Looked at from any angle and measured by any yardstick, it was a most depressing, shameful and ugly show: the brawl in the National Assembly during the budget session.
The occasion was the post-budget speech by the leader of the opposition Shehbaz Sharif during which members from the treasury benches created a scene. But the truth is that the ball was set rolling by the opposition when it heckled and howled and created serious noise disruption all through Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin’s budget presentation speech a couple of days earlier.
It seems that the ruling PTI government members had decided to reply in kind during Shehbaz Sharif’s speech. But the situation went out of control and degenerated into a free-for-all, with both sides resorting to catcalling, whistling, abuse, standing up on the seats to shout unspeakable slogans and using budget documents as missiles.
It was worse than a fish market scene. During the scuffles, PTI MNA Malika Bukhari was hit in the face by a flying document thrown by an opposition member. PTI’s Ali Nawaz Awan and PML-N’s Rohail Asghar were particularly obnoxious with their antics. The latter’s “Punjab ka culture” comment was in bad taste and was condemned by one and all.
If the sergeants-at-arms had not intervened, the chaos could have led to a serious physical clash and violence. The Speaker suspended the proceedings several times to control the situation but his efforts came to naught. Seven MNAs, who indulged in open verbal and physical abuse and reduced the NA floor into a gladiators’ arena, were suspended.
It is no use apportioning the blame. Both sides were equally guilty. Some analysts trace the problem to the abusive and aggressive language used by the PTI stalwarts when in the opposition, particularly during their “container” days. But it is equally true that the opposition from day one of the PTI government has adopted a blatantly belligerent policy. On the first day of the new Parliament when Prime Minister Imran Khan came to address the session, the opposition created such an uproar that he had to leave halfway.
From the statements, all of them similar in nature and thrust, made by PML-N stalwarts it is evident that the party is not yet reconciled to the fact that it has lost power. During the last three years, it has also become increasingly clear that both PPP and PML-N have made a conscious decision not to allow the government and the National Assembly to function in a normal fashion.
In keeping with its manifesto promise, the PTI government has set in motion an accountability process. But in the opposition’s eyes, it is not accountability but political witch-hunt and victimisation. That is the reason why the opposition has refused to adhere to parliamentary norms of behaviour and cooperate with the treasury in running the house as per the rules of conduct. In the process, Parliament has been rendered dysfunctional and law making has virtually come to a stop.
All this is giving a bad name to democracy. The past record of our democratic governance is not very edifying. What is happening now has further dented the people’s trust in the capacity of the democratic system to produce the desired results.
In the wake of the rumpus in the National Assembly, questions have been raised as to what hope there can be for law and order or civilised behaviour in a country whose lawmakers themselves cannot behave in a lawful and civilized manner.
We must not forget the lessons of history. We have seen the derailment of democracy several times in the past. If the politicians don’t learn to behave and continue to make a mockery of democracy, intervention by extra-parliamentary forces is not beyond the realm of possibility.
What is the way out of the impasse? In this connection, a greater responsibility rests on the government. The opposition parties are playing the role of spoilsport because they have nothing to lose if the system collapses. So, the government must go out of its way to create conditions for the smooth working of the system. In the face of provocations by the opposition, it must act with wisdom and maturity. The government must go an extra mile to accommodate the opposition. Such a policy will not only foil the conspiracy of some political groups to bring the system down but also earn the ruling party respect of the people.
In this context, it will be a good idea if the Prime Minister extends a hand of friendship to the opposition and agrees to sit down with the heads of various parties to discuss how parliamentary affairs can be run smoothly in the greater national interest. Such a gesture will not only add to his stature but also go a long way in improving the political climate in the country.