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PAC U-turn

February 18, 2019

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THE PTI and PML-N are once again at loggerheads over the chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committee. The issue — which was apparently resolved nearly two months earlier with the nomination of Shahbaz Sharif — has been reignited as the government announced some days ago that it is mulling legal ways to remove the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly as PAC chair. As expected, the opposition has responded to the PTI’s change of heart by threatening to boycott parliament and disrupt the functioning of government. To intensify the debate, in a move deemed contrary to parliamentary practice, Federal Minister for Railways Sheikh Rashid has volunteered himself as a member of the committee.

That the PTI is digging in its heels over the issue comes as no surprise; after all, the PAC is an essential component of bringing transparency and accountability to the government’s expenditure and legislation — a key theme during Imran Khan’s election campaign. But then, the party’s change of heart after the December announcement by the foreign minister, that the government would concede to the opposition’s demand “in the larger interest of democracy”, is puzzling. On the surface, senior government representatives say they have serious reservations against Mr Sharif using his PAC position as a shield against cases of corruption faced by him. But in the background, it appears that some of the prime minister’s advisers are displeased with Mr Sharif’s continued offensive during Assembly proceedings despite his nomination, a gesture the party considered a step towards establishing a working relationship. Whatever the justification may be, the reality is that parliamentary proceedings are the casualty of this bickering. As a result, the mini-budget revealed by the finance minister some weeks earlier still has not been passed, leaving the measures announced by the government on hold. In this scenario, a further escalation of already simmering political tensions will only take attention away from parliament’s utmost priority — that of lawmaking. The onus of ensuring that legislative function is not interrupted lies with the government. With Mr Sharif out on bail, the PTI’s primary objection against his nomination no longer stands. Better sense must prevail. The relationship between the opposition and treasury benches is one that lasts for years; heckling in parliament is a trademark of our politics and battles must be carefully selected for continuity in a democracy that is still finding its feet.

Published in Dawn, February 18th, 2019