Perhaps nothing could have shown the Pakistan Tehreek Insaf (PTI)’s readiness (or otherwise) to take power than its flipflop over the naming of former Punjab Chief Secretary Nasir Mahmood Khosa for the slot of caretaker Punjab chief minister. However, while the deficiencies in the PTI’s decision-making process had a glaring spotlight shone on them, problems with the caretaker mechanism were also highlighted.

Perhaps the biggest loser in the whole affair was Khosa himself. After a lifetime as a civil servant, after having risen to the chief secretaryship of Punjab, he was enjoying a well-deserved retirement, when his country, or rather province, needed him once more, to serve as caretaker Chief Minister. He had been recommended by the PTI, and the PML(N) had no hesitation in accepting the nomination, with the result that his nomination was made public by the Leaders of the House and Opposition in the Punjab Assembly, Mian Shehbaz Sharif and Mian Mehmoodur Rashid. Now Punjab may get a caretaker CM, but the process has been messy.

Then the PTI decision-making process came into play, and PTI chief Imran Khan disowned Khosa, leaving a state of confusion, with some arguing that once the process of consultation was completed, there could be no backtracking, and the designation should take effect. Khosa took the honourable path, and chose to recuse himself. After all, if anyone is nominated for a caretaker position, he can withdraw himself by the simple expedient of refusing to make oath. A former IGP, Nasir Durrani, also withdrew himself from consideration after he was recommended by the PTI. The silence of the others nominated by the PTI, and its being made public, indicates willingness to serve. It also indicates courage, for it means that if one is selected, one could be de-selected again.

As it is, both in KP and Punjab, where the PTI had a hand in selection, the matter ended up going before the parliamentary committees, and then the ECP.

One of the aims of all parties vying for election has been to ensure underdog status, to the extent of claiming that the winner was favoured by the caretakers. This was used by Imran Khan with reference to the 2013 caretaker CM, Najam Sethi. The converse doubt is thus raised this time, that perhaps Khosa was not ready to give the PTI any assurances that it would win. It is also a bad sign for any party that is already seeking excuses to explain away a possible loss.

The PTI probably needs excuses most of all, as the preliminary indications are that it will lose in Punjab, and thus in the whole country. The PML(N) is likely to win enough seats to form the government, but not enough to bring about the constitutional amendments needed to bring back Mian Nawaz Sharif. Therefore, Mian Shehbaz Sharif seems likely to become the next Prime Minister.

Mian Nawaz is not only deeply entrenched in the administrative, but also in the political, structure of the country. That has meant that the establishment is facing difficulties in bringing its favourite to office. That favourite thus needs an excuse to explain, mainly to its own cadres, why it lost. The establishment needs a reason for protest against a future PML(N) government, with such an excuse provided by such confusion in the caretaker set-ups, that the losers can claim the election was not fair.

An aspect of having neutral caretakers supervise the elections, rather than leaving the incumbent governments to supervise them, is that there can be calls for the postponement of the election. There has long been a contrast made between elected governments, where ministers are selected according to their political weight, not their expertise, and governments of experts, which are supposed to result from martial laws. As a wealth of experience has shown; first, having experts head departments need not yield the best results; second, martial law governments do not have a solution of the country’s problems any more than elected ones. However, the idea of prolonging a caretaker government’s life was first tried in Bangladesh, when the caretaker government formed after the end of the Khaleda Zia government in October 2006 stayed in office, backed by the military, until the December 2008 election. In these two years, it was supposed to ensure that corruption was eliminated from politics.

However, Khaleda and old rival Hasina Wazed made a return, occupying once again the political spectrum. Without caretakers in 2013, with Sh Hasina’s government still in office, the opposition boycotted, and she was re-elected. The Bangladesh experiment showed that caretakers could be an excuse for a military takeover without an actual takeover. One major difference between Bangladeshi and Pakistani caretakers was that the former were headed by a Chief Adviser to the President, chosen by the President, preferably the last chief justice, while the latter by a Prime Minister, chosen by consultation between the outgoing PM and the National Assembly Leader of Opposition. The last two caretaker PMs have been Supreme Court judges, while the present incumbent has actually been Chief Justice, thus conforming to the Bangladesh model. It is worth noting that previous holders of the office have been politicians.

However, as Bangladeshi politics has remained an unpurged of corruption as ever, it seems that the prolongation of the caretakers does not work either. Failure has not stopped the military taking over. The Chief Justice and caretaker PM have both said that elections will be held on time, so it seems that the use of caretakers to prevent elections, rather than hold them, has been precluded.

It is worth noting that the entire exercise, of getting ‘clean’ individuals, even if this means military control, is taking a conservative approach. The military, after all, ultimately only holds elections, and the same old corrupt politicians come back. Instead of accepting that something is wrong with the system, that it is failing to fulfil the aspirations of the people, and thus should be replaced, the military and the political class are both insisting on further tweaks within the system.

The PTI is thus not to be seen as the revolutionary party it wants to be seen as. It is working within the system, and only wishes to tweak it, not really change it. The ‘tabdeeli’ slogan refers to improvements of the existing system rather than any real change.

The PTI has made some points in the Nasir Khosa affair. First, it has shown that it does not care about the reputation of any individual. Second, it has shown any future caretakers, as well as those who have taken office, the possible cost of not falling in with the PTI agenda, which is not so much having fair elections, as installing Imran Khan as Prime Minister, with ministries both federal and provincial up for grabs. It was perhaps inevitable with a process involving politicians, notorious for going back on their word, that a situation would arise in which someone involved would reverse a consultation.

Is the solution merely to tighten the consultation process, perhaps to put it in writing? Or does it lie in accepting, painful as it might be, that the process itself contains irremediable defects, not least that a caretaker position becomes an ambition for life after retirement for judges and senior civil servants, the very people whose probity and neutrality is needed while they are in service.

 

n            The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive

editor of The Nation.