The tide of fortunes By Arifa Noor

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ON Friday, the labyrinthine halls of parliament were quiet, for activity tends to wind down in anticipation of the weekend. Only the cleaning staff visible through open doorways seemed to be active. But in a smallish conference room, a few senators were trying to wrap up their work before some of them headed to their flight home.

With one day left, the committee chairman, Taj Haider, in his self-appointed role as bridge-builder was keen that the committee wrap up its deliberations on the election law introduced by the PTI. He had managed to create a consensus on a number of issues but they still had a long way to go. And Friday morning, he wasn’t having much success.

Babar Awan wouldn’t budge, insisting that he wanted to rebut each and every one of the objections raised by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) in its letter to Taj Haider. He wouldn’t be hurried, as precious minutes zoomed past, while the chairman tried to convince him otherwise.

Reporters seated in the corners of the conference room were grumbling and whispering at the intransigence of everyone. “Instead of arguing over what needs to be done, Taj Haider should have let Awan have these 10 minutes to wrap up his statement,” said one. The other, more sceptical, couldn’t understand why the senior ‘pipliya’ was wasting his time because “the issue was going to end up in the joint session, anyway”. (This law had been bulldozed through the National Assembly but later, due to the opposition’s criticism, the government had agreed to consultations in the Senate to create a consensus. But in case of a stalemate, it was assumed, the government would use a joint session to get it through.)

Hot words, boycotts and government-opposition scuffles over legislation are nothing new.

Before they could whisper any further, the loud voices from the conference table drew everyone’s attention.

Azam Swati’s allegations that the ECP “ne paise pakre huay hain” (received bribes) led to its officials walking out in a heartbeat; the efforts of Ali Mohammad Khan and others to bring them back were in vain.

Editorial: Azam Swati has disgraced himself by his odious remarks against a constitutional body mandated to oversee elections in the country

Perhaps this is why Taj Haider finally put an end to Awan’s endless note reading, despite the latter’s protests. But before long, another crisis erupted as the government side was pushing for their new colleague’s right to vote via Skype, which the chairman refused to agree to. As it is, the new member, a female senator from Balochistan, had been added to the committee by the Senate chairman recently in what was interpreted as a move to give the government an edge in voting. Haider had not been pleased with the move but had accepted the new induction to avoid a confrontation.

But the additional vote was not needed, as matters turned out. Once Haider turned down the tech-friendly government senator’s suggestion to allow cyberspace voting, the latter walked out and the opposition members voted against the law. Friday didn’t seem sleepy any more.

Hot words, boycotts and government-opposition scuffles over legislation are nothing new. Our legislators have indulged in these time-honoured traditions many a time. And neither is the belligerent behaviour of the ECP unusual in a country where institutions begin behaving like political players.

Even the government’s aggressive mood, as it flexes its muscles to bulldoze its preferred legislation through, seems familiar. The electoral reforms package is one example, where most felt the government would push it to a joint session, even before the Senate committee proceedings fell apart on Friday.

It is behaving no differently vis-à-vis the PMDA, the new media authority the government wants to create to oversee television, print and the indefatigable social media. Intriguingly, this authority which has been in discussion for months and has been rejected by many ‘stakeholders’ is going to come into being through a ‘law’ which is yet to be drafted, if the government is to be believed. So far, there is apparently only a concept and a paper outlining it. But here too, the government appears to be in a my-way-or-the-highway mood.

In part, this can be put down to nasha (obsession) of power. First-time rulers in the land of the pure feel their decision-making should know no check. Think PPP under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and later Nawaz Sharif in the 1990s, and now Imran Khan. There is quite a bit in common, including legislating as if their days in opposition were over forever.

In addition, this is also the halfway point in a five-year term — a post-2008 phenomenon — leading to a sense of invincibility. It has crossed the psychological mark of surviving half its term, the opposition has played all its cards (for the moment), and even the internal challenges have been withstood. The Jahangir Tareen group seems to have withered away and all the factions within the party’s Punjab chapter have also gone quiet. Aleem Khan’s reported resignation indicates that Usman Buzdar is here to stay.

No wonder then the PTI is confident — when it surveys the battleground, it doesn’t really see an ‘enemy’ still standing. And this adds to the euphoria and the testosterone-driven style at display in parliament.

(The governance is a challenge they will have to battle, come election time.)

But it is worth wondering how long this state of affairs will last. Peace, after all, is just an interlude between wars — or politics in Pakistan.

And for some reason, I keep going back to a gathering in Islamabad some years ago. As is the wont in this capital city, some politicians and journalists had gotten together for dinner and unending discussions. And a senior PPP politician had said of the Muslim League, “Their sultanate will last for generations.” No one present could disagree. By this time, the dharna by Imran Khan had been relegated to memory and the Panama Papers had still not been made public. Nawaz Sharif did seem invincible. But within months, the tide was to turn. And with it, the fortunes of the PML-N and the PTI.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, September 14th, 2021