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Dawn leak controversy: Almost, but not quite, settled

The two main opposition parties, the PPP and PTI, have ‘rejected’ the government military settlement over the Dawn leak controversy, arguing if the leak constituted a breach of national security, as claimed both by the government and the Army, settlement is unacceptable as it smacks of an unsavoury compromise over security. They want to know who was behind the leak and what his/her motive might be, demanding the inquiry report on the matter be made public in its entirety. Taking up the issue in the Senate last Friday, Leader of the Opposition in the upper house, Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan, averred “we do not accept that any of the two parties is above Parliament… both parties to the settlement are accountable to Parliament and their representatives should appear before it [to present the facts].”

It is worth noting that the Army had to face a barrage of criticism when last month it had expressed similar reservations about a government notification sacking its Principal Information Officer and Foreign Affairs Adviser, saying in an ISPR press release “the notification was incomplete and not in line with the recommendations by the inquiry board”, and that the “notification is rejected.” Many, including Senator Ahsan, had argued that it is not the Army’s place to reject the decisions of its ‘superior’ authority. Functioning democracies though are not so sensitive to the subservience issue. In situations where the chief executive is suspected of involvement in some fishy affair, as in the present instance, subservient organisation can, and do, challenge the superior authority.

A relevant example is what the US President Donald Trump has to face from a subservient organisation, FBI. A howl of angry protests has erupted in that country, threatening to lead to impeachment proceeding, over Trump’s firing of the FBI director James Comey. The president of course has the power to dismiss the director, but he has done it at a time Comey had launched criminal investigations into an alleged collusion between the Trump election campaign and Russia. The acting director of the FBI has said investigations will remain on course, yet legislators not only from the opposition Democratic Party but some Republican legislators too are now demanding an independent investigation into Trump’s alleged Moscow connection.

The suspicion here too is cast in the direction of the Prime Minister’s House where his daughter and heir apparent Maryam Nawaz presides over a media cell. In refusing to release the inquiry report the government has only confirmed the opinion it has something to hide. There should be no objection if the aggrieved party feels dissatisfied over government handling of the issue and expresses it too. The reaction to the ISPR’s ‘rejection’, however, has more to do with a history of our military adventurists’ villainies than norms of democratic behaviour.

At the root of the episode are usual tensions underlying civil-military relations. The civilian leadership has genuine concerns about dilution of its authority in deciding vital affairs of the state as they relate to foreign policy and internal/external security. But the solution is not in resort to clever by half schemes as seems to be the case in the Dawn leak affair. It is in good governance and strong democratic institutions. Democracy, our elected governments need to realise, is as strong as its institutions. Unfortunately, PM Mian Nawaz Sharif seems to think winning an election is only a means to attain power and rule without a care for systemic checks and balances. He draws his right to govern from Parliament but rarely attends its proceedings. The number of times he has graced the National Assembly with his presence can be counted on fingers. He has been going there only when in trouble and in need of its support. The Senate had to pass a resolution to demand that he spare sometime for it. In parliamentary democracy the cabinet is supposed to have collective responsibility, but here it is one-man rule. Mian sahib does not bother even to consult his cabinet colleagues for making important decisions. Last August, after hearing a set of appeals by some business companies against an Islamabad High Court judgement, the Supreme Court ruled that the Prime Minister could not move any legislation concerning finance bill, or approve any budgetary or discretionary expenditure without taking the cabinet into confidence. The court order came with an apt reminder, “the Prime Minister cannot take decisions by himself or by supplanting or ignoring the cabinet because the power to take decisions is vested with the federal government, ie, the cabinet, and unilateral decisions taken by the Prime Minister would be usurpation of power.” Since then cabinet gets some attention though as a matter of formality, but little has changed in the PM’s attitude towards other institutions.

Returning to the present issue, there is a National Security Council (NSC) in place headed by the PM, and its members comprise the Army chief, senior military officials and cabinet ministers. It is meant to serve as the principal forum for the civilian and military leaderships to hold consultations on national security and foreign policy matters. Any differences or objections the two sides might have had should have been sorted out in NSC meetings. But again, the NSC hardly ever meets. And the result is a very public confrontation which, thankfully, has ended in the Army bowing before the civilian authority, but bad feelings are said to linger on. One can only hope lessons have been drawn from this nasty episode. And that any future disagreements will be settled in the relevant forum rather than through media leaks. But then old habits die hard.

Saida Fazal, "Dawn leak controversy: Almost, but not quite, settled," Business Recorder. 2017-05-18.
Keywords: Political science , National Security Council , Dawn leak , Military , Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan , President Donald Trump , Mian Nawaz Sharif , US , ISPR , PTI , PPP

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