Budget speech in parliament with a big P!

This appeared in Daily Times as my weekly column BAAGHI on June 5, 2011

In a bizarre show of derangement in the National Assembly on Friday, ages-old democratic norms and parliamentary traditions were conveniently put into the dustbin. During the budget speech of Finance Minister Hafeez Shaikh, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) started protest theatrics with unprecedented disregard for parliamentary norms. This disregard, however, was not a maiden venture for the same august hall that has been witness to un-parliamentary ruckuses many a time, especially in the 1990s.

As soon as the session opened on Friday, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, a senior member of the PML-N, the biggest opposition party in the National Assembly, stood up to speak before the finance minister. Khawaja Muhammad Asif has been in the Assembly for the fourth time, in addition to an earlier term in the Senate from 1991-93. It is very difficult to believe that such an experienced parliamentarian would not know the clearly laid out rules of the House, which do not permit any business on the day of the budget speech. Insisting on something that is not permitted under the rules and then protesting on this pretext is something that has been going unchecked for quite some time in Pakistan’s parliament. Part of it might be due to the unfamiliarity of our media with the Rules of Business and Procedures, but it is largely due to our general propensity to go with the rhetoric if it suits us.

The protest took an ugly shape as soon as the finance minister started speaking. Members left their seats and came closer to the minister while hurling all kinds of slogans against the government ranging from foreign policy, the security situation, relations with the US, price hike, bad governance and corruption — none of which were related to the contents of the budget speech. The only reference to the budget came in a slogan whereby the budget was termed “IMF budget”. One wondered what this meant and how they reached this conclusion without even hearing the budget speech. Ironically, news channels aired short sound bytes from various parliamentarians from different parties who minced no words in ‘rejecting the budget’ without hearing or reading it. Pink books were torn apart and thrown on the floor by an estranged woman member from the now coalition partner, the PML-Q. Needless to say how loud she normally speaks for morality, ethics, governance and oh yes, ghairat (honour), but there seems to be no honour in honouring the parliamentary traditions and norms.

When the PML-N decided to create a circus during the budget speech, they probably did not even know what the budget speech would entail. Meaning thereby, the intention was not to protest on something drastically anti-people that might have been included in the budget. These planned protest theatrics date back to 1990 when, ironically, the PPP’s Ghazanfur Gul led a similar but much less mephitic and venomous protest in the Punjab Assembly against the then Punjab government for announcing Punjab Bank and Punjab TV. However ugly it looked, it was adopted as a normal mode of expression by all the oppositions to come. The famous ‘Go Baba, Go’ slogans against then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and ‘Go BB, Go’ against then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto dunked the parliamentary democracy in the quagmire of non-parliamentary etiquette.

A roti-holding Ahsan Iqbal, a bangle-throwing Tehmina Daultana (that was a loathingly misogynist gesture of this lady) and a pink book-tearing Marvi Memon, all represent the ugly face of our parliamentary politics that took a new shape since the graduate parliament of 2002, when the ‘educated’ parliamentarians started tearing apart all parliamentary norms with impunity. And now, this lot of young, ‘educated’ and ‘committed’ parliamentarians does not have any inkling of what decorum a parliament should display.

The trouble here seems to be little or absolutely no importance given to the written part of parliamentary rules, what to talk of the unwritten traditions and parliamentary norms. Gone are the days when it was impossible for a member to even dare to sit with his/her back towards the Chair. No member would ever think of walking along the aisle between the Chair and the members. No one would even whisper during the speeches of the prime minister, leader of the opposition and the budget speech. No cell phones in the hall, no eating, no crosstalk — that used to be an understood decorum even in the 1990s’ parliaments, which were in fact pioneers of breaking the ages-old parliamentary etiquette. It now seems funny to even talk about parliamentary ethics and etiquette. Sadly.

Khalida Zia, when in opposition in Bangladesh’s parliament, once said that it was impossible to practice parliamentary politics without having patience, decency, politeness and courtesy. These virtues are seemingly eroding from our society at large, let alone the parliament. Whenever you refer to discipline, you are reminded of democracy, as if both are mutually exclusive or may be opposing concepts. Discipline or restraint is normally taken as attempting to regulate democracy, which is thought of as an offshoot of dictatorship. It is not. Putting democracy in a rival position to discipline would amount to distorting democracy itself. The absence of discipline from democracy would render it in complete consonance with Plato’s criticism wherein he insists that democracy is the divine right of the ignorant people to rule ignorantly. If complying with the law and enforcing the law is dictatorship, we should perhaps abandon all law-making. That would mean abandoning the legislature and even the process by which legislatures come into being, i.e. elections.

Walter Bagehot, renowned essayist and journalist, has famously quoted that dullness in matters of government is a good sign. In particular, dullness in parliament is a test of its excellence and an indication of its success. But unfortunately, we see our parliamentarians putting all out efforts to always make the proceedings colourful instead of a more democratic dullness. Protest in parliament is recorded through various democratic tools available, i.e. Calling Attention Notices, Motions, Resolutions, Point of Order or even in some cases, the questions during Question Hour.

When the parliament of a country becomes a street rally instead of being the highest forum of debate for legislation and representation of the people, we need to take a deep breath and reflect on where things are going wrong. It is food for thought for not only the parliamentary parties but also the nation as a whole, especially the party that claims to be the successor of a party headed by the Quaid himself. It is complete disregard and forsaking of Quaid’s teaching adopted as a part of Pakistan’s emblem — Unity, Faith, Discipline.