EDITORIAL: It shouldn't take a Supreme Court judgement, that too after a seemingly endless wait for the detailed order, to establish the fundamental right of local governments to complete their terms as demanded by the law. Yet that is exactly what has happened in Punjab and even now there is little, if any, chance that the provincial government will not file a review petition within 30 days to delay matters till the term of the local governments, which it dissolved prematurely two years ago, expires in January next year. That is sad because it not only means that the Punjab government violated the law when it sent the local government packing, which should and will have consequences, it also flies in the face of the way Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) marketed itself as a pro-devolution and local government party all the time it was in opposition. But it seems that, once it came to power, the prospect of voters choosing people of other parties to run the third tier of government was so unpleasant to it that it pulled the rug from under the whole thing instead of letting the system evolve.
So while the SC order bodes well for the long-term, the immediate future is hardly any clearer than the immediate past. Perhaps, as the Punjab government kicks this can even further down the road, the ruling party should use this time to reflect upon the fact that no province in the country has functioning local government right now. And you need to go no further than Imran Khan's speeches from just a few years ago to understand very well just how important the LG system is for democracy to really empower people. Yet here we are, where our politicians never tire of reminding us of the blessings of representative government that they seem to think the people really enjoy, but they will go to any length to keep power, and finances, from really devolving to the grass root.
There are enough loopholes in the law for the Punjab government to have its way just a little longer, but it will eventually have to fall in line with the law. But while it scores a few points that serves its purposes it also sets precedents for other governments as well as individuals to follow. If the party that rules the most important province of the country can display such blatant disregard for the law, especially when it is hand-delivered to it in the form of a Supreme Court ruling, then wouldn't other administrations and ordinary people also be encouraged to do the same when it suits them? Surely, such are not the usual experiences or lessons of democracy.
Our political elite really needs to pull its socks up. It is more than a small irony that the last time Pakistan had even a vaguely credible system of local governments was in the time of a military dictator. And there has been a race to keep decision-making, especially when it comes to things that ultimately involve development funds, as centralised as possible ever since we got our prized democracy back. Now, even when the odd government does allow LGs, it makes sure to clip its wings first. That is why the SC ruling gives heart to politically aware citizens and progressive politicians who are eager to see the democratic process expand and finally begin to benefit the average people. And it is just sad that the only thing holding it back so far has been the tendency of our top most politicians to grab as much power as possible.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2021