For the sake of the federation By Farahnaz Ispahani

For the sake of the federation
By Farahnaz Ispahani
The News, 6/27/2008

As I sat in the National Assembly through the long and onerous budget session for the first time, I felt that the hours were strenuous and what was expected of us demanding. A huge finance bill needed to be read and understood and the arcane though undoubtedly important systems involved in and surrounding the passing of the bill, had to be learnt.

In the process, however, I also learnt what it means to be a public servant and what it means to be part of the great Federation of Pakistan. Each MNA who spoke in the National Assembly during the budget debate addressed concerns, fears and attitudes that reflected the situation in their home provinces and districts.

The unavailability of electricity, a basic need, has been totally ignored since the last government of Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto is tormenting the people of this nation. Scarcity of water – clean, potable and otherwise – is also an issue that affects the lives of everyone, rich or poor. The doubling of world wheat prices, the rising cost of oil, and the fudged budget figures handed down by the previous government left the elected leadership with far less money in the bank then we knew.

The biggest threat to our security and survival – Pakistan's fight against extremists – is also constantly on our minds. "I can't travel back to my home. They'll kill me," my Assembly colleague from FATA confided as we talked in the National Assembly's corridors. Many of my elected colleagues from the ANP, the PPP and from FATA told me that the Taliban are now in a position to threaten Peshawar. Taliban injunctions, attempting to override the writ of the Pakistani state, threaten our constitutional freedoms as much as the legal disputes currently occupying centre-stage. But how much of all this is receiving the priority it deserves on the streets of Islamabad, Lahore or Karachi?

Sadly, very little. At least some of the leading political parties have opted to act as pressure groups on a "single point political agenda," instead of recognising the multiple dimensions of the mandate of a pluralist parliament. The progressively emerging civil society also appears to be losing track of the distinction between its role as definer of issues while allowing Parliament to act as the decider, based on its status as the people's representative. Elements within the newly liberated media appear to have decided to play the role of "campaign manager" on one issue, leaving much of our poor nation's miseries in a haze.

There are too many power centres operating simultaneously in Pakistan today. Their relative weight must be determined through the constitution and democratic traditions, not on the basis of their ability to create a logjam. Should national policy be determined inside Parliament, through the votes of those who collectively received millions of votes, or on the basis of the noise generated by some in the streets and the media? The PPP received around 12 million popular votes while the PML-N got 6.6 million. Other parties received varying degrees of support and representation while some, by virtue of their boycott off elections, got no votes at all. Shouldn't all political actors abide by the dictum of democratic politics, "Let the minority have its say; Let the majority have its way?" Surely the refusal of some to patiently allow political processes to work is not helpful for Pakistan's stability.

The number of interest groups and pressure groups in Pakistan that are vying for increased public and political space in the country is legitimate. In a democratic country it is the legitimate right of differing groups to lobby, act and even protest to make their presence felt. But the dilemma in Pakistan is that the sanctity of institutions is being eroded further. A deliberate process seems to have been initiated to ensure that no institution of the state remains above controversy. Barely five months since the people voted in a general election every institution, from the Parliament to the courts, is being guillotined in public discourse. This is not without design.

In all civilised democracies, the courts and the parliament are considered the final arbiters of all matters judicial and political. The unravelling of Pakistan's institutions started several decades ago but the worst period proved to be the last few years when all civilian institutions were mutilated to such an extent that they stopped functioning. Parliament became a pliant tool and the judiciary a willing partner in the systemic deconstruction of the political structure.

Looking back at the "eight-year long ordeal" of Pakistan, the year 2007 would indeed be remembered for the ultimate in tinkering with institutions and one man's wish to be the messiah of the nation. After Election 2008 it was hoped that political stability would return to Pakistan and resolution of the key issues would be left to the parliament. But the forces unleashed on the streets of Pakistan due to mishandling of critical issues by the establishment, are now refusing to let Parliament exercise its authority and are continuing to push for acceptance of their demands.

The two hot-button issues, it seems, are the speedy (whether legal or not) removal of the incumbent president and the restoration of the first round of PCO judges, which includes Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. Both might be crucial to Pakistan's long-term interests if pursued constitutionally and through Parliament. Both will harm the fragile fabric of Pakistan even further if done rashly.

Unfortunately, these are not the only issues that confront our nation today. The situation along the Pakistani-Afghan border that has resulted in the loss of precious lives of innocent civilians and fine Army professionals has many serious consequences for our nation. The State's sovereignty and security hangs in the balance. The civil war in Baluchistan is yet to be resolved and the delicate peace in urban Sindh still remains a cause for concern. Sadly, the single issue campaigners remain unwilling to think deeply or to analyse beyond immediate gains in popularity.

A recent opinion poll indicated changing popularity of our political leaders. But few people noticed that while a single issue has raised support for some in one of Pakistan's four provinces, the people in the other three provinces clearly think differently. The preponderance of Punjab in the Pakistani Federation translates into a national jump in support whenever someone gains backing in the province. But unless that support can also be replicated in Sindh, the NWFP/Pukhtoonkhwa and Balochistan, it does not augur well for national unity.

My apprehension is that some of the well meaning individuals and lawyers who are sweating on the streets to pursue the worthy cause of an independent judiciary have somewhere lost their direction and are failing to understand that Pakistan's democracy and federation can be saved by reconciliation, not confrontation. If the name of the game remains "destabilisation" to get more popular and to play to the galleries in the urban centres of the country's largest province, we could end up witnessing the trivialisation of larger challenges facing Pakistan. That would certainly endanger our very national survival.

The writer is a PPP member of the National Assembly.


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