For cultivating political stability in a country, two fundamental things are extremely important: the devolution of power to the grassroots level, and economic growth through fiscal responsibility and visible socioeconomic prosperity that is available to the general public. Without these two characteristics of a nation-state, the democratic nature of a country’s political system can be vulnerable to destabilization of varying degrees.
Devolution of power is a good slogan but only in election manifestos, but in real-term policy implementation, it implies the creation, and functioning thereof, of autonomous civil service bodies at town and municipal levels. Since these bodies have small and easily-manageable constituencies, addressing the issues and problems of the public becomes rather easier. Centralized governments are either insensitive towards, or unaware of, local problems; which can thus fester and transform into larger-scale problems at the provincial or even federal level.
These problems mostly relate to law and order issues such as the spectre of terrorism. This menace has its roots in the absence of democratic institutions in FATA since 1947. Furthermore, these also relate to health issues such as polio, which has been acknowledged by the WHO to be in the epidemic stage in Pakistan. Local governments simply by virtue of proximity to the people are better positioned than Federal or Provincial representatives to address the public grievances. Administrative power makes it impossible for the representatives to ignore their constituency, especially if the latter has the power to recall its administrators.
Historically, the rulers of Pakistan have been but rarely answerable to the general public. However, local bodies are in a better position to end the sense of alienation between the people and the government. Out of Pakistan’s four provinces, so far only Balochistan has enacted provincial-level legislation that devolves power to local government institutions. Moreover, the definition of democratic characteristics and its measures of effectiveness have yet to be defined by the provincial legislatures. So far only Sindh has the latest legislation which it can either implement or improve upon to create modern local government organizations.
Highly relevant to all three tiers of effective democratic governance are also fiscal responsibility and efficient management of the economy. Fiscal responsibility doesn’t only mean progressive taxation or austerity measures. It also means expanding the existing tax net without further burdening the masses; along with greater spending on human and infrastructure development’ particularly sustainable improvement in visible infrastructure and state services ‘ as opposed to debt servicing and avenues of government spending with little or no economic returns. Even the salaries of government employees should not fall in this category, since they are the human resource of the state, and their remuneration should be commensurate to their level of service and to the purchasing power of a citizen of a rank equivalent to them in society.
While a 15% increase in tax collection is a welcome sign, it still does not fully realize the potential of Pakistan’s existing taxpayer base.Historically the rulers of Pakistan have been but rarely answerable to the general public. However, local bodies are in a better position to end the sense of alienation between the people and the government.
Pakistan urgently needs policies to increase tax collection from the existing tax net of the country. This means that tax collection increases without the addition of new taxes or tax brackets, and that the taxpayers are given indirect incentives (such as better state services) besides direct incentives (such as the tax amnesty scheme launched by the present government). While a 15% increase in tax collection is a welcome sign, it still does not fully realize the potential of Pakistan’s existing taxpayer base. This is not just because the tax base does not truly reflect the total amount of the population that can and should pay the tax, but also because those who do end up paying taxes are not being incentivized. While they fulfil their responsibility to keep the government running and to keep the state financed, the government and state, in turn, are not able to provide law and order, consistent electricity, cheap gas, and other such essential services to the taxpayers (and the general public).
Pakistan’s political temperature has risen since the advent of this year’s summer: the PTI has taken to rallies and protests against the ‘rigging’ of the May 2013 General Elections. Detractors say that if these elections were rigged, then the PTI’s mandate in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is also questionable. The PML-N’s main slogans received some sort of actualization, but not enough to keep the general public happy or to give the opposition reasons to think twice before going out on the street in protest. In Pakistan, people rarely know what constructive criticism is, and if they do, then the government responds by acts of fear rather than fixing its mistakes.
From the policy aspect, it is direr to think about what can be done. Local bodies’ elections and other measures to devolve power to the people at the grassroots level ‘ in manageable administrative units ‘ is a measure of good governance that can be achieved much sooner than fiscal responsibility. While local bodies can be established by provincial legislation, as has been done in Baluchistan, fiscal responsibility requires time, dedication and consistency, since any economic policy in Pakistan bears its results with a lag period of two to three years. This means better fiscal and monetary policies within the country, along with tightening control over prices, and external policies like enhancing trade, reducing overall aid, will have to be followed for at least two to three years before the public actually benefits from them.
The same goes for new power plants and service provision of natural resources such as natural gas. For the former, it would be much better for the government to keep the existing power supply units financed and fully maintained with fuel stockpiles, so that the existing generation capacity can be fully utilized. Policies to eliminate circular debt and restrain the power generation sector from being victimized by it again in the future should also be implemented and, in fact, enshrined in legal ‘stones’ so that they continue to protect the general public and the economy.
Political destabilization can be staved off by effective governance and by devolution of administrative powers along with better economic policies which are effectively implemented. With other existential threats to the state like law and order, terrorism, radicalism, disease epidemics, and a myriad of other issues that require urgent attention at least two basic fundamentals of political stability must be ensured by federal as well as provincial governments. This not only strengthens the writ of the State, but also ensures that it is extended to areas previously neglected.
The opposition would be improving the government’s performance through the existing legal platforms by providing constructive criticism through novel legislation. But that is not their responsibility alone. To point out areas where the government can improve professional organization, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), along with the civil society (and the media too, if it can reacquire its image of a responsible and united institution) and the general public, must continue to play their role in a manner that serves the interests of all. The essence of national unity has, within itself, an embedded sense of national responsibility, which makes it incumbent on all patriotic people and organizations to forget parochial interests and come together for the greater good of the country, no matter who is in power and who would take the credit. In the end, it really does not matter who takes the credit for improving law and order, reducing inflation, or making daily life liveable in Pakistan again: because the direct beneficiaries of these improvements will be the people of Pakistan.
When the government speaks of improving Pakistan’s ‘soft image’ abroad, it should also pay equal attention to improving the state’s own image at home. Both the short term improvement (devolution of power) and long term progress (fiscal responsibility leading to economic growth and visible welfare gains) must be implemented instantly. One can lead to immediate effectiveness in government because of the obvious benefits of decentralized governance mentioned above, whereas the other requires consistency and continuity in order to yield benefits for the masses and can also be further improved upon to suit different situations faced by the economy at different points in time.