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April 29, 2018

This political theatre


April 29, 2018

Whatever is happening in Pakistan at this time seems so unreal. Or surreal, if you are distracted by the drama and the suspense provoked by the unfolding events. There is also a sense of awe and wonder. And it is difficult to gauge the significance of what is happening on the surface and what is being directed and manipulated from behind the curtains.

On the surface, the annual budget is a matter of major significance. But there was an element of triviality in how the entire exercise was conducted in the National Assembly on Friday. It was preceded by a swearing-in ceremony at the President House. Ironies abounded because it was the sixth annual budget in a five-year term when the government is almost at the exit door. Besides, it was presented by a non-elected finance minister.

In any case, a budget is meant to reflect our economic realities and prospects. It has made the perfunctory headlines, irrespective of the expected rumpus that was created in the National Assembly. There was this histrionic display of a member rushing to pounce upon his adversary. It was termed as a farewell budget but in politics, partings are neither short nor sweet.

What seems certain is that this budget will not attract much attention as its proposals are debated in the legislature. Moves made by the politicians and judgments announced by the superior judiciary are bound to be more exciting and will generate a heated debate. Interestingly, the political scenario is in a flux at a time when the stage should firmly have been set for the national election. This time, the battle lines are still being drawn. Hence, some doubts about the timing of the elections.

On the day that the budget was presented, banner headlines in the newspapers announced the disqualification of former foreign minister Khawaja Asif by the Islamabad High Court (IHC). It is another blow to the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. Again, Article 62 (1)(f) came into action. Khawaja Asif had to pay the price of not having disclosed his salary drawn from a UAE company.

But the three-judge special bench of the IHC, comprising Justices Athar Minallah, Aamer Farooq and Mohsin Akhtar Kayani, delivered its verdict “with a heavy heart not only because a seasoned and accomplished political figure stands disqualified but more so because the dreams and aspirations of 342,125 registered voters have suffered a setback”.

The petition against Khawaja Asif was filed by a leader of the opposition party of Imran Khan, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. In its concluding note, the IHC bench advised lawmakers to settle such disputes on their own as this sort of litigation unnecessarily dragged courts into controversies. The bench noted: “This conduct of political forces lowers public confidence in the legislature on the one hand and on the other hand exposes the institution of judiciary to the controversies of adversarial politics”.

This wise counsel underlines the sanctity of the democratic process that is founded on free and fair elections. But Pakistan’s tragedy is that almost all our electoral exercises have been flawed for a number of reasons. In addition, our democracy has generally been a controlled one. The critical imperative of the supremacy of the elected remains elusive or illusionary.

What is it like now, when another elected government is completing its constitutional term of five years – a feat that no prime minister has yet been able to accomplish? Frankly, I do not find myself in a position to answer this question in a candid manner. One reason is that the situation itself is so uncertain. While the political antagonists are merrily raising their slogans in a campaign mode, the playing field on which they are parading is evidently not level. One major task of the media is to fairly assess this pre-poll environment. Yet, as a journalist who has been there for a long, long time I can confess in passing that the present atmosphere is truly extraordinary in terms of such undertakings.

Nonetheless, a heavy burden rests on the political leaders who profess their commitment to democracy and rule of law. Are they willing to read the situation selflessly and objectively? We are watching the game that is defined as horse-trading. There is a kind of bidding for the proverbial ‘electables’, though the ones who are changing loyalties loudly proclaim their adherence to the welfare of the people.

We can pray for a future when politicians are more capable, morally and intellectually, of defending their own ideological leanings and the fundamental principles of democracy. When they can stand up to fear and resist the temptation of rewards, especially during perfect opportunities for making the right choice based on values and principles. To my mind, the outcome of present expediencies is not likely to be pleasant. Finally, the ordinary people whose expectations are being irrationally raised will feel cheated and this will not be a good omen.

As for the state of affairs, one can pick and quote from the proceedings of the Supreme Court with reference to some important cases. Hearing the 20-day Faizabad Interchange sit-in case, Justice Qazi Faez Isa has drawn a not very enviable picture of the country his ‘forefathers had created’. He wondered why the people of Pakistan were destined to live in constant fear while those who ransacked everything, flouted the constitution, restricted the right to movement, and even gouged the eyes of police did do fearlessly. The point is to make an honest assessment of what is happening.

The writer is a senior journalist.

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