Toeing the party line, no matter what
The National Assembly session, announcing the coming year’s budget, added another blotch onto the already blemished fabric of our democracy. And by this, I do not mean the staggeringly impotent budget itself, but the mob-fight that broke out on the floor of the house between the opposition and government members, under the garb of ‘protest’.
Let’s get one clear fact out of the way first: the requirement of a ‘BA Degree’ has done nothing much to change our political culture. This episode shows that it takes more than a piece of paper to be ‘educated’.
Coming more to the point, it is becoming painfully clear that in Pakistan, the idea of showing solidarity and support to one’s cadre, party or leadership, trumps all constraints of law and civility. And this culture, of proving that one is ‘more loyal than the king’, cuts across all political parties and (sadly) institutions.
Examples? This episode of rowdiness is nothing new for members of PML(N), who in the past have shown support to their leadership by ransacking the Supreme Court and threatening judges with physical harm. Similarly, the prime minister’s adamant refusal to write a letter to the Swiss authorities (as ordered by the Supreme Court), and risking his premiership in the process, is a demonstration of exactly the same culture that measures loyalty to the party leader above all other responsibilities.
In addition to political parties, this idea perseveres just as strongly across other (more esteemed) institutions. Personnel in the Pakistan army, for example, in fidelity to the doctrine of ‘unity of command’, will follow and defend the army chief, even if that entails violating the law and the constitution (apparent from over 30 years of military rule in Pakistan).
And perhaps most disappointingly, a resurgent Supreme Court that prides itself on its independence, also seems to have fallen prey to the same ideology of demonstrating institutional solidarity – apparent from the fact that over the past three years (since restoration of the honorable judges) there has been no voice of dissent from any judge, on any bench, in any case (with the exception of a partial dissent from Justice Nasir-ul-Mulk in the Mukhtara Mai’s case). Institutional solidarity and consensus, it seems, trumps all other factors.
While it is bad enough that such a ‘culture’ persists in our democracy, the problem (to the extent of the legislature and political parties) got institutionalised through the 18th Constitutional Amendment, without so much as a murmur of protest from any quarter of the society. Through this Amendment, Article 63A was included in the Constitution which expressly declares that any member of the Parliament who “votes or abstains from voting in the House contrary to any direction issued by the Parliamentary Party to which he belongs” (in relation to the election of prime/chief minister, vote of confidence, money bill or constitutional amendment) shall “cease to be a member of the House” upon the recommendation of the “Party Head” (through the laid-down procedure). In other words, no member of the parliament can exercise his or her own mind to independently support or oppose a prime ministerial candidate, a money bill (most importantly the budget), or any change to the constitution of Pakistan. Such decisions, on behalf of all members of the parliament, are made by the party (or party head), and no opportunity for debate or deliberation need be extended in this regard.
Putting this in context of the current parliament, four individuals – Asif Ali Zardari, Nawaz Sharif, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and Altaf Hussain (none of whom are members of the National Assembly!) – could sit in a room together and pick a prime minister, make a budget and transform the entire constitution, and no member of the parliament will be able to question or vote against their decisions! Is there any reason, anymore, to believe that we live in a democratic system where each person’s opinion is counted as equal to every other person?
But despite the abhorrence of this proposition, Article 63A was unanimously accepted and endorsed by members of all political parties in the Parliament at the time of passing of the 18th Amendment. And perhaps more disturbingly, when a challenge was made to the 18th Amendment before the Supreme Court, no one (the lawyers or the judges) suggested that inclusion of Article 63A affected the ‘basic structure’ of our constitution or democracy in any way. For, after all, what concern do parliamentary workings and democratic process have with our “basic structure”… which is better protected by defending the age-old process of appointment of the superior court judges!
This is symptomatic of a larger culture of institutional and political loyalty trumping all concerns of law, reason or ethics. What happened on the floor of the parliament between members of PML(N) and PPP is, at most, a two-day story in our country. And on the third day, there will be some laptop scheme that will overshadow this rot in our democratic fabric.
The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org