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Can joint sessions of parliament counter the protests in Islamabad?

Published Mar 23, 2015 06:16pm

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– Photo by Tanveer Shehzad
– Photo by Tanveer Shehzad

It was Bernadette Devlin, the more-than-colourful Irish socialist, who may have said it best. Famous for slapping Reginald Maudlin – an infamous Tory zombie of the time – Ms. Devlin was as famous for rebelling against the same system of which she was a representative.

“My function in life is not to be a politician in parliament,” Bernadette said. “It is to get something done.” Ms. Devlin would proceed to be shot by Northern Irish terrorists — the kind of gents that believed in parliament a degree less, perhaps, than even she did.

Which takes us to the 40-day showdown in Islamabad, for all intents and purposes, a marathon soap opera. There’s the high theatre of Tahirul Qadri, the low comedy of Rana Mashood, and a galaxy of guest appearances, where any manner of Afzal Khans may show up – and get written off – for no reason at all. Scoring it all is the viewer’s sense of fatigue: the story is repeating itself, the end is nowhere in sight, and there seems less and less reason to root for our hero — Mian Nawaz Sharif.

Not two years in, the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz’s (PMLN) tenure has veered from slothful to stupid to slothful again. From the Model Town murders down to service delivery, seldom has governance been brought so low. And it provides impetus to an opposition that is going over the edge with each passing day.

Left like this, Imran Khan’s stamina-busting sit-ins are bad for business. They are clogging up the country, frightening foreign investors and paralysing the executive. About time then, Mr Sharif’s men cry, that the strength of the street is met with the soul of the state: our parliament.

The PMLN is countering the PTI’s rebellion with parliamentary joint sessions – no matter how hard Imran Khan huffs and puffs, this house will hold. No doubt a far better idea than the Nawaz League’s last: rallying sick sectarian parties to their cause — street power may be important, but its sources may be more prudently chosen.

Whether parliamentary joint sessions can prove the healing touch is another matter. But, having crawled through the ‘90s, this is progress. First, it is cleaner: those rather random verbs – floor-crossing and horse-trading and knife-fighting – have faded from view. Second, history tells us that whenever our political class is busy eating each other, it is the generals that smell blood. A united civilian front, then, is a rare and beautiful thing. That it reiterates parliament’s commitment to democracy doesn’t hurt either.

Third, parliament finally occupies a place in policy. We have the interior minister lay out the merits of party over personality. We have the PTI’s men – like old Irish Bernadette before them – plead that they are a part of the system they threaten to bring down. We have Shahi Syed weep over the price the Awami National Party has paid to terror, besides begging that Internally Displaced Persons be made a part of Pakistan again. And we have the Peoples Party in the thick of things, mocking the misdeeds of the government but saving it from serious threat.

Finally, it’s a spanner in the works for PTI: physically dislodging a government would be hard to explain when a joint session is underway (even to ARY). Indeed, the very expression ‘joint session’ lends a semblance of stability to the ruins around us. And yet the smell of hypocrisy lies thick around us. For the longest time the prime minister seemed above the assembly, while his government ran things via relatives and civil servants. Parliamentary supremacy seemed a convenient platform to adopt now; it may be forgotten as conveniently when the storm ends.

Nor is any joint session interested in curing what a strong FIR can: that the perpetrators behind 14 counts of murder in Model Town be brought to justice. Calling parliament was a tactic of great potential for the PMLN. To cheapen it into becoming yet another evasive sleight-of-hand, not so much. “We all know what parliament is,” Robert Louis Stevenson said once, “and we are all ashamed of it.”