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Carl Sagan’s book Cosmos (1960) tells us: “There are some hundred billion (1011) galaxies, each with, on average, a hundred billion stars. In all the galaxies, there are perhaps as many planets as stars, 1011 x 1011 = 1022, ten billion, trillion.” And in them is our “tiny, fragile, blue-white world, lost in a cosmic ocean vast beyond our most courageous imaginings”.

And in this blue-white world, inhabited by 7.75 bn. humans, is a country populated by 220 million Pakistanis. Its constitutional head is an elected president, Dr. Arif Alvi, our 13th president. The number in itself should have been cause for foreboding.

Few will recall that before our country became a republic in 1956, we owed allegiance to the British Crown represented by governors general: King George VI by M.A. Jinnah and Khawaja Nazimuddin, and Queen Elizabeth II by Ghulam Mohammed and Iskander Mirza. After 1956, our presidents have included a retired judge, an eloquence of lawyers, a maze of bureaucrats, and a glitter of generals. Today, we have a dentist as our president.

That in itself is not a disqualification. Presidents in India, for example, have come from a motley of backgrounds — one freedom fighter (Dr Rajendra Prasad), a philosopher (Dr S. Radhakrishnan), numerous Hindus, some Muslims, a Sikh (Giani Zail Singh), a scientist (Dr A.J.P. Abdul Kalam), a Dalit, and two women (Pratibha Patel and now Droupadi Murmur).

The presidency of Pratibha Patel borrowed something from the practices prevalent in Islamabad. She spent 205 crores on foreign trips, accompanied by as many as 11 members of her family. Using government funds, she built a retirement home for herself on military land in Pune, and she retained costly gifts given to her until forced to return them to the state toshakhana.

Our present president has not been accused of financial impropriety, yet. His indiscretions have to do with partisanship. He has all too often been seen to intervene on behalf of the PTI party that nominated him to the presidency, forgetting that he represents “the unity of the Republic”.

The Constitution requires him to be kept abreast of government policies: “The Prime Minister shall keep the President informed on all matters of internal and foreign policy and on all legislative proposals the Federal Government intends to bring before Majlis-e-Shoora (Parliament).” He is bound to act on the advice of the prime minister or the cabinet, unless he refers it back for reconsideration. Within 10 days of that reconsideration, he is bound to act on the final advice.

Having occupied the Aiwan-i-Sadr since Sept 9, 2018, it is for Dr. Alvi to examine his conscience on whether he has discharged his constitutional obligations so far fairly, impartially and with due diligence. He is due to retire in September 2023. It is unlikely that he will be nominated for re-election by a PML-N-led cabinet or by a prime minister who could not find time on Oct 6 to attend our president’s annual address to the joint sitting of parliament.

The irrelevance of the current presidency was cruelly demonstrated by parliament itself. Only 15 parliamentarians out of 442 representatives were present in an almost empty hall. None of the chiefs of the armed forces attended. No one was bothered to hear their president enunciate their government’s policy statement on Pakistan’s societal needs, economy and foreign policy.

Perhaps they had read an advance copy of the speech and knew that he would be presenting not official policy but his own views on holding general elections (sooner rather than later), on granting overseas Pakistanis the right to vote, on electronic voting machines, et alia.

The president startled the sparse audience by saying that “people claim the last free and fair elections in the country were held in 1970”, adding that most of the people don't trust the election results anyway. Many years ago, Queen Mary once attended divine service during which the preacher held out that Buddhism was superior to Christianity as a faith. She commented afterwards that she had long suspected that but had not expected to hear such an admission from a Church of England pulpit.

Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari (another absentee) reacted to President Alvi’s address trenchantly. He demanded that the president be impeached as soon as possible.

Under the 1973 Constitution, the president can be extracted from the post “on the ground of physical or mental incapacity or impeached on a charge of violating the Constitution or gross misconduct”.

In the present impasse between a PML-N-led coalition government, an intransigent PTI, and a prevaricating establishment, perhaps the kindest decision an unwelcome president could make is to resign and exit with a dignity that has not always been in evidence during his term. 

Over 220m Pakistanis (minus his sponsor) will applaud him for it.



[DAWN, 13 October 2022]

13 October 2022
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