street in London which, at least from the outside, looks like the same house I lived in as a student in a relatively poor and run-down area of Manchester.
I would propose to the new prime minister that he leave the PM House and move to the ‘Minister’s enclave’, a well-guarded but less secluded locality. It is also in the hub of Islamabad and with scores of houses of similar design and size in that street, it also looks less exclusive. In an elitist society like Pakistan’s, no one expects the prime minister to sit on a prayer mat like Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran or live in a mud house like so many rural Pakistanis, but it is not unfair to expect him to live with other ministers. After all, he is the first among equals.
Dissolve the Prime Minister’s Secretariat: The Prime Minister’s Secretariat is an ever-growing necropolis of bureaucracy. It has centralised, in the name of coordination, many functions that should be performed at the ministry and department levels. The government’s weakening grip on power and decline in credibility are perhaps directly proportionate to the increase in directives being issued from this monolith. Ad hoc orders issued for gaining interim political mileage are followed and coordinated by the PM’s Secretariat to ensure their implementation. That sets the pattern for the chief ministers who also have their own separate secretariats. It so seems that otherwise no one pays heed to the orders of either the prime minister or the chief ministers.
It is pertinent to note that the PM’s Secretariat did not exist at the time of Z.A. Bhutto. In his days, the task of assisting the prime minister in office was performed by the Cabinet Division. The secretariat was created when insecure prime ministers wanted to be seen as well above their cabinet colleagues. Let the new prime minister rely on the Cabinet Division and dissolve the PM’s Secretariat.
Rationalise the privatisation programme: Pakistan has adopted privatisation as an essential component of its economic reform package. Unfortunately, this privatisation looks more like ‘piratisation’ or ‘internationalisation’ of government assets. There have been instances of rogue privatisation deals where public enterprises were sold to interest groups for peanuts. The abortive sale of Pakistan Steel — which was reversed by the Supreme Court — is an example of a dubious transaction that could have taken place under the umbrella of privatisation. I would propose that the new government should adopt a cautious policy towards privatisation and should divest prudently to local investors who can steer flagship Pakistani companies in the international arena.
Milbus: The incumbent army chief has recalled a large number of army officers working on civilian posts. While this needs to be appreciated, there is a need to do more. According to The Washington Post (June 27, 2007), the military reportedly runs a $20bn portfolio of businesses ranging from banks to real estate to bakeries. The new government should ensure that the armed forces of Pakistan are not engaged in business activities. No serving officer ought to be posted in any of its so-called welfare trusts; only retired officers may serve there. The tradition of army generals patronising and heading different business ventures should end.
According to Georges Pompidou, a former French prime minister and president, a statesman is a politician who places himself at the service of the nation. A politician is a statesman who places the nation at his service. The new prime minister has proclaimed that he will act as a servant of the people. We all wish him well but he needs to do more than just rely on his good luck.
The writer is a Visiting Fulbright Scholar from Islamabad currently based in the University of Florida, USA.