The most precious, as well as the most scarce, commodity a developing country has is ‘time’.

Vis-à-vis time, man is ever in loss, except those who develop a deep conviction and translate this conviction into a positive, productive and wholesome action. And the two qualities that help sustain such effort are truth and fortitude.

In today’s Pakistan, the people, for quite some time, have been losing faith. A sense of disappointment prevails. Except for one or two areas, the institutions have suffered continuing deterioration. In the international human development surveys, we are at the very bottom of the scale. Our track record in most of the fields is poor.

There is a saying that things have to be worse before they are better; we certainly are on the brink of a disastrous future - economically, politically and socially. Our population is increasing rapidly. Almost half of the people are illiterate. A hot war is going on in parts of our north-western areas. Hundreds of thousands of people in these places have been displaced. Terrorism is on the rise. Already more than 40,000 Pakistanis have been killed. The armed forces casualties exceed 6,000. Our largest and most strategically located province has been destabilised. There is a growing sense of alienation amongst the Balochis. Our largest city has had seldom a day, when seven or eight people are not targeted – i.e. killed. Human security is at a very low ebb. Our debt has hit the ceiling. Our fiscal and trade deficits are dangerously high. And there has been hardly any foreign investment. Our own capital is flying out. Corruption scandals keep surfacing every other day.

But are there any redeeming features or factors? These may be cited as the higher judiciary, the media and a restrained Army Chief. The media and the higher courts have provided the much needed checks and balances. The army’s restraint, despite provocative poor performance and corrupt political behaviour, have contributed towards the Assemblies completing their constitutional terms.

Another unexpected happening was the out-of-the-blue return of Dr Tahirul Qadri, who shook the prevailing system and raised awareness about the crucial role of an impartial and powerful Election Commission and how it should play a historic role to screen out the dishonest and corrupt elements from the electoral process. Imran Khan is another voice for change. His call for a ‘new Pakistan’ has evoked a responsive chord, particularly from the youth.

With the induction of caretakers at the centre and the provinces, and the screening out by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) in terms of the requirements of Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution, the hopes for better elected men and women have risen. Already many a politically strong men and women have been debarred from contesting the elections. (Because of the lack of clear-cut instructions, the returning officers have been raising unnecessary and sometimes inappropriate questions while scrutinising the nomination papers.) 

The Supreme Court too has been working beyond the call of duty to bring the culprits to book and boost the ECP’s resolve to ensure fair elections. The latest Human Rights Commission report has criticised it for exercising its power, rather than its jurisdiction and encroaching on political space. These remarks are not without weight, but who else was there to undertake the job it has been doing when the executive went berserk in the pursuit of pilferage and pelf?

What kind of contribution can the caretaker cabinets make? Their first and foremost task is to ensure that the ECP succeeds in doing its job to organise fair, free and transparent elections. The ECP has to be given maximum support. The keeping of peace and maintenance of law and order is a must. Of course, all sensitive and strategic posts should be manned by competent and non-partisan civil servants. This exercise, however, need not grow into an all-round and unnecessary reshuffling. Because of the short span of time, no major plans and reforms can be undertaken. But steps can certainly be initiated to move towards good governance and improved delivery of services.

Of late, the police have suffered unpopularity because of the wayward behaviour of their field staff, particularly at the thana level. The police are meant to provide protection to the citizens, not to oppress them. Also, they have to be on their toes to ward off threats from the terrorists.

On Tuesday, the Punjab Governor addressed the outgoing Pakistan Administrative Service probationers at the Civil Services Academy and uttered words of wisdom to the young officers. He recalled a piece of advice given to him by his father: “Son, always stand up when a poor man comes to see you and if you find him “stinking”, embrace him.”

One wonders, how much of this particular gesture has been actually followed? Was it just rhetoric? In any case, it was an interesting idea. We have also to understand that mere politeness is not enough. If the poor are to be really honoured, we have to create conditions for them to be less dependent, more skilful, productive and self-reliant.

It is easy to blame the government servants. Civil services, barring some exceptional cases, have by and large earned an unenviable reputation. One reason for it, seldom highlighted, is the example set by the politicians-in-power, their unreasonable demands and their disregard of rules and regulations. An honest and upright officer finds it very difficult these days to accommodate the minister’s wishes and violation of prescribed policy and procedures.

Over time, for sheer personal and professional security and comfort, the government servants have become malleable. Much of the corruption and misconduct on the part of the government employees is due to the environment in which they have to work. A number of corruption scandals taken up by the Supreme Court bring out the shenanigans of the ministers and the willy-nilly willingness of the officers to oblige them and make hay on the side for themselves as well.

These observations may not apply to caretaker ministers, as they are mostly technocrats and professionals. Hopefully, they will find officers working for them, cooperative and competent enough to make a success of their initiatives and interventions.

What can the caretakers do, given the short time and their limited mandate? They certainly can introduce improvements in the performance of some of the institutions and set good examples of personal behaviour. If they remain easily accessible and make it a point to be helpful, they, even in a short span of time, can do a lot of good, especially to the deprived and the disadvantaged.

Another desirable approach on their part would be to find time to meet representatives of the outstanding NGOs. Such contacts will bring in excellent suggestions on how pro-people projects and activities could be undertaken and bureaucratic inertia broken for achieving results. Many NGOs have done a remarkable job and government may, with advantage, learn from the good practices evolved by them.                  

The writer is an ex-federal secretary and ambassador, and a freelance political and international relations analyst. Email: pacade@brain.net.pk