Case Of Tariq Banuri Highlights Undeveloped Nature Of Politics In Pakistan – OpEd

Pakistan needs to develop itself on many fronts, but one of the first to tend to is the nation’s political system. It takes a lot of time to change both society and the economy, but politics is supposed to be able to proceed at a much faster pace. Politics is how the nation is governed. It establishes the environment in which the nation’s people can go about their business. At the very least, bringing in change through the political process can set the stage for social and economic improvements to happen. Unfortunately, when a nation is beset by deep-seated social and economic problems, that is reflected in the conduct of its politics, and Pakistan is no exception. All the time, we see political players make decisions in ways that are not very beneficial, which is a big factor in holding the nation back. In such circumstances, whenever there does happen to be someone with enough merit to effectively serve the nation, it would not be surprising if others around him gang up to take him down.

That seems to have been what happened with Dr. Tariq Banuri. He is one of Pakistan’s most prominent intellectuals, whose scholarship is internationally recognized. Banuri was appointed Chairman of the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan (HEC) in May 2018 and given the task of fixing Pakistan’s faltering institutions of higher education. The position had a term of four years. In March 2021, with more than a year to go, Tariq Banuri was abruptly removed from his post by a presidential ordinance reducing the term of HEC chairman to two years. The removal caused public outrage and Banuri challenged it in the Islamabad High Court.

The problem is that the common practice of grandfathering was not applied to this policy change. When you implement a new rule that changes how things are done, you sometimes have to take into account pre-existing situations that are adjusted to the prior circumstances and hence are not compatible with this rule. The usual practice is therefore to exempt such situations from the new rule or grant them special accommodations while they exist through what is known as a grandfather clause, or legacy clause.

Take the USA, for example. Its Constitution mandates that only a person born a citizen of the United States can be President of the country. But what about people who were born before the United States came into being? It was an issue for the first several decades of the country’s existence (nobody born a US citizen could even become president for the first 35 years). So what solution did the Founding Fathers (themselves all born non-citizens, of course) come up with? They wrote into the Constitution that anybody who was a US citizen upon the Constitution’s adoption was eligible for the presidency. So to become President of the United States of America, you either had to be born a citizen of the country or the country had to be born with you as a citizen.

An example of a grandfather clause that closely mirrors Tariq Banuri’s case concerns the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution of USA, which prohibits anybody from serving as President of the United States for more than two terms. However, the amendment did not apply to the president incumbent at the time of its ratification in 1951, Harry S. Truman, who was explicitly allowed to run for re-election an unlimited number of times (to quote, “…. this Article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this Article was proposed by the Congress, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of President, or acting as President, during the term within which this Article becomes operative from holding the office of President or acting as President during the remainder of such term.”). That means Truman was the last person ever who could serve more than two terms as President of the United States, an opportunity he passed over when he declined to run in 1952 after losing the primary because of controversies arising from, among other things, the Korean War.

Both Harry Truman and everyone born before 1789 are now dead. So it might seem strange that the clauses allowing them to run for president in America are still on the books. But that’s not important. What is important is being cognizant that when you create a new law, you are imposing it on a world that is not yet designed for that law. You must accommodate legitimate activities that precede the new law. Minds can change immediately, circumstances cannot.

The government of Pakistan appears unmindful of this when they ousted Tariq Banuri upon passing an ordinance. If they were to reduce the tenure of the chairman of HEC from four years to two years, the sensible thing is to apply this rule to tenures that begin after the rule is in effect, instead of retroactively applying it to a term that began in 2018.

Not only does this forego the usual grandfather clause, it is also at odds with another basic principle implicit in law. One of the most fundamental tenets of legal tradition is that no one can be penalized for carrying out an act at a time it was not against law. It follows more generally that a law cannot be used to govern events that predate the law (when that happens, it is called an ex post facto law, but it is generally taboo). By firing Banuri, the government decided that, since they had limited the tenure of HEC chairperson to two years, the two years that Banuri served since 2018 count as Banuri’s fulfilled tenure time, when all of Banuri’s activities as chairman were conducted with a four-year term in mind. This is akin to passing a law making it a crime to use plastic bags and then prosecuting everybody who had ever used a plastic bag before the law came into being.

Banuri’s ouster appears to be a case of our government exhibiting ineptitude in governance. But it may alternatively be a case of government abusing the authority of governance for an ulterior purpose. Many believe that Banuri was removed because vested interests did not like him standing in the way of their illegitimate control over Higher Education Commission and so crafted the ordinance to get someone they didn’t like out of office. This brings us back to a case in point.

The likely reason why President Truman was exempt from the 22nd Amendment was to uphold its integrity, since it was the Republican Party which pushed forward the amendment (they were upset about Franklin Delano Roosevelt winning four terms, breaking with George Washington’s precedent of quitting after two). Had the amendment barred Truman from running for reelection in 1952, it would have appeared the Republicans created a new law in the Constitution just to oust from office a Democrat they didn’t like or to hasten their own return to office. By drafting the amendment such that the person who succeeds Truman to the presidency is the first to obey term limits, it was ensured that the 22nd Amendment gave the Republicans no advantage, as it couldn’t be known which party the next president would belong to. In short, Truman retained the historical right to run for an unlimited number of terms so that the 22nd Amendment of the United States Constitution would be seen as non-partisan in its origin.

That is how politics is conducted in a proper manner. But it was clearly not the case with Pakistan’s HEC ordinance. By all appearances, policy-makers altered the tenure of HEC chairman just to get rid of a chairman they didn’t want, making the rule they created one that has no real purpose after getting started. Government did not even bring in a replacement for Banuri right away, showing that they were in a rush and, also, that the tenures the new rule was supposed to cover were yet to begin. The transition period was thus messed-up as well. They could have allowed Banuri to remain Chairman of an important educational institution as they looked for a successor, but preferred to leave the post vacant. The ordinance itself therefore becomes forever tainted and, along with it, our perception of our government acting in a fair and proper manner. If politicians make policies to serve their momentary interests instead of society’s long-term interests, the consequences are inevitably detrimental for the nation.

The allegations of corrupt motives behind the HEC ordinance are further sustained by the fact that Banuri is unquestionably qualified. As a “Renaissance man,” Tariq Banuri, who studied in America before returning to Pakistan, holds scholarship in many fields. Among many other achievements, he founded Pakistan’s first and top-ranked independent think tank, the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI). He is also an experienced educationist. But not only was Banuri’s job at stake here. At stake is the integrity of governance in Pakistan, ensuring that politicians conduct their job in a competent and scrupulous manner and that our state does not come across as politically infantile 75 years after its founding.

In January 2022, Tariq Banuri won his case and the Islamabad High Court restored his seat in the HEC after he was gone for ten months. Upon that, the question of legacy came into play again as the court had to decide if Banuri’s term would end in May 2022, as was originally scheduled when his term began in 2018, or if he would be given an extension because of the ten months he was kept out, another one of those conundrums that have to be resolved in policy-making (tenure has often been a tricky subject matter in politics. US President Andrew Johnson violating the Tenure of Office Act in 1867 initiated a crazy debacle in which he was impeached and nearly had his own tenure cut short). The judiciary is often the branch of government people trust most to do the right thing. But it is not enough to do right on individual issues, case by case. The political culture and modus operandi in Pakistan has to change. We can learn from countries that excelled in this field, and also from other countries that didn’t. What makes political reform crucial is that, even if political intervention is not really necessary to foster the development of Pakistani society, a crooked political system will absolutely hinder it.