This article was published in Dawn on August 30, 2016 and is available at the following link
SELDOM has Pakistan seen such open and repeated finger-pointing between the civil and military leadership as on the question of the implementation of the National Action Plan against terrorism. Earlier this month, the chief of army staff expressed his dissatisfaction over the poor progress on NAP after a meeting of the corps commanders. What made his criticism even more significant was that it followed a meeting of the National Security Committee chaired by the prime minister and attended, among others, by the COAS himself on Aug 9.
Similar public criticism by the COAS on the lack of ‘matching governance initiatives’ by the civilian government came after the corps commanders meeting held in November 2015. The 20-point NAP was agreed upon in December 2014 at a multiparty conference convened by the prime minister and has been described, both by the civil and military leadership, as the most important road map for the struggle against terrorism in the country.
NAP is also significant because it has the rare consensus of otherwise bitterly opposed political forces besides the civil-military agreement. The federal government and the prime minister had announced the formation of a number of committees to monitor the execution of the plan and had pledged to personally review its progress. Sadly, very few committees later met to review progress and the prime minister’s own involvement also became diluted with time, most likely because of the state of his health and other ‘more pressing’ state business.
In a well-functioning democratic state, an effective system of checks and balances among the three pillars of state — the legislature, judiciary and the executive — keeps each one of them accountable, vigilant and active. It is an accepted and one of the most important functions of parliament to exercise effective oversight over the executive. Parliament undertakes this oversight in a number of ways using a variety of instruments available to it, but it is its committees that have come to be universally recognised as the most effective institutional arrangement of oversight of the executive.
It is sad that parliamentary committees have hardly discussed the National Action Plan.
US congressional committees have acquired tremendous powers over the past many years including the power to scrutinise and approve or reject key appointments both in the executive and the judiciary. The committees are generally not so powerful in a parliamentary form of government but still wield sufficient powers to keep the executive in check.
In Pakistan, both houses of parliament — the Senate and the National Assembly — and each of the four provincial assemblies, elect a number of committees at the beginning of the five-year parliamentary term. Each committee then goes on to elect its chair.
At present, the Senate has almost 49 committees, the National Assembly 47; the number of committees in the four provincial assemblies range from 18 in Balochistan to 51 in Punjab. The activism of a committee usually depends on the committee chair but committee members can exercise a great deal of influence too, including the power to requisition a committee meeting by 25pc members of a committee.
Each of the six legislatures has committees corresponding to the ministries or divisions at the federal level and departments at the provincial level. The purpose of describing all this in some detail is to convey that the committee system in our legislatures is an elaborate arrangement and the state spends a considerable sum to support them. One may argue that a greater degree of research and administrative support needs to be provided to the committees to do a better job, but the scarcity of this is more a matter of lack of demand by the honourable parliamentarians than constraints of state funding.
Returning to NAP, since the interior ministry has been made the focal ministry at the federal level for the implementation of the plan and a similar responsibility has been assigned to the provincial home departments, it is clear that the Senate and National Assembly standing committees on the interior and the four provincial assemblies standing committees on home affairs have a responsibility to exercise oversight on the implementation of NAP.
While one feels extremely unhappy and disappointed when an army officer, be it the COAS or the DG ISPR, publicly criticises the performance of the elected government, it is equally painful when one doesn’t see the elected democratic institutions not doing their job effectively.
The Senate Standing Committee on the Interior and Narcotics Control met 20 times during the past 19 months since NAP was announced in December 2014. Of this, only once did the agenda of the committee include NAP when it received a briefing from the interior ministry on the anti-terrorism plan. At no other point did the committee debate such a critical item or question the government on the progress achieved on NAP.
The Senate has lately constituted special committees on issues ranging from the performance of PIA to devolution to KP’s ‘24 demands’ but no such special committee has been constituted on NAP. The National Assembly Standing Committee on the Interior and Narcotics Control held 12 meetings between December 2014 and August 2016. The agenda place on the Assembly website does not indicate that the committee considered NAP in any of its meetings. The state of the provincial assembly committees on home affairs is no different. None of these committees discussed NAP at the meetings. A good look through media archives reveals that it is very probable that none of the legislatures held a full-length debate on the progress of NAP in its plenary session. The nation spends a considerable amount of taxpayers’ money on the functioning of legislatures; normally in a democracy this spending is always considered worthwhile.
Isn’t it time the national parliament and provincial assemblies in general and their committees dedicated to the interior and home affairs in particular started to exercise their oversight on the implementation of NAP?