Dr. Hasan Askari
Two deplorable incidents involving the members of the National Assembly took place on January 26 and March 9. In both cases the members of the ruling PMLN and its arch rival PTI were involved. In the first incident, the members of these parties exchanged punches on the floor of the National Assembly. In the second incident, the two members belonging to PMLN 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 PMLN member. Other members intervened to stop them. Later, the PMLN member held a press conference and made obnoxious remarks about the PTI member and the PTI chief.
In Pakistan, political leaders and parliamentarians often use non-democratic and un-parliamentary language to address their political adversaries. It is quite common for them to talk about their political opponents in a contemptuous manner. Others who may not make rude and ill-mannered remarks are unable or unwilling to stop their party colleagues from adopting such a negative disposition that brings bad name to democratic institutions and processes.
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 license to pursue their agendas any way they wish. These people hardly care about democratic values and norms except when these serve their political agendas.
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 PMLN 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 the 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 neutralizing the arguments of the political rival. The PMLN 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 the parliamentary session that gives an opportunity their respective party members to engage in free-for-all speecesh 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 personalized 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 all favours and distribution of state resources is done by the ruler at the personalized level, there is a race in the political party for showing allegiance to the chief. One way of achieving this goal 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. Democratic structure and rituals may survive but their substance and spirt is missing.
The above statement on the poverty of democracy in Pakistan is not meant to make a case for discarding it. The deficiency in Pakistani democracy is correctable provided the top political leaders of the major political parties agree to mend their ways. They need to turn political parties into autonomous 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. This will improve the quality in Pakistan.