If Pakistan’s dysfunctional government occasionally springs into action, it is usually to save Zardari’s fabulous wealth in foreign countries or prolong his hold on the presidency and pave the way for the eventual succession of Bilawal. The frenetic legislative activity seen last week was also aimed at these noble goals. In pursuit of these objectives, the government blatantly abused the majority it enjoys in parliament to bypass the usual rules of debate and tried to rush two important bills without allowing even the semblance of a rational discussion.
The government succeeded in ramming through parliament the new law on contempt of court which it hopes will save Raja Ashraf from the fate that befellGilani. The passage of the second piece of legislation, which would remove the disqualification of dual nationals from election to parliament, was stalled by unexpected resistance from a coalition partner, the ANP, but has by no means been shelved.
The contempt of court bill which was passed by the National Assembly on Monday, endorsed by the Senate on Wednesday and signed by the president into law on Thursday, grants sweeping immunity to the holders of the highest offices of the federal and provincial governments. Some of the clauses of the new law are of course quite unexceptionable in themselves, such as those which make it clear that fair comment on the court proceedings and true statements on the conduct of a judge unrelated to his judicial functions are not punishable. But these provisions largely restate existing law and cannot hide the fact that the only purpose of the government in introducing this legislation is to save Raja Ashraf from disqualification and to benefit Zardari in view of the pending NRO proceedings in the Supreme Court.
The most objectionable change made in the contempt law is the grant of blanket immunity to holders of public office exercising their powers “under Article 248 (1) of the Constitution.” This would mean that the president, prime minister, governors, chief ministers and federal and provincial ministers will not face any consequences under the law, while in office as well as afterwards, if they defy the orders and judgements of the courts or otherwise commit contempt of court and that only the civil servants who do not enjoy this immunity will be held responsible.
It is extremely doubtful that such a patently absurd law would be upheld by the judiciary. Not only does it violate the right to equality guaranteed by the constitution but it is also against the specific provisions of Article 204 (2) which empowers the superior judiciary to punish “any person”, without exception, who commits contempt of court. The immunity granted to the prime minister by the new law might therefore delay the day of reckoning for him, as would the extended period for appealing against a conviction for contempt of court, but will probably not save his job.
While the government has for the moment got the contempt law it wanted, its effort to lift the disqualification of dual nationals from election to parliament has at least been slowed down. We have to thank the ANP for this happy development. But the government is clearly not giving up. The matter has been referred to the Senate Committee on Law and Parliamentary Affairs. Since the committee meets behind closed doors, Zardari must surely be hoping that by making secret deals he will be able to win the support of those political parties which have so far expressed reservations on the proposed constitutional amendment.
The position of PML-N remains ambivalent. After Ahsan Iqbal’s ingenious proposal that dual nationals should be permitted to contest elections but should renounce their foreign citizenship before taking up their seats, there have been other signals that the party is “flexible” on this issue. NawazSharif has said that PML-N is not against the dual nationality bill but would likeZardari to develop a national consensus on the issue. Nawaz was clearly not ruling out a deal that would allow the constitutional amendment to go through in some form if concessions can be obtained on other matters.
It has been speculated, mistakenly, thatZardari is pushing the dual nationality amendment only to save the parliamentary seats of a few close aides like Rehman and Farahnaz. If that had been true, he would have accepted theANP proposal to allow dual nationals to become members of parliament but bar them from holding the office of president, prime minister, armed forces chiefs, judges and senior civil servants. But Zardari turned down this offer because he has plans not just for havingBilawal elected to parliament but also making him prime minister or president, once he attains the requisite age. And who knows, Bilawal might also take fancy to owning a foreign passport, much like so many other members of his class.
Rehman Malik said last week that he had resigned from the Senate to prove that the dual nationality bill was not an attempt to save his parliamentary seat. Few people will believe him. A more plausible reason is that he has failed to substantiate the claim he made in the Supreme Court that he had already renounced British nationality when he was elected to the Senate in 2009. By resigning, Rehman probably hopes to avoid any possible penalty for having made that statement.
Like the PML-N, the PML-Q has also shifted its position, but the other way round. After first having supported the dual nationality bill, it has now proposed some modifications. Shujaat said last Tuesday that those holding dual nationality should be given permission to contest elections but must not get any government office until they renounce their second nationality.
Of course, those holding any position of authority in the government must give their undivided loyalty to Pakistan, whether holding a political office or as civil servants. So too must the judges and armed forces personnel. Dual nationals should therefore be disqualified from all these positions.
But the fact that so many of our politicians would like our lawmakers to be given the privilege, obviously very precious to them, of holding foreign passports is a good indicator of the true loyalties of much of our political class. Quite a few of those who have not themselves acquired foreign nationality in order to pursue their political careers have done the next best thing: their spouses or children have acquired dual nationality. While they expect the civil service and the armed forces to be 100 percent loyal to Pakistan, as indeed they must be, many of our politicians have no qualms in demanding that our lawmakers must be allowed to hold foreign nationality. They do not even seem to realise the perversity of their logic.
Christine Fair, an American analyst who specialises on our region, wrote an article recently on Islamabad’s many “perfidious” acts towards the US. The article is full of toxic verbiage against Pakistan but it also has some harsh truths on Pakistan’s internal problems. Her words bear repeating: “Its political parties,” she writes, “are vast pools of corrupt patronage networks that aggregate elite interests while disregarding the interests of Pakistan’s struggling masses. Neither elected politicians nor military rulers have had the political courage to right the nation’s fiscal woes by enforcing income tax or imposing industrial and agricultural taxes on the ruling elites and their networks of influence.”
She is largely right, except for one thing. Our political class, which consists mostly of tax cheats, looters of public money, exploiters of the weaker sections of society and hereditary religious charlatans, has no right to call itself the elite.
And it also has no business claiming to be the representative of the civilians against an overbearing military. It only speaks for the interests of a small privileged upper crust of the population, not the vast silent majority of civilians.
The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service. Email: asif firstname.lastname@example.org