Punjab circus

Published in Dawn

Before we get to the mess in the Punjab Assembly, best to lead with the starting point: this country was created with a lot of promise. At the centre of that promise was parliament. ‘…You have got all the powers,’ said Muhammad Ali Jinnah. It was a trust, and a burden.

In today’s Punjab, however, the destiny of 100 million souls is decided not by public will, but by three members of the same family: the Chaudhrys of Gujrat.

And even the Chaudhrys aren’t what they used to be. Unity once defined the House of Zahoor Elahi, if for no other reason than clawing at the throne. The Sharifs would bicker and sulk; the Bhuttos would accuse each other of murder. But then there were the Chaudhrys: unfazed and undivided. Given the intellectual poverty of our current Muslim Leagues, even ‘mitti pao’ could be dressed up as an ethos.

And yet the third generation has ruined all that, as third generations often do. Different Chaudhry princes, each more faceless than the last, flirt with the two big parties like Mughal satraps. Whether or not it ever stood for ‘Quaid’, Q stands for quagmire today, as Punjab sinks further into chaos.

Chaudhry Shujaat thinks the future lies with the Sharifs. Chaudhry Moonis thinks Imran is the future already. And Chaudhry Pervez just wants to be chief minister, future be damned. (Of note: all three have been bad news for Punjab, and all three will dump N, or PTI, as and when it suits them.)

With half the Chaudhrys in revolt, Imran’s rivals sensed an opening. Never one not to exploit a family feud, Asif Zardari rushed to Shujaat’s recliner and broke him away from his cousin. Come 22 July, and the party head decided to side against his own parliamentary party: Shujaat told his boys to vote for Hamza.

But his boys voted Pervez. That’s where the Member from Rajanpur, Deputy Speaker Dost Mazari, comes in. Ever the man of the match, Mr. Mazari gave us the silliest construction of the law he could find, and knocked out the Q votes.

So it was that Lord Hamza became chief minister, as his father before him, as his uncle before his father, and as his son and grandson will after him too. Nawaz League meanwhile cheered on the chalakiyan of their generational enemy Mr Zardari; a gent whose ‘political genius’ has reduced his own party to a smash-and-grab racket limited to one province bereft of its biggest city.

All these miseries out of the way, we now turn to the law. Article 63A is clear: ‘if a member of a parliamentary party…votes or abstains from voting in the house contrary to any direction issued by the parliamentary party to which he belongs, in relation to election of the prime minister or chief minister…he may be declared in writing by the Party Head to have defected from the political party…’

As is obvious, voting is per the parliamentary party’s direction; the party head only comes into play during defection proceedings. Had the framers wanted it the other way round, the Constitution would just have read ‘party head’ in the first place.

Second, if the two were interchangeable, the expression ‘parliamentary party’ would be redundant. Why have it there at all?

Third, such an interpretation defeats the logic of a parliamentary party – which represents the electorate – issuing a direction, rather than a possibly unelected party head, as Shujaat is.

Fourth, Mr. Mazari entirely misinterpreted the Supreme Court’s recent judgment on Article 63A; it only held that votes cast contrary to the parliamentary party’s direction would be disregarded. If anything, the party head has been deemed surplus to requirements; nor does he have any powers to direct a vote contrary to such direction. Shujaat’s letter means nothing.

Fifth, it’s rather odd that the question of party candidate be reopened at the eleventh hour, considering the Lahore High Court expressly named Mr Elahi in its order, and the Supreme Court declared the poll a second-round, run-off election – which always meant the previous candidates carrying over; Article 130(4) makes this plain.

Sixth, no judgment holds that a party head’s decision amounts to a direction of the parliamentary party. This extends to the oft-cited Ayesha Gulalai case, who was in any event never liable for disqualification, because she’d never voted in a different prime minister/chief minister anyway. The matter of the PTI’s Punjab dissidents again revolved around the parliamentary party’s direction.

It would be best to stop here. Subject to what our Lords decide, Mr Mazari has come up with a ruling as bogus as Mr Suri’s from April. In blocking the majority mandate, he’s either been dumb or malicious.

As for the engineering that’s gotten us here, the past few months have seen the rupee skyrocket, the system crash, and popular disgust usher in PTI across Punjab’s by-polls. There is now mercy due to this country: our representatives – and none else – must announce general elections, those elections must lead to completion of tenure, and this ridiculous wrestling match must come to an end.

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