BY holding two successful public meetings, the first congregation at Gujranwala and the second one at Karachi, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) has made a healthy contribution to the country’s transition to a functional democracy. It has confirmed the existence of an opposition that is essential for a multiparty dispensation.

For the Karachi meeting, the organisers faced no administrative bottlenecks as one of the PDM parties is in power there, but in the case of the Gujranwala meeting, the Punjab government earned credit for putting aside its intolerance of the opposition and respecting its right to assemble and raise its voice, though it meant extra work for the large brigade of ministers and special representatives charged with ragging the opposition, as they kept informing the people of empty chairs in the pandal and the failure of the organisers to attract as many people as the cost warranted.

The size of the audience at the PDM meetings might not have been as large as claimed by the organisers but it was certainly larger than the government’s estimates. But this matters less than the fact that an alternative narrative was presented at the PDM meetings. There may have been something in the speeches made at the meetings that was not liked by the government or a section of the people, but the speakers were within their right to freedom of speech.

That the government spokesmen were less aggressive in attacking the Karachi meeting than they were in dealing with the Gujranwala congregation offers a ray of hope that the opposition’s right to assemble and raise its voice may upset the party in power less and less, though any opposition show of strength in Punjab is unlikely to be tolerated by the ruling party’s high command.

The present culture of confrontation must be replaced with issue-based posturing.

Unfortunately, the prime minister’s reaction to the speeches at the Gujranwala meeting and again to the Karachi meeting betrays unjustifiable anger. His announcement about discontinuation of production orders for parliamentarians who are in prison cannot be defended as no executive order can extinguish a parliamentarian’s rights and privileges. His declaration that he would have no truck with the opposition is not only wrong in principle it is also incorrect in light of the fact that the government recently sought and received the opposition’s support for the adoption of critically needed legislation.

To say that the government will never have an understanding with the opposition amounts to negating a fundamental premise of the modern concept of democracy, which is moving all over the world away from majoritarian democracy. It also reveals a real or feigned ignorance of the acceptance in practice of government-opposition cooperation. Aren’t parliamentarians belonging to both the government and opposition parties sitting together in standing committees? And aren’t some of the standing committees headed by opposition members?

However, the fact that the standing committees have not been able to play their due role as auditors of legislative proposals cannot be denied, and the ruling party and the opposition both should accept responsibility for this sorry state of affairs. Otherwise governance too is suffering because of the lack of mutual respect between the two sides.

The government must realise that if it succeeds in pushing the opposition off the country’s political landscape it will start looking more and more as an extension of the Ziaul Haq regime with all the attendant consequences. The government needs an active opposition in its own interest. A government freed of the opposition’s hand to check its excesses, aberrations and fads will not realise its blunders until it is too late to rectify them and ward off their adverse impact. This is the lesson the country learnt from the unbridled dictatorship of Ayub Khan, a lesson it cannot afford to forget.

In order to ensure that the opposition can make its due contribution to the management of state affairs the whole political paradigm will have to be revised. At present, the ruling party and the opposition are exhausting themselves in an exchange of abusive epithets. Each side is attacking the other for what it is presumed to be, instead of listening to what the other has to say. This culture of confrontation must be replaced with issue-based posturing. Instead of concentrating on what the others are, efforts need to be made to understand and appreciate what they stand for.

Unfortunately, the functioning of all state institutions has been affected by the failure of political parties to grow out of the agitational phase of politics, in which a dispassionate assessment of issues is rarely possible. In a stable polity, political debate derives its richness from a knowledge-based assessment of issues and is not confined to an exchange of slander.

At present, the opposition’s first and foremost duty is to raise the level of political discourse by reducing the element of slogan-mongering and hate speech in it and making it reflective of the common citizens’ concerns and aspirations.

As our experience of parliamentary democracy gets richer, the opposition must learn to do its homework. In time, the treasury benches will learn to have ministers who specialise in matters falling under their portfolios or who are capable of understanding their obligations within a short time. The opposition must do the same. It should develop subject specialists who can challenge the official narrative point by point.

Tailpiece: The state of law and order cannot be judged by signs of tranquillity in Islamabad or the provincial capitals, it must be judged by what goes on in the countryside. In Nankana Sahib, not far from Chief Minister Usman Buzdar’s gaddi, a police official picked up a shopkeeper who was preparing a banner for the PML-N and threw him in the lock-up without registering his arrest. The district and sessions judge came to his rescue and ordered his release on bail. No action against the arrogant police official has been reported.

Published in Dawn, October 22nd, 2020

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