Do not criticize parliament very harshly

Don’t vilify parliament – by I.A. Rehman

Courtesy: Dawn

If the practice of abusing parliamentarians left, right and centre, started by authoritarian rulers, continues the transition to democracy will never be completed.

That the constitutional reform package should have come under attack in some quarters did not cause any surprise because the concept of democratic consensus is alien to Pakistan’s political barons. What is astonishing is the degree of freedom from good sense shown by some elements while demonising parliament.

In the uproar raised by the easily identifiable vested interests the parliamentary committee responsible for finalising reform proposals has been denied the credit due to it.

In the given situation the committee’s task amounted to rewriting the essential part of the constitution, while a great many of its provisions have survived almost unchanged since they were drafted by the authors of the Government of India Act of 1935. Those who have had any experience of seeking national agreement on the basic law are aware of the enormous problems the undertaking entails.

The main party in the ruling coalition could perhaps be faulted for not working as fast as ordinary citizens expected or for trying to promote a broader consensus than the thoroughly fragmented and polarised society permits. But nothing can detract from the committee’s achievement that won unqualified praise from seasoned parliamentarians including some who strongly oppose the PPP and its creed.

The most remarkable features of the reform package are that most of them are in harmony with the spirit of the Charter of Democracy which in a way reflects the public yearning for release from the straitjacket of authoritarian rule and a resumption of representative order. It has been proposed to purge the constitution of the extra-democratic provisions inserted without due sanction by usurpers of power, except for such changes (as women’s enlarged share in legislatures) that were in accord with the people’s demands or have subsequently been validated by popular will.

The accommodation of the federating units’ demands for greater autonomy will strengthen the federation. The committee has upheld the public demand that the president should not have the authority to dissolve the parliament at his whim and caprice or the exclusive power to make key appointments. Much of this is being respected for being in accord with the people’s wishes.

True, there were differences in the constitution committee. Quite a few notes of dissent were filed and there is nothing wrong with that. The issues raised in these notes could have been resolved as far as possible during the debates in parliament. This also applies to the lack of agreement on giving the NWFP a decent name and the proposal for a commission to select judges of superior courts. Both matters could have been discussed in a civilised way but quite a few personages prominent for their weight and girth deemed it prudent to flaunt their incapacity for a rational discourse.

The debate on a new name for the Frontier province, and this in a country where the other three provinces are named after the majority of the nationalities/nations inhabiting them, betrays not only ignorance of democratic principles but also contempt for them. No outsider has any business to deny the Pakhtuns their right to give their land the name of their choice. Those who do not wish to be counted with the Pakhtuns have a right to be heard but no right to veto the aspirations of the majority.

This right is not being conceded to the Seraikis and Potoharis in Punjab , to the non-Sindhis (if any person living in Sindh can claim this status) in Sindh, and to the non-Baloch in Balochistan. All those going berserk in opposition to the NWFP being called Pakhtunkhwa need to remember that they are playing with fire that might not leave them unscathed.

Similarly those who have reservations about the presence of a parliamentarian or two in the proposed judicial commission could have argued their case without parting with reason and temperateness. Instead, members of parliament have been subjected to a barrage of unwarranted abuse and slander. They have been condemned en bloc as a lot of cheats who have been living by fraud. The case of a couple of legislators found in possession of fake degrees has been blown out of proportion to target the institution of parliament itself.

The chief of the lawyers’ association, who is respected widely for his white hair, has questioned the notion of parliament’s supremacy and challenged anyone to show where this idea is mentioned in the constitution. One wonders how he has missed the third line of the sacred Objectives Resolution which says the chosen representatives of the people are the only source of the state’s power and authority.

Everybody knows that the Supreme Court Bar cannot be condemned for the sins of its past presidents who had been removed/made to resign from high judicial office for misconduct. The whole parliament cannot be castigated for the faults of a few or many weaklings among its members. Likewise anyone who tries to pass a judgment on the judiciary because a couple of senior judges were removed by the Supreme Judicial Council will surely be declared guilty of serious mischief.

The unwise friends (self-styled) of the judiciary who are playing up the case of parliamentarians’ fake degrees need to be reminded that failure to decide the madressah degrees case for five years is a dark blot on the fair name of the judiciary. The election of over 50 legislators was challenged in the Supreme Court soon after the 2002 election. Many of the respondents refused to answer summons and issued statements in defiance of the court. They were not hauled up for contempt; they were not even chastised. Many stories of degrees having been bought for a few hundred rupees were common. Ultimately the petition became infructuous as new elections had been held. The people’s expectation of a finding on the election of people who were ineligible remained unrealised.

One may also point out that in India impeachment by parliament is the only way to remove a judge for corruption/misconduct. The provision has been criticised on several grounds but never on the ground that many of the MPs have a criminal record (which may be true).

The upshot of the whole discussion is that it is time to stop vilifying parliament and other institutions of democratic governance. If the practice of abusing parliamentarians left, right and centre, started by authoritarian rulers, continues the transition to democracy will never be completed. The parliamentarians are no angels — nor are angels visible anywhere else — but they are entitled to respect as representatives elected by the people.

As democratic traditions take root the people will have possibilities of electing better men and women to represent them and weed out the black sheep among them. That is the only legitimate means of dealing with legislators unworthy of people’s trust.

Thursday, 01 Apr, 2010

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