Shall we tell the Governor?

Published in The Express Tribune

Perhaps the least likely news to emerge on 9 November wasn’t that Donald Trump had won the presidency; it was that Ishrat-ul-Ebad Khan had lost the governorship.

The 30th Governor of Sindh, Mr. Ebad reigned 14 years; a distinction better suited to warlords than doctors from Dow Medical. His fans tell us he was the ultimate crisis man (though that may’ve been because crisis was constant).

Come rain or shine, despot or democrat, Mr. Ebad survived in Sindh longer than anybody else. The lack of a high profile helped; the lack of term limits helped even more.

And since governors are beyond the grimy business of elections or accountability, Mr. Ebad departed the same way he came in: a thousand questions asked, but no answers given. He flew in from London to assume office; he flies out to Dubai now at its end.

His successor, Justice Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui, has pledged to maintain ‘the law and order situation in the province’. What does it say about Sindh – and the state’s service delivery – that the oath-taking was the same sad song 14 years ago? ‘The law and order problem would be resolved,’ Mr. Ebad said in 2002, ‘and a sense of security would be created among the people.’ The people await.

Meanwhile, Governor Siddiqui has been unwell, and the country prays for his recovery. Critics point to his age: the former Chief Justice turns 79 next month. They forget that the last governor was the youngest-ever, and it made a hair’s difference to Sindh. Who also can forget that Punjab’s youngest governor happened to be its cruelest?

That said, there’s more to the argument, in a country exploding with young people with little mobility or representation: just the average age of our four governors is 72. As for the provincial governments, the ghost of Qaim Ali Shah still stalks the hallowed halls of the Sindh Assembly – that he’s been replaced by another Shah 34 years his junior was badly needed.

Writing in these pages, Hussain Nadim did well to point out, ‘There is no retirement age in politics, which is why despite the 65 per cent youth bulge, the current parliament and the political leadership hosts the same faces from the 1970s and 1980s, unable to understand the needs of modern societies or represent the new generation of Pakistan.’

And the only time the Class of ’85 makes way for fresh blood, is when there’s a blood relation of its own.

To return to the subject, it’s good that the governorship – its purpose and functions – are back in the spotlight. As Governor Siddiqui recently put, ‘I believe that maintaining peace in Karachi is the joint responsibility of both the provincial government and the governor.’ It’s a statement worth noticing.

After all, we seldom hear of the governor and chief minister’s responsibilities in the same sentence: at its core, the governor represents the federation, a symbol of our union, while the CM runs the actual business of the province.

This is a strange arrangement. If the chief minister makes the trains run on time, the governor does little but wave from the window. This was bound to happen, in a country that’s seen the constitution tossed out as many times as Pakistan has: with the governor going from boss during the martial laws to ribbon-cuttings and rubber-stampings during democracy.

Any confusion left over – i.e. where the CM’s authority stops and the governor’s starts – was put to rest by the Eighteenth Amendment: whatever powers the governor retained (such as framing the rules for transaction of the business of the government) were transferred to the CM.

But this hasn’t so much as clipped the wings of the governorship as much as it’s cut off its legs altogether. They aren’t much accountable, the cynics say, because they haven’t much to be accountable for.

Per Article 105 of the Constitution, ‘in the performance of his functions, the Governor shall act on and in accordance with advice of the Cabinet or the Chief Minister.’ This is exactly as it sounds. Mindful of confusions past, the Supreme Court found little room for interpretation in the matter in its Sindh High Court Bar Association decision in 2009.

The Honourable Justice Sheikh Azmat Saeed, since elevated to the SC, elaborated upon this in a Lahore High Court decision (reported as PLD 2011 Lahore 198) – when all Punjab was Sharif v. Taseer: ‘The said “advice” of the Chief Minister…is binding on the Governor who is not permitted in law either to reject the said “Advice” or to substitute his own finding in lieu thereof.’

Continued Justice Saeed, ‘The Governor may remit the advice for reconsideration, but at the end of the day, the decision of the Chief Minister will prevail.’

At last, this provides us constitutional clarity – it’s more than apparent that Article 105 was envisaged for exactly this purpose. But what, then, does the governor do?

Barring the unlikely event of system failure – which would then lead to governor’s rule – not much. Sindh’s Governor Ebad mediated, and played the rock guitar. Punjab’s Governor Sarwar mediated, and promoted clean water. Balochistan’s Governor Magsi mediated, and held jeep rallies in Jhal Magsi.

Mr. Magsi did indeed take over when the Raisani government fell in 2013. Lest anyone think he was about to do anything, Mr. Magsi issued a statement that only those elected by the public could solve the problems of the people.

Which makes one wonder: if indeed the governor was once to provide some semblance of a check on the provincial government, ‘some semblance’ is out of question today.

And that too may be a result of our history – from back when the governor’s influence could change the face of the country. In a past life, when there were no chief ministers, and Ishrat-ul-Ebad had yet to start studying at Dow Medical College, a 32-year-old found himself in the Punjab cabinet.

‘I was never interested in politics,’ Nawaz Sharif told The Caravan a few years ago (in a profile that can be mined endlessly). ‘I never thought I would enter politics. I used to think, keh itni tension hoti hai, kya karte hain, how do they manage?’

Concluded the three-time PM, ‘I don’t know how it happened. All of a sudden, I was picked up by General Jilani, and he wanted to induct me into his cabinet. I had graduated only a few years earlier.’

But the sands had shifted for good.