Dr. Tahseen Mahmood Aslam comments on the prevailing controversy
The recent controversy surrounding the public disclosure of the so-called cipher telegram sent to the Foreign Office from the Pakistan Embassy in Washington purportedly aimed at instigating a conspiracy to unseat the former PTI government has once again brought to the fore the longstanding debate regarding drawing the line between what is to keeping official secrets and otherwise in public affairs.
The entire issue has also thrown ample light upon the attitude evident in keeping official secrets circles, shared by political leaders and preeminent civil servants, to the effect that the citizenry had little business inquiring precisely how the country is governed. It appears that by design, the work of the government, including its delegation of some major responsibilities to select cabinet committees, remains veiled, although the fact of that veiling is now openly recognized.
This lacuna is globally challenged but Pakistan is not among the governance structures that pay heed to such demands and does nothing more than provide lip service to the essential attribute of transparency in governance. Successive governments in Pakistan have stubbornly adhered to the view that the confidential aspects of government business remain disproportionately vast and should not be revealed to the people unless access to public records is secured by the judiciary.
This tendency is unfortunately stronger than the voices calling for disclosure of the business of government. There however exists a powerful view that an excessive stifling of information about the process of governance may mislead the public and impair the functioning of government yet the question persists whether, in the name of a better informed, more responsive citizenry measures of open government might secure an understanding of what transpires in the corridors of power. It is widely recognized that governance is an evolutionary phenomenon and is powered by the urge to reform & refine.
Modern Governance System
While a large majority of people despise the secrecy prevalent in governmental functions but they also question how and why has secrecy come to envelop the practice of the modern governance system, particularly in Pakistan. This is quite a valid question and needs to be evaluated in its true perspective with a view to adequately dissecting the issue.
It must be kept in view that Pakistan inherited the colonial legacy of closed government as the British imperial government was an alien government that ventured to carry out its functions quietly and felt no compulsion to inform the broader people about what they did.
The British did inform people whatever they found was required but kept most of the governance affairs confidential. Their difficulty was further confounded by the fact that the British administration was conditioned to take orders from the India Office in London which worked under the control of the British parliament.
The viceregal system of government, for all intents and purposes, mirrored the British cabinet system though it was not answerable to parliament in India as there did not exist any though the British always tried to keep abreast with public opinion through liaising with representative institutions such as business guilds, municipal bodies, and leading social workers.
The British cabinet system of governance was also not as advanced as it is now and was geared towards excessive confidentiality. It is a part of governance history that though the British cabinet governance worked on the principle of collective responsibility with minutes and conclusions of cabinet meetings were deliberately prepared objectively and impersonally, designed to record agreement and not promote controversy. It was quite clear that behind many of the decisions lay tensions and influences which were not reflected in the keeping official secrets and records.
Abstract Principles Of Government
Accordingly, the British Indian government issued tightly defined institutional accounts of the secretariat that was very brief and hardly gave away much. It was however observed that such an approach is perforce limited because the governance itself did not evolve in accord with abstract principles of governmental performance as the British government was shaped by political considerations and personal forces but this was not the case with the colonial government.
The issue of observing strict secrecy was exacerbated in the Indian administration because of concerns about a foreign and imperial policy that occasionally intruded keeping in view the fact that the British ran a minority show. They were therefore constrained to keep a tight lid on governance matters. In assessing these constraints one has to acknowledge the preponderant departmentalism of the governance machinery giving way to the fitful and erratic political leadership that took over from the British Empire.
Even the British governance perceptions suffered from the conflict between the precepts of open and closed government that the Pakistani governance system inherited. The Pakistani leadership was hard-pressed to tackle issues that had exhausted the British governance machinery before handing over power to the new rulers. Keeping in view the nature of socio-political problems, the new Pakistani leadership soon grew disillusioned with what the British governed and they were not alone in it as in keeping official secrets circles this dissatisfaction was palpable.
The prudence and restraint of the British emerged out of their circumstantial detachment but the Pakistani leadership could not afford to do that. The new leadership started pointing out to inadequacies of the governmental and institutional framework within which the Pakistani governance system operated. This attitude revealed anxiety about policy and concern with the mechanism of policy-making and somehow evolved into an increase in the secrecy of governmental functions.
The Military Rulers Of Pakistan
The malaise of arbitrary decision-making had seeped into political precincts almost from the very first months of the inception of Pakistan witnessed strained relations between civil authorities and the military. Amidst the more-than-frequent change in prime ministers, people with a rational understanding of matters kept on insisting that the change of ministry will not bring adequate governance to the country without a change in method.
The military rulers of Pakistan always provided good reasons for protecting the military keeping official secrets from the civilian functionaries of the government that formed the major part of the governance process that was considered to be disposed to talk rather than to act and gossip concerning military operations was common fair. They also were sure that security provisions in official circles were lax by any standards compromising the actions of the government.
The civil bureaucratic structure was alleged to specialize in publicizing breaches of governmental secrecy as at times it took the official decisions as public property. The wars faced by Pakistan during military regimes raised fundamental questions about the structure and personnel of the government. The military rulers, therefore, propagated the need to alter the accustomed machinery of government, a structure to which the parliamentary governance process was deeply attached.
In such a conflicting setting, the rulers, both civil and military, looked to a strongly centralized, possibly authoritarian executive as Pakistan’s only escape from ineffective government. The rulers recognized two main defects of civil governance, the first being that its numbers are too large and that there is delay, evasion, and often obstruction on the part of the government departments in giving effect to its decisions. The outcome was and is that the rulers consider it with good reason that the citizens are kept in ignorance of most of the governmental decisions. The Weekender