A matter of propriety
THE unedifying fare the country's top politicians have been offering for the past many days is no longer funny. Apart from causing considerable loss of time and energy to the state and diversion of attention from the people's concerns, it is undermining the citizens' faith in the democratic system itself.
The latest fracas started when a JUI-F member of the federal cabinet publicly accused a PPP minister of corruption in the arrangements for Haj and the latter counter-attacked in the same vein. It is possible that neither of them was aware of the restrictions on their freedom of expression or the pull of sectarian interest in the lucrative Haj business was too strong to be resisted and the slanging duel continued. The prime minister apparently did not take a serious view of the scandal at issue and told the holy gladiators to keep quiet and when his direction was flouted he sacked both ministers.
While the prime minister's decision to dismiss the PPP minister was a simple, family affair, the fact that he had punished his fellow Multani for disobeying him and not on any suspicion of wrongdoing did not bring him credit. But in the case of the other minister, coalition manners demanded that the prime minister should have taken the JUI-F chief into confidence. If he did take that precaution, Maulana Fazlur Rahman gets a negative mark; if that step was avoided the prime minister was at fault. In the absence of any firm conventions the creation of a small body to resolve any intra-coalition issues is obviously necessary.
It is possible that the PPP leadership thought the coalition partners' love of power would help it get away with unilateral steps, as had happened before, the last instance being the nomination of members of the parliamentary committee on judicial appointments. However, this time the gamble did not succeed because the PPP leadership failed to reckon with Maulana Fazlur Rahman's proficiency in raising the price of his support to a beleaguered partner.
While the PPP leaders were busy pacifying the JUI chief, they were hit by another volley of friendly fire, thanks to the new innovation of giving a minister or two at the centre and in Punjab and Sindh the additional portfolio of mudslinging at political rivals. Regardless of the correctness or otherwise of his broadside against the MQM, the Sindh home minister's diatribe appeared to be in breach of the coalition compact.
The rumour that the government had managed to fatally wound itself caused a cellular stampede. The PML-Q chief became active. Mian Nawaz Sharif discovered Sardar Mumtaz Bhutto and the latter was only too keen to follow the wind. And Mr Altaf Hussain not only acknowledged Maulana Fazlur Rahman's status as a political gogetter he also recognised a long dispossessed cousin in Jamaat-iIslami's Syed Munawwar Hasan.
Further, Mr Zardari finally replied to Mian Nawaz Sharif's letter and made the mistake of releasing his missile to the media before it reached the addressee, thereby giving a chance to Mian Sahib's expert gunners to hit back without inviting any aspersions on their chief for retaliati ng before studying Zardari Sahib's plea.
Now, all the main actors in this political pantomime are inspired by the highest considerations of public good. All of them are free from any ambition to bid for power before a general election is due. They do not wish to harm the government at all. That is why many of them opposed the reformed general sales tax although they knew its merit. The government's critics are so greatly solicitous of its health that they do not wish to burden it with concrete proposals for pulling the state out of the mire. The opposition is in fact in a state of grief at seeing the PPP's inability to slow down its march to self-destruction.
However, there are some oldfashioned democrats who cannot approve of the political leaders' freedom from the conventions of political propriety. They wish to remind the political leaders, especially of the PPP and PML-N, of Point 25 in the Charter of Democracy which says: "(A) National Democracy Commission shall be established to promote and develop a democratic culture in the country and provide assistance to political parties for capacity building on the basis of their seats in parliament in a transparent manner."
It is suggested that the first tasks of the commission should include educating ministers in the virtues of silence and the value of attending to their job instead of living in aeroplanes. Another task should be to teach elective office-holders not to attack policies they themselves might be obliged to continue on coming to power.
According to these old-fashioned democrats the democracy commission should also help politicians in learning the dangers of sticking to power in a situation when prudence dictates relinquishment of authority.
It is impossible to believe the PPP leadership is not aware of the risks to the party it is gathering by pandering to the impossible demands of its coalition partners, unless it has resolved not to be a serious contender in the next general election.The government has completed more than half its normal tenure and by delaying an honest stock-taking, however painful it might be, it will only increase its problems. The terms of reference of the proposed inquiry should not be limited to an assessment of the chances of the government's survival or the future prospects for the PPP or its coalition partners. Greater importance should be given to the question as to what and how much has been done to ameliorate the lot of the ordinary citizens.
The government would be well-advised against relying on measures such as the 18th Amendment to help it beyond a certain point. The amendment is indeed a huge achievement but the people who can appreciate it and who feel hurt at the way vested interest has obstructed its implementation are too few to decide any party's political fortunes.