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EDITORIAL: As could be expected, the opposition Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) has rejected the government's desire to ban all public rallies because of the Covid-19 second wave threat. This response, as well as the PDM's rejection of any talks with the government, including on Prime Minister Imran Khan's floating the idea of electoral reforms requiring a constitutional amendment in a televised address on November 17, 2020, reflects the state of extreme polarisation in the country. If the opposition had complaints against the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government over the last two years, including allegations of the PTI having been brought to power through rigging the 2018 general elections, the recent Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly elections, seen as a rerun of the 2018 general elections by the PDM and analysts, have further soured the political atmosphere. Inevitably, this has led to a hardening of positions. The PDM's Karachi rally did not seem to be followed by any significant reports of a Covid-19 increase, but it has been argued that its Gujranwala and Quetta rallies did. This different outcome may, in some observers' opinion, be the result of the Karachi rally having an overwhelming participation of people brought in from other areas of Sindh and the country as a whole. However, given the complexity and unpredictability of the pandemic, nothing can be said with absolute certainty in this regard. However, there may well be a case for considering the risks attendant on the PDM's upcoming rallies in Peshawar on November 22, 2020, Multan November 30, 2020, and Lahore December 13, 2020. It goes without saying that given our political traditions and culture, attempting to impose SOPs on such rallies to guard against the spread of Covid-19 is a virtual impossibility. The PDM's rejection of the ban on rallies per se shows the trust gulf that exists between the two sides of the political divide. Given this situation, it came as no surprise to hear Punjab Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) president Rana Sanaullah, Ahsan Iqbal and other opposition leaders dismiss the ban as the government's panicked response to the actual or hoped for momentum the PDM rallies may be accumulating incrementally.

While blame for the existing polarised political situation may be shared by both sides, greater responsibility for triggering it and also for defusing it lies on the government's shoulders. This is because the government has to govern, the opposition only has to oppose. In a parliamentary democratic system, a one-sided or aggressive approach by the government side cannot help the parliamentary system work. Proof of this can be seen in the present dysfunctional state of parliament. It is the government's greater need to practice outreach towards the opposition, both outside and inside parliament, but with the latter of greater importance, to allow parliament to achieve some modicum of functionality. Here the role of Speaker comes into play as the guardian of the house and impartial conductor of its proceedings. We may have historically adopted the outward appearance of British parliamentary democracy, but have failed to inculcate its culture. The Speaker is held to the highest standards of fair and impartial running of the house, ensuring due respect and space to the opposition as well as the treasury. Unfortunately, we have adopted quite the opposite practice of the Speaker unabashedly displaying partiality towards the treasury benches inside the house, and (horror of horrors!) pronouncing on political issues outside it. Our current tragedy is that even a national health emergency such as a resurgent Covid-19 second wave is not addressed according to objective scientific and medical findings, being subjected instead to our daily dose of polarised politics instead. The PDM should consider the health risks to its own supporters as well as the country as a whole from continuing their rallies as planned. The government, on the other hand, is expected to show greater maturity in reaching out to, and respectfully dealing with, the opposition if our (admittedly flawed) parliamentary democracy is to have any chance of going forward.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020