The disregarded sovereignty of parliament

Ardeshir Cowasjee on Pakistani politicians, 4 June 2000:

Nawaz is now in jail, and the government appeal asking for the death sentence has been admitted by the Sindh High Court. Not fair. Justice must be evenhanded. Will the government hang Benazir and all the other delinquents?

Cowasjee, on Oct 3 1999:

The Americans seem not to realize that in this country, with the men of the calibre available to it, with their level of intelligence and integrity, there cannot be a democracy. No institution of the state supports its people, all work solely to support and maintain in power whichever man or woman happens to be on top.

The past is another country as the two excerpts above show. Even though you don’t come across many forceful defences of democracy in the media these days, it would be difficult to imagine a famous columnist – a famous liberal and secular columnist – saying what Cowasjee said in the above excerpts quite so openly anymore. And that’s a great thing. But one wonders why Cowasjee, who is famous for his respect for the law, could ever say such things. After all, here is Cowasjee on Oct 1 2001 in one of his many columns on the storming of the Supreme court by PML-N politicians in 1997:

(c) “At 0730 hours the same day, Lt General Nasim Rana, then heading the ISI, called on COAS General Jehangir Karamat to report that a large crowd of ruling party men had left Lahore the previous night and was now congregating in Islamabad preparing to storm the Supreme Court. General Karamat played by the book and asked Rana to warn the man whose orders he obeyed, Nawaz Sharif, prime and defence minister. Another general in Karamat’s place would have perhaps ordered a company of the 111 Brigade to conduct a ‘move’ exercise around the Supreme Court and the Parliament area that morning. The army is, after all, responsible for the security of the people and their institutions.”

Do you see a contradiction? How can someone who expresses the level of disregard for the sanctity of the elected parliament in the first two excerpts then feel any outrage at the violation of the sanctity of the Supreme Court? How can someone categorically rule out the legitimacy of the parliament based on the “level of intelligence” of the Pakistani people and then be expected to be taken seriously when he talks of lack of respect for the rule of law? In any case, it’s interesting to read Cowasjee’s suggestion to Gen. Karamat about ordering a “move” of the 111 brigade around the Supreme Court.

I have often wondered why the sanctity of Pakistan’s legislature has been so easily disregarded by individuals who otherwise have so much concern for the rule of law. If, as Cowasjee says, Pakistan is a country unfit for democracy then surely he must believe that it is a country unfit for an independent judiciary and a country unfit to have a 800,000 strong army and unfit to be a country at all. In which case why bother to write about anything at all? What exactly is it about the legislature that is so different?

In the Maulvi Tamizuddin case, the sole dissenting opinion against the majority decision to uphold the dismissal of the Constituent Assembly was Justice Cornelius’. He was of the opinion that “the Constituent Assembly’s sovereignty superseded that of the Governor-General’s whose functions were circumscribed by the Assembly’s power to amend the 1935 Act[…] He derived his concept of legislative supremacy first from the compelling task at hand – framing the constitution and thus making the state concrete – and second from the fact that the Assembly was an elected body, thus linking concepts of legislative powers and popular sovereignty”

But Justice Cornelius’ viewpoint has never been mainstream among the intellectuals of Pakistan. The idea of parliament as supreme, even before the parameters of the state have been defined, has never caught on in Pakistan. Part of the reason for this is obvious. The first sentence of the preamble to the 1972 constitution:

Whereas sovereignty over the entire Universe belongs to Almighty Allah alone, and the authority to be exercised by the people of Pakistan within the limits prescribed by Him is a sacred trust;

Of course Cowasjee is clearly not a proponent of the ideological Islamic state as defined in the Objectives Resolution. In fact quite the opposite, he is motivated by ideology of another sort. In his writing, he has made multiple references to Jinnah’s idea of Pakistan and how far Pakistan has strayed from it. Like the Islamists, proponents of “Jinnah’s [secular] Pakistan” (the Jinnah of the Aug 11 1947 speech) too, are defined by a vague and poorly defined ideal that they feel that the people of Pakistan are unable to live up to if left to their own devices. This statement by Cowasjee mirrors the thinking of many people of his social class: “The army is, after all, responsible for the security of the people and their institutions.” The army in the hands of proponents of Jinnah’s Pakistan has been used – too often – to forcibly move Pakistan in an ideological direction which they believe that democracy would be unable to achieve.

