Mr. Speaker, there are strangers in the house!
The joint session for parliament was called to discuss the situation in Yemen, what Saudi Arabia and its coalition of ten (or is it eleven?) wants from Pakistan and what we should do. Instead, the focus was on PTI, which ended its seven month boycott of the assemblies (with the exception of KPK, of course) and, in the leadership of Imran Khan, took their seats in the House.
That PTI would be at the sharp end of some taunts wasn’t hard to predict; MQM were expected to use the opportunity to hit back in the context of the NA246 bye-election in Karachi and ANP were tipped to join in; but I don’t think anyone predicted the extent to which the hypocrisy and vitriol would be evident. Khwaja Asif exceeded expectations. In the only way he can.
[Going off on a tangent for a moment: I found it interesting how he waited until the Prime Minister entered, to loud cheers of “Sher Aaya” (no, not the kind in the Urdu version of The Boy Who Cried Wolf Story – although one might be forgiven for believing that, given the amount of lies and deception that emanate therefrom – from the treasury benches, believe it or not – before he went off on his tirade.]
[Uff! Too many sentences within sentences, I know… but getting back to the matter at hand…]
The honourable Defence Minister lecturing us on ethics and morality? Ha! The less said about it the better. There is still room for introspection, though. Which is what this blog post is about.
I have to say that the whole contradiction-ridden PTI strategy was doomed from the outset. For me, you either make tough, principled decisions, that are often going to be unpopular, or you leave yourself enough space to be flexible when needed. You could argue about which way is the best, but you certainly cannot do both at the same time. You can’t eat your cake and then claim to have it.
I thought the original strategy made some sense: PTI resignations from the assemblies would create enough pressure on the Prime Minister that he would step down. Having thirty odd members resign from the National Assembly and nearly seventy from Punjab would have required nearly a hundred bye-elections. Aitzaz Ahsan talked about this today, referring to it as a “mini general election”. But, to be effective, that would have needed the decision to extend to the KPK provincial assembly as well. And would still have been a risky, high-stakes move. Not to mention ambitions related to a presence in the Senate.
For whatever reason – and I expect he was probably all gung-ho about it, like he seems to be with almost every decision he makes, but didn’t get support from his CEC – Imran Khan was either unwilling or unable to make that call. And that left the government an opportunity to exploit the contradiction.
Despite that, it may not have been too late, if PTI had stood firm behind its decision to resign, even without giving up KPK. The day Shah Mahmood Qureshi led the (albeit incomplete) group of PTI MNAs to the National Assembly to announce their resignations could have been decisive. They could have individually announced their desire to resign on the floor of the House, or gone to see the Speaker in his chambers and confirmed their resignations there, followed by the same in the Punjab assembly. That would have been decisive.
But it wasn’t decisive. Because, I believe, it wasn’t meant to be. The way I see it, there was always a desire to find a way to not have to resign. It was a bluff, almost, to try and pressure PMLN into agreeing to a judicial commission with a broad mandate that would ultimately lead to re-elections. An attempt, as it were, to have your cake and eat it. Well, the bluff was called. And the winning hand didn’t belong to PTI.
The alternative would have been to remain in parliament, not term it a fraud, a sham, a swindle, an imposter and whatever else Imran chose to call it…
[He’s great, but I really wish he wouldn’t take such extreme positions! It’s exasperating to see him paint himself into a corner, without leaving any wriggle-room at all. I know, I know… what he’s saying is true. But you can’t say it! Or if you do, then you need to be able to act on it! <sigh> I wonder if anyone’s ever told him that. Probably not, given the culture of sycophancy – and going by the tone that Dr Alvi took in his leaked telephone conversation with Imran, it probably thrives to an extent in PTI as well – in our country. But I digress.]
… and play an active role in the parliamentary process. This would involve actually attending most sessions, participating in and even chairing key committees, bringing forward legislation such as freedom of information and right to services laws that are part of the KPK success story, championing national health and education campaigns like Sehat Ka Insaf and Tameer-e-School (yes, I know these are provincial subjects, but the center can play a part in bringing the provinces together, mobilizing donors, making funding & expertise available, etc.) and providing a counter-weight to PMLN’s economic, energy, water, taxation and infrastructure policies to the extent possible.
In the end, it was neither. PTI chose to play somewhere in the middle and lost out in several areas, including credibility with supporters, a senate seat from the Punjab and dissatisfaction within the party. I believe they have also lost moral authority in parliament by having made their presence in the House questionable.
And, it could be argued, Pakistan lost too. PMLN has pushed through its IMF-dictated economic agenda of indirect taxation, removal of subsidies, privatization and directing resources to mega-projects. Parliament has been reduced to a rubber stamp. Corruption is unabated under the watch of a slumbering Public Accounts Committee, the military is effectively running the show and all the public can do is exclaim over a new drama or tragedy each week.
I am not saying it is all PTI’s fault. Far from it. But it would also be unfair to say PTI didn’t contribute to it at all. I believe they could have made a difference, maybe only a small one but a difference nonetheless, if they were active in parliament. And the underlying cause: indecision and contradiction.
It isn’t too late, though. After the dust has settled and the bruises on various egos have healed (I know politicians have thick skin, but the gibes today must have stung!), PTI needs to pick one option. Either you swallow your pride, decide to work from within the system and continue to chip away at the corruption and mismanagement, as an opposition does, using parliamentary processes. At the same time, focus heavily on KPK and make a visible difference there.
Or make the tough call and walk away, not only from the national and Punjab assemblies, but also from the KPK government and the Senate, to try and create enough pressure until something gives.
One will require persistence, hard work and a lot of patience because it will take time. The other is high risk but could deliver a more immediate result in the shape of re-elections.
It is far from an easy choice. But I believe not making the choice will be more damaging than making one. Either one.