Javed Jabbar: Individuals, More Than Institutions?

“They (angles) may already be here, right under our noses. Concealed and stifled by Institutions? Let’s find them, energize them!”. (Illustration image insert despardes.com)

Published in the May 20204 Issue of South Asia Magazine: While the well-established view about Institutions is that they represent principles, laws, rules, accountability, procedures, values, and permanence beyond normal lifespans of mortal human beings, the actual experience of the world in general and of Pakistan, among other countries closeby as well, proves that Individuals are almost as important — and often, even more so — than Institutions.

Civil or military, legislative or judicial, political parties or special interest groups like trade bodies or sports forums: it is the character and personality of the particular individuals who occupy decisive, direction-setting positions of authority that determine the role that institutions render, either in specific situations of crisis or in broad, long-running trends.

Because one action by a certain individual who subsequently leaves the office of power can create a precedent to be imitated in later years and generations, both by the same institutions and by other institutions as well.

If we accept the unavoidability of the dismissals of the Dr Khan Sahib Congress Party Government in NWFP (now KP) on 22nd August 1947 due to the unwillingness of their leaders to attend the Pakistan flag-raising ceremony, and, in another Province, the dismissal of the Ayub Khuhro Government in Sindh on 26th April 1948 on grounds of visible though not yet legally proven corruption (Ayub Khuhro had earlier opposed the separation of Karachi from Sindh to make it a Federal capital territory without his prior consent as Chief Minister), as trend-setting indicators, then the arbitrary actions of the second Governor-General (Ghulam Mohammad) in 1953 appear to be simply following in the footsteps of the Quaid-i-Azam. That is an inconvenient, uncomfortable fact.

But allowance has to be made for the Quaid’s actions in the fragile country’s first few months of existence. Pakistan had just been created in extremely volatile, violent conditions that made it vulnerable to both external threats and internal — even if unintended— subversion.

The Justice Munir judgement — in the Maulvi Tamizuddin case challenging the Governor-General’s dissolution of the Constituent Assembly — brought the Judiciary into the institutional excess dimension wherein there already existed the two precedents cited above in which Executive authority superseded elected representation. If that dubious, damaging legal verdict was the icing on the cake of distortions being baked, then the finishing touch — or the start of the military’s intrusion into politics — was the foul cherry of making a uniformed officer subject to his own reporting authority. In other words: the disastrous decision by Prime Minister Mohammad Ali Bogra — on the insistence of, and with the approval of the Governor-General and the Defence Secretary Iskander Mirza — to appoint a serving Army Chief in the person of General Ayub Khan as Minister of Defence in his Cabinet. It took only another 4 years or so — aided by the lethal extension given to Ayub Khan — for the Armed Forces to entirely take over political control of the state in October 1958. The rest is sad, weeping history.

In 2024, even as we are aghast at how blatantly military intelligence agencies attempt to influence the superior Judiciary as per the letter signed by six Justices of the Islamabad High Court, and other trans-institutional transgressions are abundant, we also need to remember that, however unfair and unjust the trial process was — during which the accused never once appeared in Court — General Pervez Musharraf was given the death penalty in absentia, a punishment never implemented because the General passed away overseas. Yet it became a verdict upheld by the Supreme Court this year, to become a first-ever expression, and a deterrent- precedent to prevent open future institutional deviations? Do different individuals make a difference to how institutions are conducted?

Yes, they do. From the extremities of the Reko Diq fiasco that cost Pakistan so dearly to the level-headed restraint shown by some succeeding Chief Justices, from the 11-year self-perpetuation of General Zia ul Haq that injured the institution as well as society at large to the admirable, one-term only humility of General Waheed Kakar, from the electoral despotism of Z.A. Bhutto to the truly democratic attitude and actions of M. K. Junejo: the respective temperaments, the goals, the actual actions of these, and other individuals made a palpable, though not necessarily, an enduring difference to how institutions functioned and impacted the nation at large.

Institutions have an inherent tendency to resist reform. Conventional ways of conduct become quasi-sacred traditions. Prospect for major change is seen as a threat rather than as an opportunity for gainful advancement. Re-structuring appears to be de-constructing one’s own validity and legitimacy. But it becomes easier for one institution to introduce reform in other institutions!

A classic example is the National Reconstruction Bureau during the tenure of General Pervez Musharraf 1999-2007. This writer was privileged to be a Member of the Federal Cabinet for the first year, after which I resigned due to policy differences on the road map for the General’s plan to return power to civilian authority. Yet in that first year, it was exhilarating to see how, under the quiet, under-stated leadership of NRB’s Chairman, Lt. General (r) Tanwir Naqvi, the entire edifice of Local Government could be radically re-visualized. With an elected Nazim becoming the pivot for all major departments and services — education, health, public works, etc. — instead of an appointed Deputy Commissioner. Here was an inherently authoritarian institution — the Armed Forces, primarily the Army — creating a genuinely democratic, locally accountable system. Instead of the well-entrenched Federal capital and Provincial-capital-centric edifice preferred by political parties. A refreshing new arrangement emerged. Not necessarily perfect or ideal but certainly a significant step forward in empowering citizens at the grass-roots.

Unfortunately, with the exit of General Musharraf, followed by the 18th Amendment in 2010, the powers of Provincial Governments were vastly enhanced while the powers of the Federal Government were circumscribed. But at the same time, the authority and the innovative structure given through the elected Nazim-led Local Government system was swiftly dismantled. Thus, democratic institutions — the Federal Parliament and the four Provincial Assemblies — demolished the powers of another democratic institution: Local Bodies. The presence — or absence — of individuals made both the progress, and the regression possible. With the election of a PTI-led Government in KP in 2013, the Musharraf-era Local Government system, with changes, came partially back. Which brought only cold comfort on the macro, national level.

The Election Commission of Pakistan’s bizarre, biased conduct vis-à-vis PTI illustrates how an institution within the civil Executive domain can wittingly or unwittingly help the military — also within the Executive domain, though not civil — deepen its influence on electoral processes, specially with the widely questioned, mysterious changes which took place from Form 45 to Form 47 in the results of the 8th February 2024 polls. At the Headship level of both institutions, the individual identities and perspectives of the respective chiefs evidently shaped the outcomes.

There is clearly a need in all institutions to improve existing mechanisms by which persons proceed to the highest levels of authority, as also the need to introduce new mechanisms derived from experience in Pakistan, and in overseas countries. So that, together, only individuals who meet rigorous, inflexible standards and tests of intellectual integrity, possess track records of unblemished professional acumen, display no signs of subjective bias and prejudice rise to command the heights of institutions, which alone can evolve to serve as the abiding, permanent framework for a nation’s fair, just and participative development. Which is like looking for angels — when they may already be here, right under our noses. Concealed and stifled by Institutions? Let’s find them, energize them!

The article was published here.