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In defence of politicians

November 27, 2018

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

PARLIAMENT these days is mostly about ugly noises. The government cannot get enough of calling those on the opposition benches ‘chor’ and ‘daku’ while the opposition too has ratcheted up its rhetoric. Ahsan Iqbal, the erstwhile interior minister, recently called the prime minister a conman (admittedly, he was not in parliament when he said it). And the less said about the words spouted by Fawad Chaudhry and Mushahidullah Khan the better.

But, at times it is not enough to simply focus on what is being said publicly.

The politicos of Pakistan are not entirely irresponsible. Beyond the noise and behind the closed doors, efforts are afoot at smoking the peace pipe. Speaker Asad Qaiser has been trying his level best to reach out to all the parties in the National Assembly for a code of conduct.

There also has been some effort at breaking the most serious stalemate of all — over the chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committee. A story in Express Tribune last week quoted senior PPP leader Qamar Zaman Kaira as saying that his party was trying to break the logjam — his party was suggesting that Shahbaz Sharif head the PAC while a subcommittee headed by a PTI parliamentarian be set up for the audits of the previous PML-N government.

Politicians, however corrupt or incompetent, break stalemates, and find solutions and a middle path.

When asked, PML-N’s Khawaja Asif said on Friday that though the two opposition parties had not discussed the issue in a meeting, the PPP had mentioned the idea during the parliamentary session that day. Though he wouldn’t conjecture his party’s reaction to the suggestion, the former foreign minister agreed that his party would bear some of the burden of a paralysed parliament if the PML-N refused to concede any space on the PAC issue. Of course, it goes without saying that the PTI bears the larger burden.

The stalemate on the PAC, which began with the PTI’s intransigence, has been of concern to many. A tradition set by the Charter of Democracy dictates that the PAC chairmanship goes to the opposition leader, which in this case is Shahbaz Sharif. However, a corruption-obsessed PTI refuses to adhere to this, arguing that Shahbaz Sharif can hardly be expected to judge the audits of his brother’s government. As the PPP and PML-N don’t agree, they are staying away from the National Assembly committees in general — consequently none have been formed since the advent of the current parliament.

As a result, parliament cannot do its job of legislation. Without committees, no draft laws can be examined or debated. It’s also one reason for the random back and forth of speeches on the floor.

But the PPP’s suggestion seems to provide a way out for all. And a way out is what every party needs.

The PPP may be a member of the opposition and a party that calls the 2018 election rigged, but it does want the ‘flawed’ system to go on, as it is a stakeholder — the party rules Sindh and has its man as the deputy chairman of the Senate (as a result of a somewhat ‘flawed’ election to the upper house). And for this reason, among others, the PPP wants the system to go on.

The PML-N, of course, was robbed of its due share in the summer. But it still has a stake. Its parliamentarians may be on the wrong side of the aisle but they still want to be in the building. It doesn’t suit them to give it all up and hit the streets (much to the disappointment of those who think politicians marching on the roads will change the civil-military balance and usher in ‘true democracy’ as 2007 did). This is so not just because there is a certain satisfaction to sitting in parliament but also because the road option doesn’t work — Nawaz Sharif tried it in the run-up to the election and failed.

Even back then, not all PML-N members agreed with Sharif senior’s strategy that his anti-establishment rhetoric would win enough support to out-orchestrate the ‘other side’. However, few within the party said it out aloud. Now, of course, this is changing; some senior PML-N wallahs are willing to express the view that Mian Sahib had gotten it wrong. (Speaking truth to power is easier when the party head is down and out.)

In other words, the PML-N wallahs had always wanted to muddle along with the system as it was. But now, even their head may be thinking like them — the legal troubles of the Sharif family are now worsening; it is likely the family — especially Nawaz Sharif and daughter Maryam — realises its chances are better under a flawed democratic system than a completely undemocratic one. And probably so does Asif Ali Zardari.

All this is a cynical interpretation of how parties view politics through the lens of their interests.

But the efforts to break the logjam can also be seen a little differently — politicians, however corrupt or incompetent or self-centred, break stalemates and find solutions and a middle path. Not for them are the extremes of black and white, victory and defeat.

For them, politics is the art of the possible. and in this much-maligned phrase lies the beauty of politics. It is about muddling on, through negotiation and compromise. And for this reason, be it the PPP, PML-N or the PTI, each one of them will opt for working with the system, however faulty it is, instead of breaking it down and building it anew.

Even Imran Khan eventually opted for this approach when he welcomed the electables and fought an election in a system that hadn’t been reformed.

It is only dictators who think that a system can be done away with entirely and a new one built from scratch. Or those who think that Akbar Bugti should be vanquished — as Musharraf did — rather than negotiated with — which was Chaudhry’s Shujaat’s choice. We should remember that when we condemn the elected men and women with feet of clay. They will find a way because that is what their job is — negotiate their way through.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, November 27th, 2018

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