Anatomy of the June 15 saga – Nasim Zehra

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That Pakistan’s politics is locked into a negative dynamic of anger, aggression and allegation is now amply evident. While contestation and competition must lie at the core of democratic politics, politics laced with anger, allegation and aggression often undermines the best-intentioned political goals. It unleashes toxic and corrosive energy that often neutralizes and negates all reformist energy

Hence, a compelling question for Pakistan’s politics is whether from this primarily negative track it can switch to a competitive track. Currently, both political and non-political players – plus their multiple proteges – naively believe they are on a winning track. On corrosive paths, substantive victories remain elusive.

The June 11-June 17 proceedings of the National Assembly amply illustrate what unresolved allegations, anger and aggression produce. It is true that on August 17, 2018 when the prime minister began to deliver his first speech in parliament it was drowned out by shouts coming from the opposition benches, who believed Imran Khan had not won through a fairly conducted election process. To some extent, the tone for subsequent National Assembly sessions was then set.

On June 15, 2021 we witnessed cantankerous politics, the hallmark of government-opposition relations, reach a crescendo. As opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif began his budget speech, all hell broke loose. Cameras and mics picked up abuse, desk thumping, chair climbing and enthusiastic hollering. Amidst Pakistan’s many scuffling parliamentarians one sergeant-at-arms along with ten sergeants, untrained to tackle such large-scale parliamentarian hooliganism, merely drifted around. Several cabinet ministers actively participated and orchestrated the mayhem. Pakistan watched this shameful saga as live and recorded footage flooded the social and electronic media.

The government’s plans to disrupt Shahbaz Sharif’s speech had been announced on June 14 by the information minister. After the cabinet meeting, he told the press to make no mistake and that it would be tit-for-tat and that, while criticism will be allowed, rudeness would not be tolerated. Accordingly, as if electrified by their party command, PTI parliamentarians battled tirelessly – blowing whistles, hurling abuses at the opposition. Some climbed chairs and desks.

Early in the session, many PML-N parliamentarians vehemently responded to the mayhem initiated by PTI parliamentarians. While some hurled abuses, others shouted slogans and encircled their leader. Parliamentarians targeted each other with budget documents. Later on, incredible justification for this came from a PML-N parliamentarian who had earlier vilely abused the prime minister; according to the parliamentarian, abuse is part of the Punjabi culture!

After the government’s clear decision to disrupt the June 15 opposition leader’s speech, the National Assembly speaker’s June 14 attempt to draw up a code of conduct for the government and the opposition proved futile. The speaker’s unheeded draft code of conduct had proposed that all parliamentarians were to address the speaker, no cross talk would be allowed while parliament is in session, and no video recordings to be allowed. In the PML-N parliamentarian meeting, Shahbaz Sharif’s proposal that the prime minister’s speech would be heard silently if the treasury benches would let him speak unhindered, received meek approval. It is unclear if this was even conveyed to the speaker. Eventually, mayhem ensued.

On June 16, the speaker of the National Assembly took the action of banning seven parliamentarians, three from the ruling party and three from the PML-N plus one from the PPP for abusing in parliament. The speaker restricted his inquiry, overlooking other facts like the elaborate planning by the treasury benches to abort the opposition leader’s speech – which included them coming armed with whistles – and the decision to use the budget document as a weapon against each other.

The speaker did not reprimand and ban the ministers leading some of the aggression. His visit to the PM before issuing his ban order was also unbecoming of a speaker, who is supposed to be the constitutional custodian of the House. Past speakers too have been known for partisanship. For example, the PML-N speaker Ayaz Sadiq in August 2016 returned references filed against Nawaz Sharif while forwarding to the Election Commission references filed against Imran Khan.

The question ultimately is whether there is a price tag attached for this kind of behaviour and approach. Is there a cost that the public, parliament and the political system bear with this behaviour in vogue? Three aspects are noteworthy:

One, in the short term everyone gets away with this embattled approach. No-holds-barred accusations and denunciations from political divides and from the ranks of their respective proteges fly across towards each other. No one seems to be paying a price for this, especially in the short run. And so it’s all kosher.

Two, this approach means that often there is no substantive dialogue on important policy issues, on new legislation etc. Instead, verbal feuds take place in a near-militant and aggressive environment within parliament. Often, the net result of this approach is that no consensus is evolved among political parties. Instead of parliament passing laws through consensus after deliberation and debate (a weak tradition always) and consensus on critical issues including electoral reforms, NAB and voting for overseas Pakistanis, the government opts to govern through ordinance.

Three, this hate-and-hound brand of politics goes beyond political circles and infiltrates society. The erosion of patience, tolerance and of grey spaces where divergent opinions can co-exist hasn’t meant some greatly reformed, developed and ethical society – one that many had hoped for. Instead, with the deafening shrills of self-righteousness we seem to wilfully be wounding decency and thoughtfulness. Underlying the intense emotive skirmishes that self-righteousness produce, societies witness the death of reason and patience, qualities so critical for societies to flourish and evolve.

Barring some miraculous turn-around in the government- oppositions relations, in the next couple of years we will likely witness more of what happened in the National Assembly on June 15.

For the next round for national elections, Pakistan and its democratic system desperately require fair and free elections. The circus of justice by half, law-enforcement by half, accountability by half, ending China- cutting by half must end. Otherwise, the macabre joke of democracy-by-half will continue to harm the people, the system and the country of Pakistan.

Virtually, all political parties have benefited from the many rounds of ‘engineered’ democracy. Many from varied interest groups have personally prospered under the dark shadows of mutilated democracy. Unless this changes, Pakistan will travel in reverse gear, irrespective of how clean and committed party leaders like Imran Khan maybe.

Tailpiece: Kudos to the government for picking up an ugly battle instead of seeking a sober debate on Shaukat Tarin’s 2021-22 proposed budget. In a remarkable feat, the government opted for a knockout. Despite the potential for inflation, this was a budget which clearly catered for the almost economically disenfranchised section of the Pakistani people. Also, there is no doubt that this budget proposes in an unprecedented manner – through various packages – an architecture of social security which is also partially a productive one. Indeed the Benazir Income Support Programme was a pathbreaking initiative for Pakistan’s economically depressed, one that this PM has taken expanded and taken to impressive scales.

But true to its linear, nearly militant and reactive approach, the government captained by the prime minister decided to payback in kind to the opposition for the finance minister’s speech. Will someone ask: at what cost, Captain?

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: nasimzehra@gmail.com