MIAN Raza Rabbani’s losing his cool last Friday was not unexpected. For quite some time, the Senate chairman had been getting more and more uneasy at the executive’s lack of regard for constitutional proprieties. What he saw as a ministerial affront to the Senate was only the proverbial last straw.
It is good that the government has dissuaded him from quitting his office but more significant is its failure, in the first instance, to placate a politician who has usually been amenable to friendly persuasion. However, it is doubtful if the government even now can appreciate what makes Raza Rabbani angry, or ‘Raza Rabbani ko ghussa kyun aata hai?
The Senate chairman is a leading member of an opposition party the government is attacking left, right and centre, and yet he has upheld the ideal of bipartisan understanding. His first grievance is that his efforts are not reciprocated by the ruling party.
Ministers’ presence in parliament is a basic requirement for consolidating democracy.
Senator Raza Rabbani has established himself as a federation man. As the architect of the 18th Amendment, he proved his skill in the art of consensus-building, that is the essence of democracy. If he sees avoidable delays in the implementation of that far-reaching measure, to say nothing of intrigues to roll it back, he has reason to be angry. Perhaps he is overly serious about protecting the rights of the upper house of parliament, firstly as the guardian of the rights of the federating units and, secondly, as an authority created to check errors or flaws in legislation left unremedied by the lower house. That’s why he wants Senate represented on all key parliamentary committees.
He has already demonstrated his unhappiness over the fact that the powers that be cannot see the plight of those without resources, the friendless and the voiceless people of his country that he has chosen to portray in fictional accounts of reality. His anger seems to have its roots in a broader realisation of the futility of the charade of democracy if the system does not offer any cure for the festering sores caused by poverty, ignorance, disease and loss of hope.
Thus Raza Rabbani’s insistence that ministers should regularly attend meetings of the houses of parliament, especially when they are required to answer questions pertaining to their portfolios, is not only backed by democratic convention, in Pakistan it is a basic requirement for consolidating democracy, constitutional practices and the supremacy of parliament.
The lead has to be given by the prime minister. If he does not sit through parliamentary sessions the other members of the cabinet will be doubly keen to faithfully follow his example. Worse, it was once said in defence of the prime minister’s absence from parliament that he had no time for parliamentary sessions. Can anyone get away with such brazen-faced contempt for parliament in any democratic country? Is it possible for the British prime minister to stay away from the House of Commons although the space for her/him on the front row is much less comfortable than what is provided in Pakistan?
Besides, the question hour is an essential means to foster democratic accountability. Information is sought by parliamentarians to make sure that the various state institutions are working within their constitutional limits and are duly promoting public interest. Such information is needed by the people for the discharge of their duties as active citizens in a democratic polity.
Unfortunately, the question hour has been downgraded by successive regimes, elected as well as non-elected. We have seen the unpardonable practice of killing questions in the chambers of presidents of the houses of parliament. There may be, once in a while, a question so frivolous or so outlandish that it cannot be raised in public but at least the house should be informed about it. The tendency to disallow questions on grounds inadmissible in a democratic system has extremely unhealthy repercussions. The ministers often plead for more time than they need and quite often the answers given are so incomplete that in effect the question is evaded.
Further, the deep-rooted desire of the administration to avoid answering questions about its performance smacks of arrogance and contempt for accountability. If information can be withheld from the representatives of the people there cannot be much hope that the people’s rights to know is going to be respected to the extent that it becomes a meaningful stimulus for good governance.
While on this subject one may also take note of the virtual exclusion of the system of adjournment motions from Pakistan’s parliamentary practice. An adjournment motion, that is suspension of the legislature’s business in favour of a debate on a fresh happening or development that affects the public interest, promotes transparency and responsible governance. There was a time when the killing of a single citizen in custody, or loss of crops in a natural disaster, could justify an adjournment motion and a debate on the performance of the authorities concerned. Now massacres do not move parliamentarians.
Some of the recent occurrences or issues that could have been taken up in adjournment motions were: the A.D. Khowaja case, disappearances, retired Gen Raheel Sharif’s new appointment, the water shortage, and the horrible killing of a student in Mardan. Such matters cannot be disposed of through perfunctory statements by ministers in parliament or outside.
All those who have been placed in a position to influence Pakistan’s transition to a functional democracy should realise that what upsets Senator Raza Rabbani causes much greater outrage to the people. Their success in persuading the angry senator not to rock the boat will not carry them far if they do not start pacifying the citizens whose hearts are swelling up with rage at the acts of injustice and denial of rights and basic needs that can squarely be attributed to poor governance.
Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2017