NSC in Position

Now that the National Security Council (NSC) bill has been passed by both Houses of Parliament, we should be able to get on with our on-off “democratic” life, the raison d’etre for electing our legislators in the first place. Given that the opposition did not allow themselves to be rolled over, they should accept, albeit grudgingly, what is now a law of the land. If they still feel so strongly about it, and they have the necessary numbers in Parliament sometime in the future, they can always repeal it! Using the streets agitation modus operandi inside of Parliament only strengthens the case of those who want an NSC-like buffer, after all if Parliament is to behave like a fish market, why bother about Parliament?

A school of thought maintains that the presence of the NSC destroys the supremacy of Parliament by giving the Armed Forces absolute authority over the elected bodies. On the other hand, the authors of the NSC bill argue that given Pakistan’s sorry political history of governments being dismissed arbitrarily without completing their tenures, a mechanism to discuss the issues at an elevated decision-maker’s forum instead of jumping directly to the ultimate recourse was required. One cannot argue with the democracy purists who hold that the NSC is a body super to Parliament, that is a fact. And given Pakistan’s history of succumbing easily to authoritarian role, the NSC may very likely be the proverbial Sword of Damocles over Parliament. Given the penchant of our elected representatives to discuss anything but legislation, maybe this is not such a bad thing after all.

It is worth noting that upto (and including) 1958, first the Governor General Ghulam Mohammad and then Governor General-turned-President Iskandar Mirza, made the dismissing of political (and bureaucratic) governments into a fine art, sacking them at will, with or without cause. After Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination (a mystery yet unsolved), the first two dictators in Pakistan were both civilian bureaucrats and they got their support from the higher judiciary, not the Army. People conveniently forget that the Martial Law imposed in early Oct 1958 was initially not an army takeover per se but was imposed by President Iskandar Mirza with the C-in-C Pakistan Army Gen Mohammad Ayub Khan as the PM. It was only when the Army became aware that Iskandar Mirza was planning a wholesale purge of senior officers that a clutch of generals convinced an extremely reluctant Ayub to remove his mentor and send him into exile in a “bloodless revolution” on Oct 27, 1958. Pakistan’s third dictator was the actually the first from the Army.

Pakistan’s fourth dictator could well have been another civilian bureaucrat, Fida Mohammad Khan, who as the senior-most civilian servant issued a notification at the resignation of Field Marshal Ayub Khan of his own pre-eminent position in the pecking order. This did not last one day and Yahya Khan, having set aside Fida’s feeble attempt, became Pakistan’s fourth dictator. With the fall of East Pakistan, the military regime disintegrated, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto not only became the first politician to be a civilian Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA) (and President) but Pakistan’s fifth dictator in Dec 1971. Even though Bhutto authored the 1973 Constitution by which he became PM instead of President, he defaced this excellent document within hours of its unanimous approval by Parliament by suspending key clauses, particularly those pertaining to fundamental liberty and provincial autonomy. Ziaul Haq became Pakistan’s sixth dictator when he took over in a popular coup in July 1977. Meant to last 90 days, his rule ended when Zia died 11 years later in 1988. The COAS Gen Aslam Beg passed the opportunity of assuming Zia’s position and opted for democracy. The subsequent elections brought Ms Benazir to power, with her support Ghulam Ishaq Khan (GIK) was elected President and in due time he proceeded to dismiss two elected governments, first Benazir’s and then Mian Nawaz Sharif’s, effectively becoming Pakistan’s seventh dictator. Since the dismissal of Mian Nawaz Sharif in 1993 was held to be illegal by the Supreme Court, the COAS Gen Waheed Khan was forced to enter the subsequent crisis. Despite the situation being tailor-made for a military takeover Gen Waheed, to his undying credit, politely declined the offer on a platter and instead sent both the President and PM home and installed a caretaker regime to hold fresh elections. This again brought Ms Benazir to power.

Aware of the strength of clause 58 (2) (b) in the hands of the Presidency, the PPP leader went for insurance, nominating for President her close political colleague Farooq Leghari, he was subsequently elected. Less than 3 years later, Leghari turned on his mentor, dismissing the Benazir government in Nov 1996 and installed a caretaker regime, virtually becoming Pakistan’s eighth dictator for a short time. Voted into power in the subsequent elections in Feb 1997, Mian Nawaz Sharif forgot all his promises of maintaining democratic tradition and became virtually a dictator in all but name, removing in succession the President, the Chief Justice and the COAS. When Mian Nawaz Sharif tried one removal too many, General Pervez Musharraf became Pakistan’s ninth dictator. There being nothing official about doing GIK and Farooq Leghari dirty work, the Army decided to go into business on their own by making their presence official.

Civilian bureaucrat dictators being three, Ghulam Mohammad, Iskandar Mirza and Ghulam Ishaq Khan, among the military dictators Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Farooq Leghari (albeit for a very short time) were the two political dictators. All powerful PMs both Ms Benazir and Mian Nawaz Sharif technically escape being labelled as dictators. Counting the governments dismissed, and even Zulfikar Ali Bhutto arbitrarily dismissed two provincial governments, the civilian dictators removed far more governments than the military ones. While this just not justify military takeovers, it does put the record straight. Public perception tends to blame the Army for everything that is wrong with democracy in Pakistan, that is not true. Bureaucrats and politicians are equally to blame, if not more. Barring the Quaid himself, Fazal Elahi Chaudhry and Rafiq Tarar, the Head of State or of Government in Pakistan has always had the tendency towards one-person rule. The NSC is in fact a very necessary check to dilute his (or her) absolute authority.

For those who know Zafarullah Khan Jamali for nearly 50 years, he is no surprise as a successful PM given the political and geo-political circumstances. An urbane well educated person, he showed an early maturity that he has successfully translated into political life. In the presence of a number of active PM-hopefuls in the Cabinet, supported by the machinations of the king-makers outside of Cabinet, the NSC should be a God-sent. Before giving the PM a kiss of death based on the daily rumours fed to him, the President can turn to a structured evaluation, consultation and decision-making process.

In a worst-case scenario the NSC may well become a willing tool for whoever is in power, it is still a constitutionally mandated forum where issues can be discussed prior to any arbitrary decision. The NSC must have a dual role, viz (1) a structured permanent entity on the US pattern and (2) a forum for consultation and crisis decision making. The NSC staff must be the best and the brightest, capable of laying out the facts as they are and not as their superiors would want them. The NSC staff must evaluate all major issues facing the government internally and externally, coalescing all data and information, analyzing them and preparing option papers for the various decision-makers.

The sincerity of the President in having an effective NSC will be on display in the manner he goes about organizing and staffing it. Putting an ignoramus crony in charge will kill the concept. I don’t think Musharraf will fail in this litmus test, basically a well educated organization man who likes a structured approach, the secret of his penchant for taking quick decisions is based on a constant evaluation and consultation process. The NSC gives the country a constitutionally mandated entity for good governance.