People & society

Man of law: Raza Rabbani

Updated Mar 14, 2017 04:46pm

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Illustration by Zahra Abdus Samad
Illustration by Zahra Abdus Samad

'A bird had suddenly flown in through the open window, disturbing my vird.’

The myna in its desperate attempt at freedom, confesses Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani in the prologue of his latest book, left behind the germ of a story. Launched last month, Invisible People (Sang-e-Meel Publications, 2017) is Rabbani’s first attempt at writing short stories. Vird, a repeated prayer or chant – ‘Allah Hu’ in this case – is one of the many religious invocations in it, reflecting a side almost never apparent in the left-leaning politics of the veteran Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) politician.

This is just one of the contradictions that make Rabbani who he is: a six-time senator with no constituency; a stickler for the law book; a constitutionalist with little regard for political and ground realities. His inflexibility often puts him at odds with his own party, sometimes at a cost to himself. A trusted lieutenant of Benazir Bhutto, Rabbani found himself out of Asif Ali Zardari’s favour.

In May 2011, he resigned from the federal cabinet over Zardari’s decision to forge a coalition with the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PMLQ), even though the alliance was crucial for the PPP government. The following year, he was overlooked for the Senate chairmanship for the second time in three years. Zardari first nominated Farooq H Naek in his place and then Nayyar Hussain Bukhari.

February has been a hectic month for Rabbani. Book launches, delays in American visas for senators and fake Twitter accounts have kept him busy in and outside the Senate. Vexed by US reluctance to issue an American visa to deputy chairman of the Senate, Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haideri – who was scheduled to attend the UN-sponsored International Parliamentary Union (IPU) held in New York on February 13 and 14 – Rabbani directed that no Senate delegation would visit the US “unless an explanation” was given by American officials. He also added that “no delegation, member of Congress or diplomat of the US would be welcomed by the Senate of Pakistan” until the issue was resolved.

Less than a week later, Rabbani threatened to not convene the session of the Upper House. Ministers are often berated by Rabbani for their tardiness in the Senate; last year, he even replaced ministers with parliamentary leaders in standing committees because of their continued absence from the Senate proceedings.

His fixation on the travel ban begs the question: does the Trump administration care about any motion the Pakistani Senate takes up? Delays in issuing a visa is a clear indicator of what the American officials make of Pakistani participation; any protestation from our Senate chairman will only be playing to the gallery. But titles and symbolism matter to Rabbani.

One of his first moves as Senate chairman was to change the words ‘Senate of Pakistan’ in the emblem of the Upper House to ‘House of Federation’, reinforcing the idea that the Senate is a symbol of the federation.

His reputation as an upright, uncompromising federalist also means he is acceptable to both sides of the Parliament’s aisle. While his opponents find it hard to fault Rabbani, he has no qualms about speaking against his own allies. In a house so deeply divided on religious and political grounds, this is both a blessing and a curse. Surrounded by firebrand partisans, he can both be seen as a statesman and as someone who prefers personal glory over party victory.

Still, Rabbani’s contribution is by no means merely symbolic. He was one of the chief architects of the 18th Constitutional Amendment that sought greater provincial autonomy. Later, he was made the chairman of the commission responsible for the amendment’s implementation. Though the devolution has run into many obstacles, such as the Centre’s reluctance to divert funds and manpower to provinces, the amendment is a landmark legislative act to address imbalances in the federal structure.

And the unbendable Rabbani has also relented, albeit reluctantly. “I have been in the Senate for more than 12 years, but I have never been as ashamed as I am today,” he told the House when it passed a bill providing constitutional cover to military courts under the 21st Constitutional Amendment on January 6, 2015. “I have cast my [yes] vote against my conscience,” he said with tears in his eyes.

For all his differences with the PPP brass, Rabbani still remains his party’s voice of conscience — one of its greatest advocate of parliamentary supremacy and constitutional continuity.


This article was published in the Herald's March 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.