Democracy pays dividends. But not in Balochistan.
Forget militancy, forget target killings, forget sectarian mayhem, forget even tribal vendettas and feudal bloodletting, just look at the shenanigans of the elected representatives in Balochistan and your democratic idealism will experience a nuclear evisceration.
Mine did after spending a few days in Quetta. There is one word to describe what is happening here in the name of democracy: farce. Strong word? Wait till you hear what’s on the democratic menu: nepotism, check. Incompetence, double check. Corruption, triple check. Compared to the government here, the one in Islamabad seems like an embodiment of Churchillian brilliance. And that’s putting it mildly.
So here I am sitting with the speaker of the Balochistan Assembly and he tells me matter-of-factly there are no standing committees in the assembly. “Say what?” I do a double-take. Aslam Bhootani, the Speaker, is an affable man with a forthcoming nature. A former civil servant, he dived into politics a decade ago and now says he’s had enough. He hails from Lasbela, two hours drive from Karachi, which perhaps explains his urbane demeanour.
“Er…so if you don’t have standing committees, how do you do legislation?” I asked innocently, expecting some technical explanation. Fat chance. “We introduce a bill on the floor, vote on it, and it’s done,” says Bhootani.
Later in the day, I made enquiries. Here’s what I found out: Almost all bills originate from the bureaucracy. They are then sent to the cabinet where few bother to read them and just pass it. That done, the bill moves to parliament. The ministers have no idea because they haven’t read it, even though they have technically passed it. Now someone has to read the bill aloud on the floor of the assembly. The ministers are not bothered. They have to be chased, begged and cajoled to present the bill. Some poor minister finally accedes to the request, but not before saying he won’t do it the next time. The bill is read, then a voice vote is taken, and it’s done. A law has been made, but the elected reps are mostly clueless. Often some ministers raise objections, but they are told that they themselves have passed the bill.
“Oh”, they say.
Since 2008, when the present provincial assembly came into being, the matter of the standing committees has been repeatedly raised. In a parliamentary set-up, these committees form the backbone of parliament. It is here that parliamentarians thrash out issues, obtain technical input, discuss the ins and outs of the proposed law, give it final shape and bring it to the floor for a vote.
But not in Balochistan. No sir, not in Balochistan.
Why not? I asked the chief minister of the province Nawab Aslam Raisani. He speaks in short quick bursts, like a semi-automatic weapon firing off rounds. And he wears his sense of humour on his sleeve, the kind which made him say “degree is a degree, whether real or fake.”
“So Nawab sahib, why haven’t you constituted standing committees,” I asked him. Raisani shrugged. “Ho jaye ga yeh bhee” (this will also be done),” he said in a rapid fire tone. Another minister sitting next to me repeated the question. Perhaps, he too was concerned. Raisani clearly was not.
What he didn’t say, but what I found out from others in hushed tones was that the formation of the standing committees was a contentious issue because of — and you’ve got to hear this — the wrangling over who would become chairmen of these committees. Since the government here is a coalition and all members of the assembly, save a few, are ministers or advisors, Raisani didn’t want to risk alienating anyone — and thereby risking his own position. So the logic was: let the issue be, let the committees be, why risk a conflict. “Kaam chal raha hai na” (work is still being done, isn’t it) was one justification.
Gem of a logic.
This is just one example of how the government is being run (down). Imagine: Post Eighteenth Amendment, this provincial government (and others) is responsible for almost everything, including education and health. It’s like asking a toddler to drive an 18 wheeler truck.
Chew on this, Raza Rabbani.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 1st, 2012.