On parliament

Published June 20, 2021
The writer is a barrister.
The writer is a barrister.

WHEN signing off on this country’s sacred document, Zulfi Bhutto said, ‘No Constitution is ever workable without the patience, the tolerance, the search for accommodation that is necessary to the preservation of democracy.’

It was April 10, 1973, and it was the high-water mark for our parliament: the first constitution put together by the people’s directly elected representatives.

But that ‘search for accommodation’ soon went out the window. Over the next several years, the Constitution weathered Mr Bhutto’s own amendments, Gen Zia’s deep freeze, and Sharifuddin Pirzada’s science lab. Pakistan became a presidency, and the results were uninspiring.

By 2010, the need to heal gave us the Eighteenth Amendment. Parliament returned to its rightful place at the heart of our democracy. The GIK button — a presidential itch for sacking the assemblies — was scrapped. Empowering the provinces acknowledged the sins of One Unit and the horrors of East Pakistan.

Undoing Fata some years later was the next huge step for our elected reps (sans the rather nauseating role of Messrs Fazl and Achakzai), and it enfranchised millions. As of this writing, greater rights for Gilgit-Baltistan also seem in the offing. No less is needed; its people fought and died to become part of Pakistan proper.

None of this was harmless fun.

All this brings us to a striking conclusion: at its finest, parliament mends the soul. It also decides the destiny of this country in ways that can be both legitimate and enduring — qualities that evade martial law and its generalissimos (this writer recommends Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s beautiful The Autumn of the Patriarch, where the centuries-long reign of a Caribbean despot is revealed only to have lasted seven years).

This is all the more important to remember after the events of the past few days, with the usual suspects sneering at the whole project — first came the treasury benches sparking chaos in Islamabad, and then the opposition blockading the Balochistan Assembly. The parliamentary secretary for law was injured, as was a security staffer.

The visuals, too, were depressing: the PTI’s Ali Awan was seen playing volleyball with budget books, while letting off a fluent stream of abuse. For reasons yet to be known, the gent behind him started blowing a whistle, presumably to direct traffic.

There was also the defence minister’s defence. With one arm on each banister like Kitchener at Gallipoli, Pervez Khattak watched motionless as the pawns marched ahead. He then sauntered forward, gently tossed some confetti into the fray, and shuffled right — a battle manoeuvre for the ages.

Over on the other side, the PML-N’s Rohale Asghar picked up his foot and reached for his mouth, pegging his naughty words to ‘Punjab ka culture’. Mr Asghar thus does a disservice to the 98,205 sons and daughters of Lahore that elected him.

At the same time, those calling all of this unprecedented are mistaken. Uneasy frenemies today, the PPP and PML-N’s cavalries charged each other in ’94, after Tehmina Daultana rushed at PM Benazir. Further back, one author describes the scenes in the East Pakistan Assembly in ’58, “Chairs sailed through the air … even the national flag was transformed into a potentially lethal, freewheeling lathi.”

None of this was harmless fun: such violence would take the life of deputy speaker Shahed Ali, prompting this paper’s editorial to go as far as urging the Constitution’s suspension. That diagnosis has proven wrong, yet it speaks of the sacred trust our parliamentarians hold, and its hard lessons along the way: for any crisis of democracy, there can only be more democracy.

On that note, the buck stops with the ruling party. The PTI must let the opposition speak, it must shut down its ordinance factory, and the prime minister must start attending sessions and fulfilling his promise of Westminster-style Prime Minister’s Questions.

The opposition, for its part, has to do the hard work of shadow budgets and policy alternatives. But it must be wooed or debated, not bulldozed.

Second is rejigging lawmaking and quorum. As Justice Fazal Karim has written, a 446-member parliament can get away with passing a law “with as few as 58 members”. Meanwhile, Article 63-A makes independent backbenchers impossible, as does the latest drive against the secret vote.

Third, parties must evolve beyond blood dynasties in favour of primary elections; Aimal Wali is set to smash all records as Khan IV of the ANP. The Muslim Leagues are adopting the same Bhuttoist model, in thrall to a single royal family: Sharif, Pagara, Elahi. While promising a break from bloodlines, the PTI flubbed its own intra-party elections; the gents that the clean and honourable Justice Wajihuddin pointed out as riggers remain unpunished.

Finally, in the Quaid’s words, “Remember that you are now a sovereign legislative body, and you have got all the powers. It, therefore, places on you the gravest responsibility…”

That’s the original mission. Our parliament must rise to it.

The writer is a barrister.

Published in Dawn, June 20th, 2021

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