Quest for Absolute Power


President Chandrika Kumaratunga of Sri Lanka first suspended Parliament for two weeks and sacked three ministers, that of Defence, Interior and the Media, from the Cabinet. For good measure she declared emergency a day later, giving herself wide powers to deal with the expected reaction from the PM Ranil Wikramasinghe, who was away on an official visit to the US. Just before he met the US President, the Sri Lankan PM said her extreme actions would lead to chaos and anarchy. Initially ambivalent, the US thereafter leaned for the PM and democracy. Kumaratunga was elected President in 1999, within two years the opposition had routed her party in Parliamentary elections, the President has been at odds with the PM since. The reason for the present crisis stems from the President’s belief that the government has given too many concessions during Norwegian-sponsored negotiations with the LTTE (Tamil Tigers). Very importantly, the Sri Lankan Armed Forces seem to share this perception, for good measure they got sweeping draconian powers under the emergency. Does it sound familiar?

Before the Pakistani PM’s official visit to the US in late September, there were strong rumours that he was going to be replaced, a couple of paid lobbyists worked overtime suggesting that in fact the whole democratic system would be sent packing and a Presidential system would be put in place alongwith a favoured technocrat as PM. As Mark Twain would say, “the rumours of the PM’s political demise were greatly exaggerated”, not to say that it might not still happen. There are similarities between Pakistan and Sri Lanka about the sharing of powers between the Head of State and Head of Government and the sequence of consequences thereof, Parliament has frequently been dissolved and Pakistan PMs shown the door. A stability of sorts existed till Mian Nawaz Sharif took away the all-important escape clause of article 58 (2b) in a bid to cover all loopholes to his possible ouster, it backfired! There does seem to be an intermediate ground in Sri Lanka which allows for limited and specific action against recalcitrants. Our legal minds need to study the Sri Lanka system and modify the relevant clauses in the Constitution so that the Army Is not force-marched in by blunders of the Mian Nawaz Sharif-kind. A balance of power is necessary, time to set aside our petty domestic squabbles and cope with the many more important issues that the country is saddled with.

One prime issue is how to get the Establishment to work with the politicians in government, if not be duly subservient as servants of the State. At the moment the Establishment is broadly divided between those bureaucrats who, viz (1) dutifully follow the process of good governance and are purely professionals (2) favour the party in power and (3) are under clouds for supporting the previous party in power (and are mostly now either officers on special duty (OSD) or in positions of least influence). While the PM may be Head of Government, everyone knows where the real power center is. While pure professionals are hard put to control the negative urges of the political party assuming the reins of government, they have also to contend with their politicized colleagues who have been in the cold and want to enjoy their new place and moment in the political sun. Their best intentions notwithstanding, the professionals are slowly and reluctantly pushed into an alliance with those bureaucrats who are opposed to the government in power. This is compounded because every government brings with itself political aides that fan out to occupy various sinecures, their performance directly proportional to their own honesty and capability. For the most part, they are in “business” on a very personal agenda. The recalcitrant bureaucracy became uneasy bedfellows tending to gravitate towards the real power center in the country, the President. The situation is now ripe for trouble, despite the most sincere and best intentions of the President he is fed on a daily diet of the misdemeanors of those forming the government, their inadequacies are laid bare ad nostrum. The bureaucrats allied to the President’s camp proceed to make the PM’s men (and women) accountable on every issue under the sun while interfering with the process of governance, life become difficult for many ways. The men in power can only retaliate in similar bureaucratic ways known to them, in short order personal conflicts of no consequence at the lower level gain momentum and are magnified into real and/or imagined differences between the President and the PM, this eventually leads to the sacking of the PM. No one can really suggest that this is the only reason, or even the major one in the normal President-PM fallouts, this infighting aggravates all other problems, acting as a catalyst for any crisis.

To add to this cauldron of problems is induction of serving and retired military men to take up bureaucratic appointments. More than in any other military regime, this has been more widespread during Pervez Musharraf’s tenure. This has resulted in creation of another divide, that between the bureaucrats and the armymen-turned-bureaucrats. There is a strong resentment among the civilian bureaucracy against their presence in the sacred corridors of actual power, this is another area of conflict muddying the process of governance. Any President with an Army background will favour his fellow-khakis, Ghulam Ishaq Khan as President titled strongly towards his fellow civilian bureaucrats. Tussles for power between different players within the government process remains a fact of life in all countries, these need to be minimized because it cuts into the services that the office-holders are meant to provide the stakeholders of the nation, the common man suffering from this diversion of time and effort.

Another tussle develops when the army fades away from total control of the reins of government. During any military regime the regular police functions as the prime arbiter of law and order, assiduously following the dictates of the army. The Army almost never uses the available police powers itself except during the strictest of martial laws. This limited ceding of authority by the police is done very grudgingly despite the fact that there are many ex-servicemen in the rank and file, from the Inspector General (IG) Police to the lowest constable. Within the police there remains a resentment against army-inductees especially if they enter on a lateral basis and are not competitively recruited. Whenever a military regime is in place there is a simmering resentment in the police, it shows its ugly face from time to time. In the case of any army-civil disagreement, and it is usually at a level lower than that of officers, it becomes a proper confrontation. As the Army releases their grip on the controls of the country, the police tend to take out their resentment and frustrations built up during their long period in the cold playing second fiddle in preserving law and order. This is particularly true wherever the police are sensitive to areas they regard as their sacred reserve.

In a quest for power there are many different players pursuing separate agendas, all this cuts into the process of good governance. Each of these conflicts is potentially dangerous but when the forces of law and border themselves come into confrontation with each other, if not physically at least psychologically, it can only be at the expense of peace and tranquility for the common man. In our search for a secure and better place under the sun, one needs a systematic and dispassionate evaluation of the potential conflicts within the Establishment, the dangers thereof and the need to explain to the protagonists what havoc such confrontation can play on the economic and social fabric of the nation as well as the well-being of its populace.