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The Senate in transition

March 08, 2018


THE Senate elections have exposed the true political culture of Pakistan and the show that has been put up is not at all complimentary to the politicians who claim to be democracy’s veteran soldiers.

Much has been said about horse-trading and much more will be said in the coming days. But the political leaders who have joined this chorus have betrayed their hypocrisy. Which party has not been involved in horse-trading? The field is limited to parties that have not won any Senate seat, and perhaps not even to them.

The business of buying and selling votes is not limited to the Senate elections; it is a feature of all elections in Pakistan, not to the legislatures but also to professional associations. The only notable fact about the Senate elections is that the price of a single vote is many times higher than the cost of thousands of votes in a general election.

What keeps the vote auction mart going is no secret. To begin with, members of the provincial assemblies live and breathe in an environment charged with possibly all forms of corruption. Most of the people in authority, state employees as well as politicians, have found ways of mercilessly plundering the exchequer. In some cases, unfair acquisitions have been legalised. The temptation to make money or gain any other advantage by selling one’s vote is perhaps too great to be resisted by the provincial legislators. Particularly when the Senate elections are held only a short time before a general election and the MPAs are not sure of returning to the legislatures.

The selection of candidates by the PML-N and PPP reveals their choice of instruments of governance.

All of this may be true but the country’s political leaders should realise that corruption in their ranks is worse than it is in any other sector for it also amounts to a betrayal of the public trust. The political parties must collectively and severally find ways of strengthening party discipline, and sincerely try to root out sale and purchase of electoral votes. The option of direct elections to the Senate also needs to be seriously pursued as, apart from curbing horse-trading, it will increase the Senate’s representational character.

Horse-trading apart, some other aspects of the Senate elections invite attention. That all party bosses give tickets to favourites for personal services to themselves is an old story. The selection of candidates by the two mainstream parties, the PML-N and PPP, for instance, reveals their character and choice of instruments of governance. The PML-N’s tendency to rely more on retired bureaucrats and technocrats/advisers is fairly obvious. That Rana Maqbool, the former police officer who tried to follow the orders on the day of the Musharraf coup in 1999, gets more votes than any other party candidate from Punjab is, therefore, easily understandable.

The PPP despite all its sins has displayed a preference for political actors as Senate candidates. This is not a small matter. It reveals a material difference between the two parties’ ways of looking at the democratic management of affairs.

But how did the PPP fail to realise the loss incurred by it by leaving its star representatives, Aitzaz Ahsan and Farhatullah Babar, out of their list of candidates for the Senate? Both of them were right in principle to stand aside for want of support in their respective provincial assemblies, but it was for the party leadership to find a way to get at least one of them back in the Senate. No disrespect is meant to those elected on the PPP ticket but seasoned parliamentarians like the two left out are almost irreplaceable.

While all new members of the Senate are welcome, no one deserves a warmer greeting than Krishna Kumari from Nagarparkar. She and her brother, Veer Kohli, were born into a family of bonded haris. Both have earned fame as dedicated campaigners for human rights and social change. Krishna also won praise for improving her educational qualifications after she was married and had two children. One must welcome a gentle but firm voice from Thar’s marginalised and consistently exploited community.

At this moment, it may be appropriate to appreciate the highly laudable role the Senate has played during the past few years. The house became livelier than ever and its debates not only informed people of issues in governance and of practices good and bad in the area of legislation, they also educated them in democratic essentials. Its standing committees made a sound contribution to progress towards participatory democracy. On several occasions, it modified, in the larger public interest, the bills adopted by the lower house. It also set a healthy precedent by reaching out to civil society and trying to bring legislation a little more in accord with the wishes of the people.

Much of the credit for this goes to the chairman Mian Raza Rabbani. Though belonging to the opposition PPP, he justified the trust placed in him by the ruling PML-N while supporting his candidature for the chairmanship. The standard of non-partisanship set by him is worthy of emulation by his successors and so are his efforts to strengthen the Senate’s character as a guardian of the federating units’ interests. His efforts to convince the prime minister and his cabinet colleagues to pay due respect to the upper house, mostly by gentle persuasion, and sometimes through well-calibrated despair, will be remembered for long.

Quite a few members, especially those belonging to the less populous federating units, enriched the Senate proceedings with their fiery but reasoned expositions of their grievances and deprivations. But perhaps none was more outspoken than Farhatullah Babar. He did not speak for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa alone — though he did devote much time to the cause of bringing Fata into the national mainstream — he spoke for all the people. He commanded respect for defending human rights, standing up for victims of disappearance, and trying to remove the imbalance in civil-military relations. The consistency with which he pursued these important issues reflected his deep convictions about democratic priorities. The Senate will be poorer by his absence.

Published in Dawn, March 8th, 2018