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Reborn Election Commission

“Putting pressure and influence on service people, I know”, Mr. Jinnah said in an informal talk with civil servants in Peshawar in April 1948, “is a very common fault of politicians and those with influence in political parties but I hope that you will now, from today, resolve and determine to act according to my humble advice that I am giving you. May be some of you may fall victims for not satisfying the whims of ministers. I hope this does not happen, but you may even be put to trouble not because you are doing anything wrong but because you are doing something right. Sacrifices have to be made and I appeal to you, to come forward and make the sacrifice”. Mr. Jinnah foresaw all this and much more with uncanny prescience and forewarned civil servants against the shenanigans and manipulations of corrupt politicians. However, Mr. Jinnah’s warning went unheeded.

I have been associated with provincial elections since pre-independence days. I was a Presiding Officer in the last provincial election held in 1946 in NWFP under the Raj. I say it without any fear of contradiction that it was a free, fair and impartial election. It threw up a Congress majority party in NWFP. On the other hand, isn’t tragic that the first provincial elections held in NWFP, Punjab and Sindh in 1951, in independent Pakistan were rigged with full official support throughout West Pakistan.

In April 1954, general elections were held for the East Pakistan Legislative Assembly. It threw up a big surprise. In a free, fair and impartial election, Pakistan Muslim League, the King’s Party, was routed by the United Front and effectively eliminated from the political landscape of East Pakistan. Mr. Noor ul Amin, the incumbent Chief Minister, was defeated by a student leader.

Unfortunately, the service we inherited on independence, known for its integrity, objectivity, and political neutrality was, over the years, thoroughly mutilated, demoralized, emasculated, politicized, corrupted, and changed beyond recognition, and is now a ghost of its former self. The most arduous search will not turn up many civil servants anywhere in the country today who perform their duty as servants of the people and the state, fearlessly and honestly, who are not influenced by political pressure from any political party or individual politicians, and who do not have a stake in supporting one political party or another, or one political leader or another.

This species, I regret to say, is now largely extinct. Fortunately, a few officers like Sikandar Raja, seem to have survived. Under tremendous government pressure, Sikandar is performing his duty as Chief Election Commissioner, courageously and without fear or favour. People like him are our unsung heroes worthy of our commendation. Sikandar must not suffer for acting on the advice of Mr. Jinnah.

In Pakistan, the Election Commission’s historic role has been one of subservience to the government in power. Sikandar, the Chief Election Commissioner, broke with the past tradition and changed all that. The nexus between the executive and the Election Commission has snapped. An era of deference by the Election Commission has given way to the independence of the Election Commission. An awesome responsibility rests on the shoulders of Sikandar Raja. The action already taken by him against senior officials involved in the Daska election scandal is unprecedented in the history of the Election Commission.

Honour and probity must be his polar star. He must carry the probe into the Daska rigging to its logical conclusion on top priority. He must see to it that the Code of Conduct, now considered a document of academic interest only, is taken seriously by the political parties and their candidates. Despite facing a volley of criticism that he was exceeding his brief, Sikandar has demonstrated to the people of Pakistan and the entire world that he was no pushover.

When the history of our benighted times comes to be written, it will be noted that the Election Commission under the leadership of Sikandar Raja was the one institution which served the nation most meritoriously in its hour of greatest need. If Constitution and freedom under law survive in Pakistan, it will be only because of the sturdy independence of the Supreme Court and the independent Election Commission.

Today the political landscape of Pakistan is dotted with Potemkin villages. All the pillars of state, with the exception of the Supreme Court and the Election Commission, are dysfunctional. Pakistan sits between hope and fear. Hope because so long as there is a judiciary marked by rugged independence and an absolutely independent Election Commission, the country and the citizen's civil liberties are safe even in the absence of cast iron guarantees in the Constitution. Fear that inspite of a strong and independent judiciary and an independent Election Commission, the present corrupt order will perpetuate itself.

Parliament is one of the chief instruments of our democracy. Today, it is cowed, timid, a virtual paralytic, over-paid and under-employed. Parliamentary membership is the key to material success, a passport and a license to loot and plunder. Who says, it is a check on the arbitrariness of the executive? Nobody takes it seriously. Today it is the weakest of the three pillars of state. It has suffered a steady diminution of power and prestige. Its image is tarnished and has been turned into a fig-leaf for unconstitutional and illegal corrupt practices. Hopefully, now that we have a strong Supreme Court and an independent Election Commission, all this will change. Pakistan’s corrupt, pallid and stunted democracy will come tumbling down like the Berlin Wall. Professor Toynbee poured cold water over my optimism.

“The idea”, Professor Toynbee told me in Peshawar in 1959, “that you can just hold free, fair and impartial election, while everything else remains colonial, feudal and medieval, means you won’t get democracy but some perversion of it as we have today in this country. Elections are necessary but not sufficient. Elections alone do not make a democracy. Creating a democracy requires an inviolable constitution, a sustained commitment to develop all the necessary elements: a transparent executive accountable to the parliament, a powerful and competent legislature answerable to the electorate, a strong, independent judiciary, and a free and independent media. To assume that vote alone will automatically bring about a democratic metamorphosis would be to condemn Pakistan to a repeat of the cycle seen so often in our history: a short-lived period of corrupt, civilian rule, a descent into chaos and then army intervention”.

“The Pakistanis and Indians are inhabitants of the same sub-continent”, Professor Toynbee told me in Peshawar. “They were exposed to the same Western influences under the same Western colonial regime. In 1947, they entered on their careers as citizens of independent, democratic states at the same time. Western parliamentary democracy was their first choice. The success of parliamentary democracy in India so far stands out in sharp contrast to its failure in Pakistan. The difference is not easy to account for adequately”.

“Today, parliamentary democracy is a reality in India. This is greatly to the credit of the Indian people as a whole, but even greater credit is due to the Indian leadership, untainted by corruption, that has been serving the country as a political leaven”.

We have arrived at the epilogue, at the greatest turning point in our history. One feels in the air the sense of the inevitable which comes from the wheel of destiny when it moves and of which men are often the unconscious instruments. It is time to turn the page. The time to hesitate is through. This is a moment of great hope for Pakistan. In this transcendent struggle between the Supreme Court and the independent Election Commission and kleptocracy, neutrality is not an option. You’re either with the people or against them. There is no half-way house.

Where do we stand today? Senate seats up for sale. No cash. No gas. No electricity. A beleaguered Prime Minister. No hope. How can anyone be hopeful in the face of such a litany of misery?