Saad Rasool |
The past few weeks have been exceptionally revealing for Pakistan’s politico-legal paradigm. In the days following the month of Ramazan, Hamza Shahbaz’s cat-and-mouse game with NAB Authorities came to an end, Asif Zardari and Faryal Talpur were arrested, Altaf Hussain was apprehended (and later released) by the Scotland Yard, Nawaz Sharif’s bail was rejected by the honorable IHC, and NAB’s drive for accountability was expanded to include several other political leaders from all sides of the aisle.
To this end, Mr. Sibtain Khan (a senior PTI minister in Punjab) has been arrested, Chief Minister Sindh is facing probing questions from investigative agencies, and a reference has already been filed against Mustafa Kamal, former Mayor of Karachi and leader of PSP. These developments, in themselves, are sensational. But the truly revealing facet is that none of these events have resulted in the sort of public outcry or a widespread mobilization of the masses that had been feared.
No matter who wins this tussle, it is important to make sure that the process is carried out to its logical conclusion.
As it turns out, there was no truth to the earlier threats of ‘einton say eintain’, or the myth of ‘shutting down’ portions of the country. Altaf Hussain’s arrest did not shut down Karachi; Asif Zardari’s arrest did not shake the foundations of Sindh; and Nawaz Sharif’s incarceration or Hamza Shahbaz’s arrest did not bring Punjab to a brink. As such, these past few weeks have seen the death of a long-standing myth: that certain political personalities are more powerful than the State and the institutions of Pakistan.
Be that as it may, this momentary lull in the politics of agitation must not be allowed to dilute the underlying stakes at play – this is a battle for survival of the individuals and institutions concerned. On the one hand are entrenched status quo forces of hereditary politics, which are fighting for the survival of their personal fiefdoms and the ‘system’ that perpetuates it. On the other, an equally (if not more) entrenched ‘deep State’ that can no longer pursue its regional goals without first subduing the threats within.
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There is an old African proverb that describes this situation at hand: ‘When elephants’ fights, it is the grass that suffers’. And stuck somewhere between this fight for survival between the elephants, the hapless citizenry (as grass) are suffering the most. But let us turn to the issue at hand: that the current democratic dispensation, embodied in the Parliament and our political parties, is just not working.
Let us repeat that more carefully: it is not that the democracy is not working; instead, the system through which the democracy is designed to function, throughout Pakistan, seems to be broken. Taking the Parliament as an example, there can be little cavil with the proposition that our Parliament, in its current form, is not functioning as the repository of ‘public will’.
As it turns out, there was no truth to the earlier threats of ‘einton say eintain’, or the myth of ‘shutting down’ portions of the country.
With the exception of a few recent sessions (concerning debate on the budget), the Parliament has been entirely consumed in matters of petty partisanship and the politics of Production Orders. For several weeks, members of the government and opposition political parties have refused to allow others speak. They have indulged in political sloganeering, periodic walkouts, collective boycotts and abusive language – everything, except matters of public interest. During this time, no party within in the Parliament has endeavored to reform and update out antiquated legislative framework.
In fact, over the past three years, our National Assembly has passed only one meaningful piece of legislation: the Election Act, 2017. And this legislation, as is now apparent, was not passed in the spirit of public wellbeing; instead, its purpose was to allow a disqualified individual to become the ‘party head’, while also dispensing with all requirements of asset disclosure in the nomination forms for election to the Parliament.
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As such, this legislative exercise (the only one of note over the past several years), was carried out for the benefit of the Parliamentarians themselves, and for the perpetuation of the personal fiefdoms of the few. Is this really the spirit and mandate of democracy, under the 1973 Constitution? Is our system of democracy, exercised ostensibly as a sacred trust, only designed to ensure the financial and political survival of two specific families?
When was the last time that members of the Parliament debated issues concerning environment, regional security, international relations, social welfare, population control or the criminal justice system? When was the last time that a Parliamentarian tabled some bill that represented the local interests of their constituents? When was the last time that Parliamentary committees (e.g. the PAC) held a parliamentarian accountable for public expenditure? Or work towards the accountability of governmental departments and the Ministers who lead them?
Taking the Parliament as an example, there can be little cavil with the proposition that our Parliament, in its current form, is not functioning as the repository of ‘public will’.
For this (last) issue, PM Imran Khan has constituted a high-powered Commission, to be headed by the incorruptible Mr. Hussain Asghar, which will do an audit of debt accrued over the past 10 years, and the transparency of expenditures made thereof. There are several issues – legal and political – which loom over the functioning of this Commission, specifically concerning the overlap of its ambit with the existing statutory framework of our investigative institutions. But that’s a debate for another time.
For now, it is clear that the PTI government is looking to hold politicians (from all sides of the isle) responsible for their fiscal choices and its transparency. In the circumstances, those who have adorned our corridors of power for the past decade (and beyond), know that this is a fight for their survival. For them, it is a fight for the survival of a culture where financial accountability for political actions has been largely absent.
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This is a fight for the survival of those who deem themselves to be the very manifestation of democracy itself; those we claim that democracy can only continue if their fiefdoms do; those who claim that institutions like NAB do not have the ‘majaal’ to question their personal conduct; those who claim that ‘vote ko izzat do’ is a slogan that encompasses immunity against criminal conduct; those who threaten to invoke the provincial and ethnic card, every time they are questioned about their personal wealth; those who believe that their street nuisance allows them to raise anti-Pakistan slogans; and those who support a perpetuation of such private dominions.
On the other hand, this is equally a fight for survival of institutions who have dared to question the high and might in our politics; it is a fight for the survival of a NAB that is not cowered under a spineless Qamar Zaman Chaudhry; of an SECP that is not led by Zafar Hijazi, and an NBP that is not run on the instructions of Ishaaq Dar. In equal measure, if not more, this is certainly a fight for the survival of the deep State in Pakistan. For the legitimacy of khakis and civilian institutions that participated in the Panama JIT and fake accounts investigation; for the independence of those included in Prime Minister’s latest commission; and for all those who support them.
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This fight for survival will unfold in the coming days and weeks. It will consume even more space on the public media waves, and is likely to result in much more ruckus on the floor of the Parliament. No matter who wins this tussle, it is important to make sure that the process is carried out to its logical conclusion. If for no other reason than to determine the direction that our country will take hereon forth, and to establish the who will lead us in that direction.
And while democracy, as the ethos of governance, continue after this fight is over, it is not necessary that the current system of government survives the tussle.
Saad Rasool is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has an LL.M. in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Twitter: @Ch_SaadRasool. This article was originally appeared at The Nation and has been republished with author’s permission. The Views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.