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Subservient political parties

December 07, 2017

WHILE a religious party that has no representation in parliament has succeeded in forcing the federal and Punjab governments to sign time-bound accords in its favour through direct action against certain provisions of the Election Act, the political parties that control parliament were perhaps sleeping when Section 202, which undermines their rights, of the same act, was adopted.

The section under reference provides for the enlistment of political parties with the Election Commission and their exclusion from the list of enlisted parties leading to, after appeal procedures, loss of their entitlement to take part in elections. This provision revives the scheme of registration of political parties that was struck down by the superior courts before the 1988 election, when it was challenged by the late Benazir Bhutto. Now her party, the PPP-Parliamentarians (which may not have the required numbers stipulated in the law) might face more trouble than anyone else in getting past this extra-democratic law.

This situation is the result of making the political parties subservient to their parliamentary groups. It is doubtful if the mainstream parties discussed at party forums the electoral reform proposals that were debated over several years. Had they done so they might have detected the trap for their undoing. But then, political parties in Pakistan, except perhaps those that have no presence in legislatures, have no role in managing the country’s affairs after they have sent their nominees to the assemblies. The old theories that the party apparatuses chose their organisations’ objectives and programmes and had the power to check and control the policies of their governments are no longer valid in Pakistan.

Denying political parties their right to oversee the working of their governments has harmed democracy.

The tradition of ranking parliamentary groups superior to their mother parties began with the finalisation of the demand for Pakistan itself.

Contrary to the common belief, Pakistan was not established on the basis of the Lahore Resolution of 1940, which had only laid down the principle of constituting Muslim-majority zones in India in independent states; it was based on the resolution adopted by the Muslim League central and provincial legislators at their convention in Delhi on April 9, 1946.

This resolution superseded the Lahore Resolution and called for the constitution of the two Muslim-majority zones “into a sovereign independent state” and for a pledge “to implement the establishment of Pakistan without delay”. It used the Lahore resolution text only in respect of minorities’ protection.

It was planned to get the convention resolution endorsed or discussed by the Muslim League Council that was scheduled to meet a day later, but this item was taken off the council agenda. According to Rafique Afzal, the most credible historian of the Muslim League, the reason was that the legislators’ convention was considered to be “the parliament of Muslim India” and a reference to the mother party was not considered necessary.

After the establishment of Pakistan the Quaid-i-Azam could not continue as the president of the Pakistan Muslim League, created by partitioning the All-India Muslim League into Indian and Pakistani parties in December 1947, and Chaudhry Khaliquzzaman was elected as party chief. He took the party’s supremacy over its government seriously and started not only asking questions but also taking initiatives that annoyed the government. Stone-throwing at his house by a small crowd was enough to make him realise where the real authority resided and he resigned. Soon afterwards the head of the parliamentary party, Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, became the party chief as well.

The tradition has survived to this day. Whenever any edition of the Muslim League has been in power the premier has headed the party and used the members of the parliamentary party as provincial or district satraps. Most of the populist parties have also adopted this culture.

They have not learnt from history. When Nazimuddin, Feroz Khan Noon, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Mohammad Khan Junejo, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were arbitrarily thrown out of power during 1953-1999, there was no party rank and file worth the name to fight for them.

The denial of political parties’ right to oversee the working of their governments has grievously harmed democracy in Pakistan. The establishment is happy that only very rich people can contest elections and as soon as they are elected they set about getting their ‘investment’ back along with compound interest, and the mills of corruption are guaranteed regular supplies of fuel.

The parliamentary groups’ domination of mother parties also perpetuates instability. The arrest or neutralisation of a few hundred parliamentarians and capture of radio and TV stations is all that is needed to carry out a putsch. The plea that the political parties should make their cadres and the people partners in power, and thus make their arbitrary ouster from authority difficult, has been falling on deaf ears, and the populist parties have been declining in direct proportion to the shrinkage of their parliamentary strength.

They have fallen so low in the eyes of the establishment that it is said to be making a plan to give permission to political parties to hold public meetings on the condition that they do not talk politics. If this report in true, it not only offers a measure of political parties’ decline, it will also be written down as an original piece of foolishness. Asking a political party not to talk of politics!

The provocation to recall all this is the course the destruction or disintegration of the N-League is apparently taking. Nobody should be surprised at defections from the out-of-favour ruling party. According to rumours many of its MNAs will desert it when by-elections to the seats vacated by them cannot be held in view of a general election becoming imminent. A depleted N-League parliamentary party will not be able to benefit from the Senate election as much as it had hoped for till a few months ago. But if the party can display its ability to survive disintegration of its groups in the federal and provincial legislatures, democratic politics may yet become as interesting a game as it should be.

Published in Dawn, December 7th, 2017