A Single-Point Agenda for a Better Pakistan

By Anjum Altaf

I believe strongly that single-point agendas can reverse the continuing decline in Pakistan. The catch, of course, is the unlikelihood of agreeing on one. But there too, I am hopeful enough to make the case.

There are literally thousands of civil society organizations (CSOs) with, rightly so, their own local objectives. The good ones among them are making a difference in their limited domains. The impact at the level of society, however, remains insignificant. This is inevitable given that the organizations are focused on many different tasks, pulling, as it were, in different directions. The cumulative impact is real but diffused.

I believe that without abandoning their local objectives, CSOs can exercise collective influence by agreeing additionally on one global single-point agenda every year. All of them would then pull in the same direction corresponding to the nature of the agenda adopted for that year. The weight of numbers would make itself felt at least to an extent greater than we have been able to exercise to date.

We can find mechanisms for a democratic choice of the annual single-point agenda for which the CSOs would then lobby collectively. This would be different from an Imran Khan-type dharna which is also focused on a few major demands, e.g., an end to corruption and clean election practices, but, for one, is very much top-down, one man’s crusade in the old populist style of politics that has been found wanting in the past.

For another, its demands are such that except for die-hard loyalists not enough people are convinced that Imran Khan could deliver – his party includes leaders who were allegedly on the wrong side in the past. This is inevitable given the structure of parliamentary democracy in Pakistan – it is virtually impossible to win a plurality without compromising with traditional power brokers.

The choice of single-point agendas has to be such that they bring together citizens across the various divides – ethnicity, sect, class, etc. – that ruling groups use to fracture popular movements. Single-point agendas that are impervious to such divisive possibilities are therefore necessary as starting points to have some hope of success.

But even within such single-point agendas, there are critical choices – some would require much more resources than others. Take for example the demand to provide clean water to all. There is no conceivable reason for the failure to do so in the 21st century – the underlying technology is among the simplest. However, the state can plead lack of resources as it has for decades. Similarly, the right to education is a unifying demand but one should anticipate the divisions that would ensue on the content of education.

I have a suggestion for a single-point agenda that is free of such constraints. CSOs should lobby to transfer the prerogative of appointing the chief executives of public sector organizations (PSOs) from the state to civil society. The benefit-cost ratio would be infinite simply because the costs are zero and the benefits, as all would agree, significant. There is little doubt that competent leadership of PSOs can make a huge difference to their performance.

In theory, the state has a claim on such appointments by virtue of being the principal owner of PSOs. However, the state exercises this prerogative on behalf of the citizens who are the true owners and who have delegated the responsibility to their representatives. Given that the state has so grossly and scandalously abused this trust over decades, citizens are within their right to take it back into their own hands.

There is need to lobby for the creation of an independent appointments commission free of state control. Although it is possible to delegate the authority to a bi-partisan committee in parliament, the track record of parliamentarians in Pakistan does not inspire confidence that the arrangement would yield the desired results.

The appointments commission ought to be completely under the control of civil society and comprised of a mutually agreed board of private citizens who have established their credibility over a lifetime of service. It would distract from the subject to suggest names at this stage but I can allude to individuals from the past who would have been eminently qualified had they been alive. I would confidently have nominated people like Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan, Professor Karrar Hussain, Justice Rustam Kayani, and Justice A.R. Cornelius, among others. Individuals of similar integrity exist today and would step in to serve the country.

This proposal might seem far-fetched but is very doable. It is also a necessity at this point in time and just raising consciousness about the issue would be a major contribution. Above all, it is a unifying objective that does not call for resources except for the allocation of time divided over millions of citizens. All we need are a few brave CSOs to step forward and organize the challenge.

Anjum Altaf is the provost at Habib University. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on February 15, 2015 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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