Ours is the story of a society that has been going round and round in aimless circles for 65 years. We have still not been able to define our national identity and evolve a political system needed for a multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic population. Our quest for survival has been as compelling as it has been uncertain. Woefully, as a newly-independent nation, we just could not cope with the challenges of freedom inherent in our geopolitical and structural fault lines. Language became our first bête noire. We are still possessed by the same ghosts in the name of culture, ethnicity and history.

The problem is that the overbearing feudal and tribal power structure in Pakistan has been too deeply entrenched to let any systemic change take place. It does not suit them. They have always resisted reform in the country, which they fear will erode their vested power and influence base. No wonder, we are currently experiencing the worst-ever governance crisis of our history. The nation desperately looks for someone with integrity and vision and an able team to remake the State of Pakistan like Malaysia’s Mahathir and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew did.

We must remember that the Pakistan of 1947 could not survive even for 25 years. We cannot afford to remain complacent spectators any longer. Despite the 1973 constitution, the remaining Pakistan continues to face threat of further disintegration mainly due to unaddressed structural problems inherent in our federal system. To avert the vicious cycle of known tragedies, we need a serious and purposeful “national effort” involving a holistic review of our governmental system to be able to evolve a national ‘remedial and recovery’ plan before it is too late.

Unfortunately, when the gravest of problems stare us in the face, we tend to ignore them only because we can’t do anything about them. As an expression of our helplessness, we just like to carry on with life, at times even ridiculing those who speak of the need for things to be set right. As a country and as a nation, at this critical juncture in our history, we cannot leave ourselves to the vagaries of time or at the mercy of a flawed system. We can’t even innocently continue to believe that everything will be all right, magically or providentially.

Instead of always blaming “outsiders” for our domestic problems, we should have the courage to admit that there is something fundamentally wrong with our own governance patterns. Our systemic aberrations are the root cause of our governance failures. Our problems are not external; our problems are domestic. Our foremost priority is to fix the fundamentals of our state and governance. Elections alone will not make any difference. The system itself must change. Reason, not self-serving emotion should be our yardstick.

Given our pathetic performance in our political conduct and discipline since our independence, we, like most developing countries, are not yet fit for the parliamentary system. Britain struggled for centuries to reach its current parliamentary status. For us, it would be too long and too arduous a journey to be indefinitely chasing illusory goals. Even Quaid-i-Azam had doubts about the practicality of parliamentary system in Pakistan and seemed to prefer presidential system for our country. Temperamentally, we are a ‘presidential’ nation. It is time we abandoned the system that we have never been able to practice. Let’s opt for an adult franchise-based ‘presidential system’ suitably tailored to Pakistan’s needs.

We would also be better off with ‘proportional electorate’ system to ensure representation of political parties in national legislature proportionate to the percentage of popular vote they receive. It will provide greater access to non-feudal, non-elitist educated middle class people in elected assemblies. In order to develop a truly democratic culture in the country, our political parties need to be remade through their mandatory democratisation.

Hereditary succession of leadership must be banned and the parties be required by law to have regular intra-party elections by secret ballot and strictly enforced ethical standards and codes of conduct.

Also needed is rationalisation of our federal system by revisiting our current ‘provincial architecture’ looking for pragmatic solution to the problems of regional disparities. Our provincial system is not only fuelling misrule and corruption, but also aggravating a sense of inequality among different parts of the country. Our constitution does not provide solution to the genuine concerns on the inequality of the size of provinces and lopsided sharing of political and economic power. The need for drastic change in our present anachronistic federal setup is urgent to get rid of the outmoded political structures in our country.

Looking at the systems of other developed and developing countries, we find ourselves a unique example of a federation with almost no parallel anywhere in the world. No country in the world is divided on ethnic-linguistic basis, and no country roughly equal to Pakistan’s geographical and population size has so few and so large provinces. In any parochially-divided or unequal setup, no method of governance will work. It is a system designed for paralysis, which we are already experiencing. Our present provincial setup has long been the cause of political instability with an ever-looming threat to the country’s very survival.

Pakistan is known to have over 20 languages and nearly 300 distinct dialects. This diversity contributed to chronic regional tensions and provincial disharmony that not only impeded the process of constitution-making, but also remained a potential threat to central authority. Lately, there have been demands for more provinces on ethnic or linguistic grounds. If this trend were to continue, we will be left with a loosely wired skeleton of a federation with self-serving, disgruntled and corrupt politicians playing havoc with this country.

The preferable solution lies in replacing the present four provinces with at least 40 administratively-determined provinces with some balance in their geographical and population size, free of ethnic and parochial labels but still constitutionally keeping their ethnic and national identities intact. This will also free the country of at least one tier of known redundancy and corruption with huge savings to be available for the wellbeing of the people. But if our traditional mindset does not allow this change to happen, we could still restructure the federation by retaining the present four ethnic-linguistic-based provinces redesignated as ‘states’ (like India) only as the federating units of Pakistan with constitutionally redefined role and status.

The functions of the four ‘states’, headed by an elected governor as representative of the federation, should be limited only to an oversight and supervisory role over the provincial and district governments in their respective jurisdiction and maintaining liaison with the central government in terms of administrative, judicial, police, law and order, and financial matters. In this task, the four ‘states’ will need very small functional secretariats for supervisory and coordination role.

In order to separate governance from ethnic-linguistic considerations, all administrative responsibilities should be transferred to the local levels obviating the need for state chief ministers, cabinets, assemblies or large secretariats. Each ‘state’ should be divided into 10 or more ‘provinces’ as administrative units keeping a balance in their geographical and demographic size. To avoid large-scale fresh re-demarcation of land boundaries and re-channelling of irrigations canals and tributaries, the existing ‘divisions’ and large districts could be converted into provinces and headed by elected administrators with a suitable title.

Districts should become the basic unit of governance each headed by an elected person with prescribed eligibility criteria. By dividing the country into smaller administrative units as provinces, we would not only be eliminating the causes of regional acrimony and discontent, but also ensuring effective and efficient governance through elected bodies at local and grassroots levels.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.  Email: shamshad2001@hotmail.com