It always had the ingredients of a farce. It looked perilously close to becoming a tragedy. However, the swiftness with which the report of the Parliamentary Committee on National Security (PCNS) has become irrelevant in parliament, has surprised even the hardest cynics. The media debate on the subject, despite its many loose ends and a tendency towards extreme superficiality, has kept the focus sharp and steady on this urgent matter before parliament. But the public representatives have lost little sleep over the document. Indeed, in the last few days, they have made it look like a useless stack of papers that neither deserves their time or attention for any significant duration.
Cold statistics tell the story of this parliamentary mistreatment of the PCNS’s supposed hard labour, which the government has been trying to portray as the starting point of a new era in Pakistan’s foreign relations. According to the Free and Fair Election Network, which monitors the procedure and substance of the debate in both houses of parliament and creates daily performance sheets at the end of each day, the joint sitting has been disjointed in its discussion and disinterested in the subject.
The day foreign policy review proposals were presented, the session started 45 minutes late, and lasted for an-hour-and-two minutes. On the scale of enthusiasm to thoroughly analyse the report, the opening session fared poorly: of the 430 odd members, just 172 were there at the start and 185 when it ended. The speaker was absent. The prime minister was there for only 36 minutes. Leader of the opposition did slightly better: he stuck around in the half-empty house for 57 minutes.
Following adjournment and a long weekend, the joint session resumed on March 26. And what a woeful resumption it was! Most of the members strolled in an-hour-and-fifty minutes late. Just five members spoke on the PCNS’ report for a duration of 84 minutes. A barrage of points of order — a dozen to be precise — ate into almost half of a three-hour long session. The prime minister was absent. The ANP and the MQM walked out of the house over Karachi’s law and order situation and also for the late start to the session. A total of 182 legislators were there in the beginning with only 46 lasting till the end.
The following day saw no improvement in the lacklustre show. It began two hours and twenty minutes behind schedule. Twenty-six points of order consumed 81 per cent of the time. The 168 legislators at the start, dwindled to 67 upon closing and adjournment. The prime minister was missing in action, while the leader of the opposition lost interest after 29 minutes and left. On the third day of the week, of the 246 legislators present only four dwelled on the report for 47 minutes.
These are truthful statistics but do not capture the fact that even the sparse debate on the report has been pathetic. Rhetoric flowed like mud and the gaping holes in the report’s content have been left completely unaddressed. The short attention to the report became shorter on account of the killings in Karachi and the loadshedding riots in Punjab.
We all know that foreign and defence matters are too serious to remain in the custody of the generals, but so far, the parliamentarians’ conduct shows that they have not the slightest clue about national priorities. Immersed in the politics of derailing each other, they are millions of miles away from the point where the challenges of foreign policy would be of real value to them. Most of them do not read, and those who do read, do so about their constituencies only. And as for those without constituencies, the more detached group, they are too busy reading the lips of their leaders to throw even a glance at how fast the globe is spinning for Pakistan.
They may learn in the end, but that does not take care of the present-day task of giving Pakistan a brand new foreign policy, resetting relations with the US and devising a booklet of answers to the questions regarding the future of our ties with India, Afghanistan, Iran, China and the rest of the world. So far all we have is the prime minister, the foreign minister and the foreign secretary churning out stale ideas through statements and press releases in the desperate attempt to pretend like they know what they are talking about. The parliament is just not ready to come up with a viable foreign policy blueprint. It may change in the coming days —I dearly hope it does — but for now its record is disturbingly poor.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 30th, 2012.