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Things had reached a pretty pass when an upright Chairman of the Senate, known to be a strict adherent of the rules, became so angry and frustrated with a government seemingly bent upon ignoring the upper house of parliament. The issue was the regular absence of ministers from the Senate's proceedings and the concomitant difficulty in conducting the business of the house, particularly in obtaining answers to questions raised by the members of the Senate. Chairman Senate Raza Rabbani had been raising the issue of the absence of ministers and the problem of either not being able to obtain answers to questions raised in the house or at best receiving partial, unsatisfactory answers. But all his pleas and strictures had fallen on the deaf ears of the PML-N government. Actually, since the Leader of the House, the prime minister, rarely graces parliament with his presence, is it any surprise his ministers follow suit? A fish, they say, rots from the head. And there is plenty rotten in the attitude of the government towards parliament generally, but particularly towards the Senate. The reason is not far to seek. In the National Assembly, the ruling PML-N has its own party man as Speaker, who has not only tolerated but covered up the government and its ministers' behaviour. The Senate presents a different picture. The combined opposition in the Senate has a majority and Chairman Raza Rabbani is from the PPP, although he has largely proved a non-partisan chair. For such a person to be driven, as Raza Rabbani was on April 14, to invoke his special powers under Rule 23 (2) of the Senate rules to adjourn the house sine die and threaten to resign speaks volumes about the indifference and apathy of the treasury benches towards the Senate, the house of the federation with equal representation of all the provinces. The long brewing crisis that had come to a head now had emerged at a particularly sensitive time. Pakistan's political landscape has evolved along the lines of a fractured mandate, with different parties holding power in at least two provinces (Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), a coalition headed by the PML-N in Balochistan, and the PML-N in power at the Centre through its hold on Punjab. Conflict is inherent in such a scenario and has emerged between the provinces and the Centre on issues such as water, electricity, gas (the six-year-old moratorium on new gas connections has just been lifted by the government in what is being seen as a motivated move with the forthcoming elections in mind). The government's cavalier attitude to Question Hour, one of the most important parliamentary avenues for holding the government to account, betrays a philistine attitude to democracy and parliament beyond description. This brings to one's mind Jawaharlal Nehru's approach to parliament and its day-to-day business. Nehru's strong commitment to Question Hour reflected his strong desire to make parliament an effective instrument for democracy in his country. Each one of our ministers therefore must attend Question Hour regularly even on days when his ministry is not involved in the day's interpellations.

Belated attempts by Justice and Law Minister Zahid Hamid in the Senate and Finance Minister Ishaq Dar outside the house to persuade Raza Rabbani to change his declared intent to stop working and resign initially failed. However, a second attempt with assurances from the prime minister himself persuaded Rabbani to yield. With the Senate adjourned sine die, we were confronted with nothing less than a constitutional crisis brought on by the sheer neglect of the treasury benches towards the respect and dignity that the parliament deserves. Ignoring parliament weakens our still young democracy, arguably making civilian supremacy that much harder. The government, particularly the prime minister, adhere to their assurances and responsibilities vis-a-vis making parliament's functioning efficacious, thereby strengthening elected institutions and consolidating democracy. It can only be short sightedness of the government in undermining the very institution that confers legitimacy on their rule and can only be described as myopic and a reflection of the PML-N leadership having learnt no lessons from the past.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2017

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