House of feud

June 19, 2019


The writer is an author and a journalist.
The writer is an author and a journalist.

IT is not unusual for the opposition to create a rumpus in parliament, but the spectacle of the treasury benches disrupting a session is shocking. Almost a week into the budget session, the National Assembly has yet to initiate the debate on the finance bill. Such rowdiness stalling the proceedings has rarely been witnessed, making a mockery of the nation’s highest elected body.

What with the opposition protesting over the non-production of their detained leaders and the speaker refusing to bend, there is no sign yet of rationality returning to the house soon. The government may still be able to bulldoze the finance bill through, but it will not end the stand-off.

While the combined opposition has upped the ante inside and outside parliament, the prime minister, too, is in an extremely combative mood. In fact, his tone has become more belligerent. Instead of defusing the situation, Imran Khan wants his lawmakers to take a more aggressive stance and block the opposition speeches in the National Assembly.

For the lawmakers to trade barbs and call each other ‘thieves’ and ‘robbers’ is extremely disgraceful. The sanctity of parliament has seldom been so badly violated, with its members displaying banners and often getting into a scuffle. Such ugly scenes have almost become routine, and do little to inspire public confidence in the elected institution.

In the last 10 months, there has hardly been any serious debate on critical policy matters inside the NA.

In the last 10 months, there has hardly been any serious debate on critical policy matters inside the National Assembly, let alone legislative business. Of course, the responsibility lies with both sides, but certainly the treasury benches are more to blame for this state of affairs. Instead of defusing the situation, some ministers are more interested in provoking the opposition.

The spectacle at the budget speech of slogan-chanting opposition politicians trying to obstruct Minister Hammad Azhar’s speech and almost coming to blows with PTI lawmakers was a shameful one. Surely, such scenes are not new in our parliamentary history, but one expected sobriety from the MNAs after the third democratic transition. It is perhaps true that the performance of the current parliament is worse than that of the last two assemblies.

It is highly irrational for the ruling party to oppose production orders for the members in the custody of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). It’s a complete departure from past tradition, and the stance of the speaker, who is supposed to be impartial, has been highly controversial.

One cannot understand the logic behind the decision to not let the detained members who are not even convicted to attend parliament. The problem with Imran Khan is that for him, everyone else in parliament, except for his own party members, is corrupt and should not be there. This sense of self-righteousness and mulishness is partly responsible for the increasing political tensions; it is also undermining elected democratic institutions.

Not satisfied with NAB going after the opposition leaders, Imran Khan now wants to set up a commission to probe the debt problem and what he describes as the ‘misuse of borrowed money’ by previous governments. Indeed, the massive debt piled up over the past years has contributed to the country’s worst financial crisis. But the latter has more to do with flawed economic and fiscal policies pursued by successive governments, and is not necessarily linked to corruption. Economists and financial experts, rather than military and civilian intelligence agencies as suggested by the prime minister, must examine the issue of debt. The purpose should be to find the solution to the problem and not to use it for a political witch-hunt.

Imran Khan has a tendency to see things from a very narrow prism. He has a very simplistic approach to dealing with complex issues. That has also been a major reason for his blundering through since taking the reins of power. More dangerous, however, is his government’s growing dependence on intelligence and security agencies and involving them even in areas beyond their mandate and expertise.

His midnight television address last week was a national embarrassment. One fails to understand the rationale behind threatening the opposition, hours after the announcement of the budget. One expected the prime minister to explain to the people why tough financial measures were needed and to mobilise public opinion in favour of the reform programme.

Instead, the entire focus of his rambling and disjointed talk was on the ‘misdeeds’ of the previous governments. He said after having stabilised the economy he would concentrate his efforts on accelerating the anti-corruption drive. However, the claim of putting the economy back on track is premature; it will be a long while before the financial crisis is over.

True, it is a daunting challenge for the PTI government to clear the financial mess that it has inherited, and it needs to take tough and unpopular reform measures. But Imran Khan’s confrontationist approach makes the task for the government that much harder.

For these tough but necessary budgetary actions, the government needs to lower the political temperature instead of raising it. Indeed, the economy may be showing a few signs of recovery, but continuing political instability could affect its revival. By rendering parliament irrelevant, the government is attempting to rely on unelected institutions. Technocrats are useful for providing expertise in certain fields but they should not be allowed to dominate decisions and run the government.

Some unconfirmed reports suggest the government is planning to set up an ‘economic security council’ that would include the top security leadership. Such a move could only weaken the civilian authority and formally expand the role of the military although the latter’s shadow has already lengthened under the PTI government. The latest change in the leadership of the country’s premier intelligence agency has also raised eyebrows. The development has become more significant given the emerging opposition alliance. The concerns may be exaggerated, but perceptions are important.

Economic and political stability are interlinked. Strengthening the civilian democratic process is a prerequisite for economic recovery. It is in the interest of the government to lower tensions inside and outside parliament. A combative approach will harm the government more. It is imperative to restore the sanctity of parliament and its role as a representative body.

The writer is an author and a journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, June 19th, 2019