EDITORIAL: The scenes in parliament over three successive days when Leader of the Opposition Shehbaz Sharif was speaking on the budget can only make democrats’ heads hang in shame. It seems that the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government decided in its weekly cabinet meeting before Shehbaz Sharif had even uttered a word on ‘retaliation’ for the noise disruption resorted to by the opposition during Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin’s budget presentation speech. However, carried away by zeal in their ‘mission’, treasury members, encouraged, it appears, by cabinet ministers, by far outstripped the opposition by resorting to catcalling, whistling, abuse, standing on their seats to shout slogans and using budget documents as ‘missiles’. Inevitably, some on the other side responded in kind. The National Assembly Speaker, Asad Qaiser, seemed helpless in trying to restrain the treasury members, let alone the opposition. Even sergeants-at-arms inducted from the Senate staff failed to halt the growing chaos. They did, however, insert themselves between the two ‘warring’ sides to prevent an even more serious physical clash. Shehbaz Sharif continued with his speech for three hectic days, another new record, while his party members threw a cordon around him to prevent any harm coming to him from the highly aggressive treasury members trying to ‘storm’ the dais from which he was speaking, as well as his seat in the house. Scuffles there were aplenty, and one treasury woman MNA was injured by a flying document in the eye. The Speaker was forced time and again to suspend the proceedings to allow tempers to cool and for the two sides of the aisle to discuss how to restore calm and allow the proceedings to continue unhindered by threats of, and actual, violence. Unfortunately, even the Speaker’s efforts came to naught in quelling the chaos. Seven MNAs were suspended indefinitely by him from attending the house, having been found guilty of being in the forefront of verbal and physical abuse that resembled not so much parliamentary behaviour as a fish market (perhaps that is an insult to the latter). Needless to say, neither the budget presented nor the Leader of the Opposition’s critique found much traction in the gladiators’ arena to which the house had been reduced.
Perhaps one should not be surprised that things have come to this pretty pass as far as parliament is concerned. The problem stems from the gutter language and abuse that informed the narrative of the PTI when in opposition, particularly during their ‘container’ days. However, one could have been forgiven for hoping that after entering office, the party would realize that what seemingly offered political mileage in opposition may not be appropriate coming from a party in power. Unfortunately, no such sea change has been in evidence over the last three years of the PTI’s government. If anything, the shrillness of the narrative has gone up in tandem with the political witch-hunt many in the country consider is being pursued by the government against the opposition leadership through weaponised institutions such as the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). To then expect that the opposition would adhere to parliamentary norms of behaviour or cooperate with the treasury in running the house in a civilised, acceptable manner may have been, and indeed turned out to be, baying for the moon. Parliament has been rendered dysfunctional in the process, with Prime Minister Imran Khan deigning to attend the house rarely, if at all. The government, instead of revisiting its attitude and persuading the opposition to run parliament in an orderly manner, carried on blithely a la its opposition days, using Presidential Ordinances or rushed through Bills without debate for legislation, further reducing parliament to an irrelevant, rowdy chamber echoing with unparliamentary language and behaviour. The latest fracas is only the logical outcome of these tendencies. While the opposition can be criticised for not responding to government provocations in a measured manner in parliament at least, the greater fault lies with the treasury benches, in whose interest it is (should they understand this) to have parliament run smoothly. Both sides should perhaps glance back at the history of extra-parliamentary interventions in our country as a precautionary tale. It seems obvious to even the dullest intelligence that continuing in the vein exhibited during the budget session threatens the democratic system with another intervention that would leave both sides of the divide cooling their heels outside the (should be) hallowed halls of democracy’s highest institution.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2021