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April 8, 2019

The PTI’s contempt problem

Opinion

April 8, 2019

Imran Khan has finally reached out to Shahbaz Sharif. The four-page letter he wrote last week is the first communication between the leader of the house and the leader of the opposition since August last year when the National Assembly had elected the two most important office-bearers in the house.

Even in this letter, Imran Khan has invoked constitution and religion only to state that he is not bound to meet the opposition leader face to face to fulfil the constitutional obligation of consultation over the selection of two members of the Election Commission of Pakistan.

Earlier efforts at communication had failed because Imran Khan was reluctant to open any direct line of communication with the opposition. He tried to engage with the opposition through the bureaucratic channel in the Foreign Office, as if he were communicating with a foreign mission. He received a rebuff as the leader of the opposition communicated back through his secretary and the opposition decided to boycott a planned government briefing on implementation of the National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism, meant for creating an agreement over giving extension to the military courts.

The government was keen to seek a second extension for the special military tribunals. As the government failed to get the opposition on board, the legislation covering the military courts expired on March 30.Though the National Assembly is re-convening this week on April 12, the government does not appear in a position to table the bill for granting the extension to the courts.

Similarly, the government has failed in its constitutional obligation to appoint two members of the ECP within 45 days of the retirement of a member each from Sindh and Balochistan. Under Articles 213 and 218 of the constitution, the prime minister in consultation with the opposition leader forwards three names for the appointment of a CEC or commission member to a parliamentary committee for confirmation of one name.

This happened because the prime minister was reluctant to engage with the opposition, and communicate with the leader of opposition in person or in writing. These two episodes are a sign of the state of Pakistan’s current parliament and an emerging crisis of governance.

Since the recent reincarnation of democracy in 2008, Pakistan’s parliament has never been so disrespected and so dysfunctional. The current parliament has hardly undertaken any substantial business since electing the major office-holders. The prime minister remains as uninterested in the business of parliament as he was as an opposition leader – or as was Mian Nawaz Sharif as prime minister. Like his other oft-repeated promises, the prime minister is not inclined to follow the peddled British model he peddled so strongly as an opposition leader and introduce the Prime Minister’s Question Hour in Pakistan’s parliament.

Parliament is failing in all of its three major responsibilities ie representation, legislation and oversight of the executive. The august house does not come across as an institution where differences are smoothed out and conflicts are resolved. It rather looks like a venue where scores are settled and conflicts are made more complicated.

This dysfunction is costing the nation dearly because governance in a parliamentary system requires the involvement of parliament at every step. On the salary of a prime minister, Imran Khan is trying to run a presidential show and it is not working. A government enjoying a razor-thin parliamentary majority means some political instability anywhere. It can easily translate into a full-blown political crisis in a third world country where norms and traditions are often weak and many groups and members are motivated by narrow self-interest. Even now, when the government enjoys relative stability due to divine blessing, Imran Khan has to run to Chaudhrys of Gujrat every now and then and affirm an ideological affinity with the MQM, whatever that means.

Such dysfunction can be a pleasant situation for those who want to see the PTI government fail. It cannot be good for a ruling party elected on the mandate of wide-ranging reforms requiring endless consensus building and an array of legislative tools. No wonder, the great reformers have not been able to pass a single legislation, except the two finance bills aka mini-budgets.

The parliamentary dysfunction is a manifestation of a larger problem – the PTI’s problem of contempt. Like most populists, Imran Khan peddles a Manichean worldview of politics. Those who oppose him politically or even criticise him in journalism/media belong to an evil world. Those who support him are the virtuous ones. Not only this, a person jumping to the right side of the fence gets baptised instantly and all their past sins get washed in the holy waters of tabdeeli.

This worldview has been adopted by the whole party and turned into a creed. The moral high ground claimed by Imran Khan and the PTI is rife with contradictions that feed television shows night after night, and television channels have endless recordings available to them to prove their point.

Imran Khan was recognised as an angry person from the beginning of his political career. He was seen as a voice for moral outrage against the excesses of a self-gratifying political elite. In fact, what he carried all along was more than anger. It was contempt. As Schopenhauer, a German philosopher defined, contempt is “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.”

According to Arthur Brooks, bestselling author and social scientist. “Anger is a hot emotion. It says, I care about what you think and I want to change the way you think. I care about you. When you take anger and mix it with another emotion called contempt a toxic compound is created, which treats another person as a pathogen. Contempt damages marriages, families and countries.”

An equally interesting aspect of Imran Khan’s contempt is its changing target. The other, the enemy, the pathogen has been changing and transformed completely in recent times. Many groups that were defined as pure evil are now staunch allies and some groups that were not so bad have turned into evil incarnate.

This tribalism may bear political fruit – or thorns – but unfortunately it does not solve a single problem. The people who were unwilling to pay taxes stay unconvinced in the reincarnated caliphate. The logic that citizens will pay taxes when the good tribe command the country has failed. Those who were stealing electricity and gas are still at it without any fear of the honest policeman doing the rounds in the dead of night to keep a stern watch over the baitul-mal. In fact, the circular debt is rising at a faster pace than ever. There are no signs of the state-owned enterprises changing for the better. In fact, their losses have only gone up. Who should be the target of contempt in these circumstances?

The evil can lie in the open doors and broken windows and the system that is meant to facilitate theft. It may also lie in inertia, inexperience, incompetence – and perhaps also in that lethal mix of anger and contempt that can destroy marriages, families and nations.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @zaighamkhan