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March 15, 2021

A talk on hurdles in quest of democracy


March 15, 2021

The audience in the Jaun Elia Lawn of the Karachi Arts Council relished former Senate chairman Raza Rabbani’s response after journalist Mazhar Abbas asked him who “basically” within his Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) had opposed his nomination against Sadiq Sanjrani in 2018 for three more years. Rabbani smilingly replied: “Just my luck!” And then everyone laughed together.

They were present on the stage to conduct a session titled ‘In Quest of Democracy’ as part of the Sindh Literature Festival on Sunday afternoon.

Abbas started off the discussion by throwing a question at Rabbani that whether what they did to Federal Finance Minister Hafeez Sheikh during the Senate elections had happened to them during the voting for the chairmanship of the upper house.

He answered that since it was a close contest — the government had 49 senators while the opposition had 51 — they were already cautious, and then the discovery of four spy cameras concealed around the polling booth revealed that the hidden forces had done their work. “Seeing such a climax of a democratic struggle is shameful, more than anything else.”

Abbas countered that the same could be said about the video scandal of Ali Haider Gillani, son of former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, who suffered a setback against Sanjrani in the

Senate chairman election.

Rabbani replied that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf had already been facing internal differences over the awarding of tickets, so the PPP could not be blamed for it.

Courtesy of the profiles of the two speakers, the talk provided a critical analysis of the current political situation of the country, where the ongoing struggle between the opposition and the treasury benches also appears for many to be a struggle between pro-establishment and the pro-democracy forces.

Referring to the past incidents in which the PPP and the other political forces united under the umbrella of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) had made compromises with the establishment, Abbas said that politicians had themselves provided space to the state to interfere who the public would look up to for bringing democracy in the country.

Rabbani replied that there was a thin line between compromise and reform, as between strategy and political struggle. “Politicians have made mistakes. Everybody makes them. We must realise them and then move forward. But a political movement can’t advance without the support of other stakeholders,” he said, and added that the culture of resistance within society had depleted mainly because of the crushing of academic freedom.

Abbas was quick to ask what happened to the students union, as at least the PPP having its government in Sindh could revive them for the sake of democracy. Rabbani admitted that it was a mistake on their part, despite having a recommendation from the upper house in place, and that the union must immediately be allowed to function.

The journalist moderator then put forth another question, asking why the champion of the 18th amendment could not implement its ingredients in Sindh, where it had been holding sway consecutively for the past 13 years.

Rabbani said that it was because of the clash between centralist and federalist thoughts in Islamabad. “You may have been hearing voices about amending the law to curtail the powers of the provinces on the pretext of covering the defence budget and loans repayment,” he said.

“[Ironically,] Sindh already hasn’t received a new NFC [National Finance Commission] Award for the past 11 years, and I must say that if the Centre can’t give more, it must refrain from taking the leftover.”

Abbas asked if political parties continued making compromises with the establishment, what could be the way forward for democracy to prevail in the country. Rabbani replied that until a resolution of upholding the trichotomy of power among the parties, no change was in sight.

“Politics should revolve around principles, not around personalities; the formula of ideological politics has been gaining strength especially in Third World countries. So, the parties have to sit together and unanimously decide that they won’t make any more compromises on the constitution and firmly oppose the interference of the army in political affairs.”

Citing a ruling given by Rabbani as Senate chairman that the proceedings of the parliament could not be challenged anywhere, Abbas asked what the justification was for the PDM’s decision to move against the Sanjrani’s election.

Rabbani replied: “Here the issue doesn’t pertain to irregularity in the proceeding but to the disenfranchising of a voter, so Article 69 doesn’t apply here.”

Regarding the PDM’s March 26 gathering in Islamabad, Abbas asked what the intended outcome would be, whether they would return after a sit-in or would the movement go further to materialise their goals, as the alliance’s head Maulana Fazlur Rehman had already remarked that without resigning from the assemblies, any move was tantamount to giving an edge to the government.

Rabbani said that movements go further with constant struggle because things do not change overnight, so there was no immediate outcome. As for Rehman’s comments, he said that the chiefs of the political parties in the PDM would meet on Tuesday to discuss issues like these.

Referring to ‘Invisible People’, the anthology of short stories penned by Rabbani, Abbas asked his thoughts on the current situation of the deep state affairs in the country.

The author said that the situation had worsened. When asked why he ultimately favoured military courts despite his emotional opposition to it, he replied: “I wasn’t morally strong enough to resign.”

The journalist remarked that democracy was a practice, and asked Rabbani why the PPP, which boasts a history of struggle against dictatorship, was not implementing it in Sindh. The former Senate chairman replied that he was already on the fringes in the party, and if the moderator wanted him out, he would answer the question. And then everyone laughed

together again.