Feisal Naqvi

Fruit Flies, Parliamentarians and Art. 58(2)(b)

In Uncategorized on October 9, 2007 at 9:07 am

Memory lives in the bones of living beings. To be more precise, knowledge passes from generation to generation via the transmission of genes.

 

A few years back, a biologist called Seymour Benzer conducted an experiment in which a fruit fly (drosophila melanogaster) got zapped with an electric current every time the fly extended its leg. After a while, the fly learnt not to extend its leg.

 

Benzer killed the trained fly, sliced and diced its genes, and then embedded the relevant bits into the chromosome of a regular untrained fruit fly. Lo and behold, the new fly was born with the knowledge that it better not extend its leg or else it would get zapped.

 

So, what do fruit flies have to do with Parliamentarians?

 

Well, one of the more enduring problems in Pakistan is the fact that our political classes have, since the dawn of time, concentrated on enlarging their slice of the pie. If they are honest people, as many of them are, their efforts to grab a bigger slice are for the benefit of their constituents. If they are crooks, as occasionally also happens in Pakistan, they just want a bigger slice for themselves. But in each case, the assumption is that we live in a zero-sum world in which the parameters are defined and unchangeable: expanding the pie to benefit everybody is simply not thought of as an option.

 

To return to fruit flies, the question then is as follows: how did this behavioral pattern get encoded into our genes? Why is that replacing the old generation of Parliamentarians with a new college-educated, gender-balanced group of Parliamentarians made absolutely no difference to politics in Pakistan? Why is it that five years after the current Assembly was elected and eight years after Musharraf took over, our political choices remain as limited as the ice cream menu at the old Quality in Liberty: “Chaaklait, vanilla, mixed.” Why?

 

The answer begins with the fact that the sub-continent has always been (or at least since the Aryan invasions in 1500 BC), peculiarly obsessed with distinctions of status. Yes, other societies have also had rigid social hierarchies, but nothing to match the glories of the caste system. And yes, the majority of Pakistanis are Muslims, but our obsession with status is only marginally less consuming than that of our Hindu brethren across the border.

 

The second piece of the puzzle is the fact that our societies (at least the non-nomadic portions) have always defined wealth (and status) in terms of land. However, land is and will always remain, a finite resource. Thus, if I own and possess a particular piece of land, no one else can own and possess that piece of land.

 

The third piece of puzzle is the way in which land was traditionally dealt with in our society. Unlike various countries in the West, where people could acquire permanent rights in land, the Indian subcontinent (or at least the Moghul empire) operated on the basis that all land belonged to the king, who was fully entitled to take it all away at a moment’s notice (and often did).

 

Not surprisingly, the end result of all these factors was a society which operated very much in the short term. After all, why invest in the future when your investment might well go to waste? And why consider sharing when that would only decrease your share of the pie?

 

But didn’t everything change with the British who gave permanent rights in land to everybody? Yes, but only to a limited extent. Social habits hardwired into people over thousands of years do not change as quickly as laws: even today the dominant form of wealth in Pakistan is land.

 

So, how does all this connect to Parliament? Well, today’s Parliamentarians are not just descendants of the land-owning elite of the subcontinent but of the representative bodies set up by the British.

 

Prior to 1909, the only Indians tolerated in the legislative councils of the British were hand-picked favourites. Subsequently, under the Government of India Act, 1909, elected local members of the legislative councils were allowed. However, local members remained a minority and even the English members of the councils were not in the habit of disagreeing with the governors.

 

In 1919, a first substantive step was taken towards representative government when various powers were devolved to the provinces. But as noted by one textbook, these changes “did not involve transfer of any element of responsibility or control to the popular representatives.” It was only with the Government of India Act,,1935 that real power was devolved to elected representatives, but with these powers came the first precursor of Article 58(2)(b). The Government of India Act, 1935 thus contained express provisions whereby the Governor of a Province could dismiss the provincial legislative assemblies and the Viceroy could dismiss the federal legislature.

 

The end result of all this was that when Pakistan became independent in 1947, it inherited a tradition in which local elites contented themselves with docile displays of loyalty in exchange for patronage while the real work of governance was done by the executive. In the famous words of Hamza Alavi, Pakistan was at birth an “over-developed state.”

 

India inherited the same problems as Pakistan but it dealt with them differently. Nehru choose to become Prime Minister while the Quaid e Azam choose to become the Governor General. The principle of legislative supremacy was therefore delivered stillborn in Pakistan, a fact which became very evident when Ghulam Mohammed dismissed the Constituent Assembly in 1954 – a deed then validated in the Tamizuddin case by a Supreme Court which felt strongly enough about the matter to note that the Constituent Assembly “lived in a fools paradise if it was ever seized with the notion that it was the sovereign body in the State.”

 

Flash forward now to General Zia’s 8th Amendment and the insertion in 1985 of Article 58(2)(b) into the 1973 Constitution. No such provision had existed in either the 1956 Constitution or the 1962 Constitution. Interestingly, similar provisions had been provided in the 1954 Draft Constitution as well as the Interim Constitution of 1972 but had presumably been overridden by the constituent assemblies prior to final promulgation. Subsequently, Article 58(2)(b) was taken out in 1998 during Nawaz Sharif’s second tenure, and then finally reinserted in 2002 by General Pervez Musharraf via the LFO.

 

If we bring all of these elements together, what we see is the cycle which Pakistan has experienced over the past 60 odd years. We have a useless Parliament because the executive branch is too strong. And the executive is too strong because every time Parliament is entrusted with real power, it makes a hash of things while trying to maximize its short term benefits.

 

The question then is: who will break this cycle?

I don’t know, but if fruit flies can learn, then perhaps so can we.

 

 

Courtesy TFT

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