It baffled me. It baffled me for many years.
The first time I attended a Pakistan National Assembly session in Islamabad, as a visitor, was almost three decades ago. It was a dignified affair with parliamentarians making statements and rebutting statements without facing free-for-all shouting that in 2020 is hailed as a gleeful tool to silence the opposing side. Looking at the primly dressed members of the national assembly, some well-known faces, many from renowned political families, and many who to me were unknown names and faces, I remember thinking what a wonderful feeling it must be to be in an august building as representatives of millions of Pakistanis who voted for them.
The other thing that struck me was that most of them seemed like unremarkable people who spoke without conviction of a future-based agenda, without fluidity of ideas, without selection of words that pleased the mind while serving the purpose of conveying the message.
Those two things remained recurrent in all my visits to Punjab Assembly in the last 12 years. In the last 12 years another facet of parliaments, provincial and national, became noticeable. It was and is the one that not just baffles me it also distresses me. Immensely.
It is the axiomatic reality of the regression of Pakistan’s political discourses circa 2020.
In abundance is the lack of basic courtesy, paucity of social and parliamentary decorum, mutual exchange of personal attacks, hurling of abusive or derogatory words across the treasury and opposition benches, threats of physical attacks on each other. There is so much and so constant the crossing of line that the line has ceased to exist. Parliamentary sessions, and most conspicuously, that of the National Assembly, are now mostly the theatre of the rowdy, the uncouth, the bawdy. I consider it a national shame.
Meet the leading characters of the theatre of the macabre. The ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and the two major opposition parties, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)–the latter two bitter rivals, arch foes, and now bff in their common resolve of proving their present accountability as political persecution, and their pursuit of the ouster of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government.
Disclaimer: I write with due respect to those members of parliament belonging to all parties, including the three major ones, who remain steadfast in their dignified conduct in and outside parliament. They keep my wobbly belief steady in the supremacy of solid values and undiluted morality in a world marked with toxicity, darkness, back-stabbing, and opportunism.
There are also the backbenchers, the mute spectators, who seem to value their almost-invisibility. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, don’t be party to evil.
Pakistan is almost 222 million people. From that almost 222 million number, on general and reserved seats, and in Senate, emerges an exclusive bunch of people whom the electorate and/or their fellow parliamentarians consider worthy, in their respective and collective positions, of being the representatives of their constituencies, and on a larger, on a more abstract level, that of Pakistan. The leader of the party with the majority of seats or/and with the vote of allies become the prime minister. Some parliamentarians are inducted in the cabinet.
The number of National Assembly seats is 342. The number of seats in Senate is 100. The number of Punjab Assembly seats is 371. The number of Sindh Assembly seats is 168. The number of Balochistan Assembly seats is 65. The number of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly is 145. I don’t need a calculator to add all these numbers. Out of an almost 222-million population only 1,191 make it to these august houses.
Are these 1,191 aware of the significance of their positions? Do they even have the basic idea of the importance of being in a position that endows them with a stature that is beyond any monetary or material or ministerial privilege? How many of them have the full realisation of the sanctity of the privilege given to them through vote–be it of the electorate or their fellow parliamentarians? Barring a few, how many of them value the sacredness of the parliamentary oath they take at the beginning of their term?
What is the number in any parliament today of those who respect politics and not treat it as a quick route of elevation of their personal power, achievement of a higher position in their respective party if in opposition, or in government if in power, and accumulation of material assets? How many parliamentarians looking beyond their lifelong familial or party entitlement to a particular seat think of the wellbeing of their voters?
Merely looking at the National Assembly, what was the number of debates, in the last eight months, that had as their raison d’etre an issue of national concern? Is anyone taking notes: how much time is wasted on the vilification of the members of the opposing side? Who will get the award for being the loudest, the crudest, the vilest? For how long will the shouting matches, shamelessly disguised as debates, continue their shrill, ear-piercing reverberations in the high-ceilinged hall of the National Assembly?
What is the utility of passing budgets that are presented on a floor that resembles an arena of primitive fighters in an entanglement with mud wrestlers? What is the significance of debates on the overreaching draconian laws of the National Accountability Bureau when the voices of humans start to resemble shrieks of banshees in a Shakespearian tragicomedy forest? What good will lectures on imperativeness of accountability in a democracy do if the decorum to listen and discuss and debate is slow-poisoned every day?
Without much ado, the world of the National Assembly, apparent to sensory organs of everyone, and painful to sensitive minds and fully-awake consciences of a few parliamentarians still holding tight to their values of dignity, grace, mutual respect, and sanctity of their oath, has convoluted into a dark place that no longer has much resemblance to the hallowed edifice of the parliament of the Pakistan of almost 222 million Pakistanis.
The scenes in National Assembly do not evoke normal responses any longer. Now they are shots from a horror movie–blood and gore enhanced with a scary background score, frequent starts and jumps, fear of impending doom. It is all staged, fake, a lie, but the viewer watches it transfixed, unable to hit pause, cognisant of the inevitability of the next big scare. It is all so distasteful, very soon it will cease to be bad. The anomaly becoming the norm is the new nomenclature of the game of politics.
The anomalies abound: verbal fights of senior members of the treasury and opposition benches; exchange of unsavoury words; aggressiveness towards the Speaker for real and imagined discrimination between the party in power and those in opposition; unremitting noise during speeches of both sides; threats of physical harm; walk-outs as and when deemed suitable; departure from the hall after delivery of speech without listening to the other side’s response or rebuttal; ad hominem attacks instead of proper points or counter-points; thumping of desks in eulogization of derogatory words for the other side; constant background chorus of demeaning words for the opposite side; the middle school meanness of tit-for-tat, you-did-it-so-I-will-do-it-too becoming the trump card of the grey-haired veterans of politics; domination of vengeful assaults over composed discussions and debates; the dark sniggering, the open insults, the unabashed political incorrectness.
It is not just a few, it is the majority now. The more-loyal-than-the-king mentality has superseded rationality. Loyalty to party has pushed off the bench the loyalty to the country. Personal and party priorities jostle in an unwieldy tug-of-war with national issues. Bipartisanship is absent even on issues of national interest. New bills are infrequent, new allegations are a daily staple. Passing of bills is a rarity, passing of categorical judgments on personal and professional integrity of political rivals is commonplace. Who shouts the loudest, who keeping the pretence of respecting the parliamentary linguistic guidelines uses the strongest slurs that sting, who refuses to sh*t up even when the allotted time to make a point is up–the race is on.
The immediate prize is more airtime on TV, more views on YouTube, more well-done retweets and favourites and likes and hearts on social media. The next and the more important prize is the accolade of party members. The biggest prize is the seal of endorsement by party leadership. Your loyalty is measured in the volume of your voice, the language that you use, the attacks or rebuttals that you launch, the persistence to keep standing on the imaginary podium even amidst chaos.
And I, one of the almost-222 million Pakistanis, watch our few dozen elected parliamentarians. In disbelief, in anguish, in dread.