The new federal government has duly performed its first duty, by presenting the budget for 2013-14. But the haste with which it was obliged to do so after the May 11 election indicates that the concept of accountability to Parliament is not all that much. The budget is supposed to be a make-or-break occasion for the government, and the Finance Minister’s budget speech is supposed to be a statement of government policy. While ordinary people want to know its taxation proposals, parliamentarians want it so that they can plan their own speeches on the subject. The budget debate is actually a wide-ranging and inclusive exercise, in which any and every aspect of government policy may be discussed. Apart from the budget speech, the highlight of this year, the winding up of the debate also falls to the Finance Minister. The budget presented includes a number of demands for grants, which have to be each individually passed by the House, with it finally passing the Finance Bill, which consists of the changes made in the taxation system that already exists in the form of laws already passed by the House. It is, thus, an obvious means of accountability across the whole range of government. In addition, the survival of the government depends on its ability to get the budget passed. Even a cut motion, for a mere rupee on a grant of billions, is regarded as an issue of confidence, and its passage would oblige the government to resign. In Pakistan, a refusal to resign would lead to the passage of a vote of no-confidence in the government. This would be only logical, for it would mean the government does not have the ability to pay its officials.The sequence of events this year has reinforced the thesis presented by David Frost, the famous TV host, and Anthony Jay, the former British Ambassador to Washington in their 1967 book titled “The English”, a tongue-in-cheek look at the UK, that politicians are basically just meant to provide PR for the real government, which consists of the permanent officials, the civil servants. After arguing that the real rulers are the civil servants, not the politicians, “The English” goes on to say: “The question arises, if the civil servants are doing the governing, what are the politicians doing? Well, what is it their habits seems to suggest? What use is there in their habit of mingling with all sorts and conditions of people; their habit of reading all manner of newspapers and periodicals; their habit of inviting their constituents to come and tell them their troubles; their habit of trying to detect and interpret even the slightest changes in the public mood and atmosphere, and then trying to find ‘policies’ that will suit these changes? These, of course, are not the arts of government. But they ‘are’ the arts of advertising and public relations. They are handling the PR and advertising for the true, concealed government of the civil servants.“If one equates government with management and politics with public relations, the parallels are obvious. Management and government are concerned with solving problems; politics and PR with shelving them. Management and government are about long-term realities; politics and PR about short-term appearances. Management and government are about finding the right course of action; politics and PR are about finding the right form of words. Management and government are about precise instructions; politics and PR are about vague promises. Management and government are about steering a ship on a long, steady voyage; politics and PR are about surf-riding, catching the wave of public opinion with their ‘policy’. Management and government are about making the right choices; politics and PR about making sure they cannot be proved to have made the wrong ones.“Once it is understood that politicians are public relations officers for their publicity-shy bosses, the Civil Service, the permanent secretaries, Parliament and politics become intelligible. Their power is the power of the PR man, who decides the form and timing of announcements, who can sometimes influence events by saying to a firm that’s in a bad way, ‘we cannot accept your account unless you change certain products or practices because we know and we are experts in this’ – elected representatives are often very helpful to those who govern…....”Sounds familiar? Well, it should. After all, the government consists of an inheritance from the Raj, and if it is seen that PML-N government is merely the PR arm of the government, there is more sense to be made of the situation than if the coming compromise on national sovereignty, in the form of being subject to continued drone attacks, and of having to go for more loans, were to be seen as acts of a government without any internal compulsions. Only two possibilities exist. First, the PML-N, despite the lessons of the recent general election, is contemptuous of the voter, especially at the beginning of its tenure, which it would presumably want to last the full five years. Second, it does not really control events, or even the government.One of the not-so-hidden factors in Pakistani politics has been the army. It has not just made four coups, but even when the army has not been ruling, it has had a large say in national politics. In other words, it has been somewhat like the British Civil Service. It has never allowed itself to be used by politicians to perpetuate their rule, and where it has ruled directly, it has sought politicians to come forward and support it. In other words, it has summoned the PR men to come forward to perform their job. PR people are not just useful, they are essential.The current budget does not reflect the priorities of the party that has just taken office, but of the Finance Ministry officials. The government has to own responsibility for the budget that has been presented, but since the preparation for the next budget starts the moment the budget is unveiled, and continues until it reaches a climax in around March or April, when most budgets are finalised, it has had little hand in the preparation of the budget. One sign of this is that there was only token genuflection made to loadshedding, even though it was being expected that there would be some measures announced. This reflects more a bureaucratic system of establishing priorities rather than a political, and goes to show that the budget speech is really the centrepiece of an elaborate PR exercise to make the unpalatable budget acceptable to those who will have to shoulder the burden of taxes.

The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.