The Senate sideshow

July 23, 2019


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

THE opposition plans to take down the Senate chairman. Sadiq Sanjrani, the man who has a target on his back, had appeared out of nowhere in 2018 to claim the position when Asif Ali Zardari was playing footsie with the real powerbrokers for various reasons, which included bringing down the PML-N a notch or two.

Maybe, the Noonies were brought down more than just a couple of notches: their government in Balochistan disappeared into thin air, as did their hopes of a majority in the Senate. In the process, the country’s most backward and deprived province got to head the Senate, which gave the PTI and PPP’s coming together some modicum of respectability — or at least they claimed it did.

But post the fake accounts cases and the arrests, the PPP (or shall we say Asif Ali Zardari) changed his mind about Baloch rights, which he had put before his own party man, Raza Rabbani — whom the PML-N had suggested as the consensus candidate for the post of chairman. But that was back then. Now the PPP wants to draw first blood.

Even prior to the PPP and PML-N breaking khajoors over iftar, the PPP had been pushing the latter to change the Senate chairman, but the Noonies had shown no interest for they had hopes of securing Sharif senior’s bail. But that was not to be, compelling the PML-N to walk into the arms of the waiting PPP.

Chances are that the move to remove the Senate chairman will have little impact on the larger stage.

The two parties and their allies have the numbers to comfortably remove the Senate chairman; the numbers on the other side are far fewer, though they have muscle power which the opposition cannot match. It remains to be seen if the muscle can be flexed enough to decimate the comfortable majority enjoyed by the PPP, the PML-N and others.

But whatever the outcome of the fight in the Senate, it will remain a sideshow in the larger game of politics, because that is simply what the Senate is.

The upper house, with its indirect elections, has always had its fair share of controversies, but these were usually limited to the selection of candidates by the parties and the alleged use of money to buy elections. Till not too long ago, a father and his two sons sat in the Senate simultaneously, and this was said to be due to their prosperity rather than their political acumen. Back in 2012 (when the PPP had a respectable presence in Punjab), a PPP candidate (who was also a party loyalist) lost while an independent candidate and a PML-Q candidate (inexplicably) made it to the Senate after the voting in the provincial assembly. On the other hand, the far fewer number of votes in places such as KP had made the sale and purchase of them an open secret.

Indeed, the voting process was so muddied that the parties opted for direct negotiations with each other and strict discipline to ensure their own candidates were elected, removing to an extent the right of individuals to exercise their own choice or preference.

And neither were the parties concerned about the federal nature of the Senate, nominating their favoured ones with no regard for origins or place of birth. Few and far between are cases such as those of Aitzaz Ahsan or Farhatullah Babar, who refused a party nomination from Sindh because their domicile was from elsewhere.

But all this was part and parcel of what we called an ‘election’ and an acceptable one. What made the 2018 Senate election so controversial was that along with the parties, the establishment also decided to enter the swamp. In the past, it had left the Senate manoeuvring to the parties and focused its energies on the National Assembly. Its shenanigans, with much help from the PPP, deprived the PML-N of its majority in the upper house.

Whether this made the election controversial and dirty or simply more controversial and dirtier than usual will depend on who is asked. But now that the PPP feels it has been dumped by the establishment, it wants to ‘wrong’ the right of 2018 — or as it argues, it now wants to realign the Senate as the general elections has drawn new lines.

And an embittered PML-N, pressured by cases and arrests, is willing to join hands with the PPP, whom it was not willing to trust until recently. After all, this is what Kautilya advises — an enemy’s enemy is one’s friend.

Be that as it may, whichever way the move of no-confidence against the Senate chairman goes, it will still remain a sideshow. At best, it will be a small victory for one of the sides, but chances are it will have little impact on the larger stage.

Even if the opposition brings in a new chairman Senate, the accountability drive against the opposition will not slow down — not for the near future at least. And neither will there be any other concessions such as fewer arrests or more bail orders. Additionally, the cooperation between the PPP and PML-N in the Senate will not really lessen the trust issues between the two parties any more than the election of Sadiq Sanjrani bridged the gap between Asif Ali Zardari and the establishment.

Neither will the challenges facing the PTI lessen considerably if the no-confidence move fails: it will continue to struggle with the economic challenges and the governance ones, as well as dealing with a hostile opposition and an increasing sullen media.

And yet the Senate game will be played — and for more than one round. Because a cornered opposition has few cards apart from the ones it holds in the upper house. Angry and pressured, it wants to bare its teeth (even though there are few fangs to show).

Indeed, it will not amount to much — except for perhaps taking away a bit from the high moral ground the cornered opposition claims to hold right now. Because the effort to remove Sanjrani is no less ugly than the move to put him there, and it does not paint a flattering picture of any of the players involved.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, July 23rd, 2019