The problem of political discourse | Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi

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Democracy does not simply mean the holding of elections and establishment of democratic infrastructure. The people who manage democratic institutions and processes must imbibe its principles and norms so that these are fully reflected in the political system.

One way to judge the quality of democracy is to review the disposition and conduct of the key players, ie, political parties and leaders. How far they internalise the norms and values of democracy and practise them in managing political and societal affairs. Therefore, political idiom and discourse of the political leaders must reflect democratic norms of mutual respect, decency and deference towards divergent viewpoints. The differences are resolved through dialogue and accommodation rather than turning these into personal or group enmity.

A good number of political leaders and parliamentarians use non-democratic and un-parliamentary idiom to address their political adversaries. Others, who may not indulge in such rude and ill-mannered interaction, are unable or unwilling to stop their party colleagues from adopting such a disposition that brings a bad name to democratic institutions and processes.

Two deplorable incidents involving members of the National Assembly took place on January 26 and March 9. In both cases members of the ruling PML-N and its archrival PTI were involved. In the first incident, members of these parties exchanged punches on the floor of the National Assembly. In the second incident, two members belonging to PML-N and the PTI made controversial remarks about each other’s leader on the floor of the house. As they came out of the house into the lobby, they exchanged hot words and the PTI member attempted to punch the PML-N member. Other members intervened to stop them. Later, the PML-N member held a news conference and made obnoxious remarks about the PTI member and the PTI chief.

Several factors explain the decline in the quality of political discourse and the use of outrageous remarks by parliamentarians. First, parliamentary elections have become such an expensive exercise that only sufficiently wealthy people can take part in it. Certain professions in Pakistan have thrown up a large number of wealthy people during the last two decades, who are convinced that their economic clout gives them a licence to pursue their agendas any way they wish. These people hardly care about democratic values and norms except when these serve their personal interest and inflated ego.

Second, political partisanship has intensified so much that most leaders equate their party interest with the national interest and do not hesitate a moment in rejecting the viewpoint of their rival political party. There is very little, if any, regard for consensus-building, merit and professionalism. The partisan interest rides supreme.

Third, major political parties encourage their activists to adopt a tough and insulting disposition towards the activists of the rival political parties. The major confrontation is between the PML-N and the PTI as the latter is attempting to challenge the former’s monopoly of power in Punjab. Their members are often engaged in mud-slinging against each other which has lowered the quality of political discourse.

Fourth, political talk shows on the private sector TV have also contributed to degrading political interaction among the competing political parties. Many anchors and producers invite political leaders to their programmes who have the reputation of engaging in verbal fights with their rival party leaders. A leader is likely to get more invitations for TV talk shows if he/she develops the reputation of making controversial remarks or heckles the political rivals. Most political parties have “loose and rude” talkers who are praised by the party top leaders for neutralising the arguments of the political rival. The PML-N has excelled in preparing a team of party activists whose only task is to “praise Nawaz Sharif and condemn Imran Khan” on the media. Such TV shows have contributed to diminishing decency in political exchanges.

Fifth, the party top leaders do not reprimand their parliamentarians or other activists for their indecent and un-parliamentary disposition. The top leaders like Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan do not regularly attend parliamentary sessions and that gives their respective party members an opportunity to make free-for-all speeches in the house. The absence of top leader from the house also causes the quorum problem. A good number of members do not turn up for the session or stay there briefly.

The overall governance pattern negates the principles and spirit of democracy. Instead of creating viable democratic institutions and processes the focus is on building personalised political fiefdom. Professionalism, administrative nonpartisanship and judicious handling of state resources and socio-economic development are replaced with unconditional loyalty to the chief. All development work for the people is projected as personal favours of the ruler. As the distribution of state patronage and development fund are done by the ruler at the personalised level, there is a race in the political party for showing allegiance to the chief. One way of proving the loyalty is to praise the chief all the time and adopt a derogatory disposition towards political adversaries. Such a political culture is the major obstacle to democratic consolidation.

The above statement on the poverty of democracy in Pakistan is not meant to make a case for discarding it. The deficiencies in Pakistani democracy are correctable — provided the top political leaders of the major political parties agree to mend their ways. They need to work towards implementing the norms of democracy in the management of day-to-day politics and turn their political parties into self-sustaining political machines with internal democracy. The culture of sycophancy needs to be replaced with professionalism and experience. The top leaders must attend the assembly sessions with greater frequency. They must make sure that the members attend the sessions regularly, take part in the proceedings and maintain the decorum inside and outside the house. The sooner they make such a beginning the better.

The writer is an independent political and defence analyst. He is also the author of several books, monographs and articles on Pakistan and South Asian affairs