It’s unlikely we’ll ever know what kind of Pakistan that Jinnah wanted. But the interesting thing is that both major camps fighting over Jinnah’s legacy have always given the least regard to the sovereignty of the parliament. In a way, they both believe in an utopian ideal and history has shown that utopian philosophies have had very little regard for the sovereignty of something as prosaic and fickle as an elected parliament.

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12 responses to “The disregarded sovereignty of parliament

  1. takhalus

    hm cowasjee has never hidden his belief that accountability trumps democracy ..he’s always written of the rule of law and his disgust with politicians has always surpassed his dislike of military men as distinct from military rulers.

  2. admin

    takhalus,
    when you don’t believe in one of the main institutions of government – the parliament – because of your belief of the basic lack of intelligence and integrity of the leadership produced then invocations of “rule of law” are rather meaningless, wouldn’t you agree? Rule of law is simply a euphemism for “rule of Cowasjee’s preference” at that point.

  3. But the interesting thing is that both major camps fighting over Jinnah’s legacy have always given the least regard to the sovereignty of the parliament. In a way, they both believe in an utopian ideal and history has shown that utopian philosophies have had very little regard for the sovereignty of something as prosaic and fickle as an elected parliament.

    A pithy observation. And although I find this especially prevalent in Pakistan, where amazing amounts of time is wasted on “ideological battles” much could be made my exporting this sorta paradigm to India too.

    Cardinal principles like supremacy of Parliament (Anti-defection law), federalism (article 356) etc are obscured by loud shadow battles wich achieve little.

    Such it goes.

  4. admin

    hades,
    I had to look up the anti-defection law after you mentioned it in your comment. It’s really interesting. Do you support it? I can see the rationale behind it, but it’s a really dramatic step.

  5. Admin,

    No, I don’t support it. It’s an absurd legislation which, IMO, defies common sense.

    1) It actually pretty much makes a mockery of India being a representative democracy. Once an MP gets elected, the law requires him to become a representative of his party high command, not of his constituency.

    2) The principle of the balance/distribution of powers between sarkari wings goes out the window. For example, let us assume, a party XYZ gets a simple majority in Parliament and forms a government. Now, both the legislature party and the executive are controlled by the same power source, the Party High Command.

    In effect, this Government can never lose the confidence of the House (that is, not until it loses the confidence of the Party High Command which would issue whips for which way their MPs are to vote) no matter what it does, good or bad. You will never have a scenario like Labour MPs voting against the Tony Blair Gorment, for example.

    Also, this whole controlling corruption is hogwash. All it does is that it reserves all the goodies for the top bosses, so a Congress will not bribe individual MPs but will bribe party bosses to support its govt. In effect, ti makes the buying of MP votes a wholesale and not a retail activity.

    The Samajwadi Party, for example, had been a lifelong opposer of an Indo-US Nuclear deal but suddenly changed its stand at the last moment and voted for Manmohan Singh’s Government.

  6. admin

    great points. I agree with you. Actually Pakistan has a similar anti-defection law that was included in the 14th amendment under Nawaz Sharif. As you say, it basically ended the possibility of a no-confidence vote given that the ruling party has the numbers.

    (article 63A on this page: http://pakistani.org/pakistan/constitution/part3.ch2.html)

  7. Indophile

    Hades,
    It doesn’t defies common sense, rather, it is more practical and beneficial. It does go against the the ideology that is : the representative decision should be more credible and important than his loyalty, but, in India 95% of the cases people vote for the party. So primary vote goes for the party not for the candidate and the whole defection business nullify that choice. But again, as you said end result is the same, still a stable government is an outcome, which in most of the cases is pleasant for everybody. You can go through almost all the defections and conclude that none of them were any good for the country.

  8. This continues another trend in Pakistan that has fundamentally undermined any progress – the elevation of the individual over the institution. Successful democracies have strong institutions – and the cult of the individual (yes, I’m using a cliche,but it’s true) still reigns supreme in Pakistan.

  9. admin

    Nabeel,
    this is probably just me being a contrarian, so feel free to ignore but I think at least part of the problem is the opposite of what you are saying. Sure there is slavish devotion to politicians like the Bhuttos and the Sharifs that seems completely irrational to outsiders. But would you say that those supporters are responsible for the failure of democracy in Pakistan? Or does at least some of the blame lie with the various classes of society who hold the exact opposite view? i.e. the conservative, upper and upper middle classes who have historically been loyal to the bureaucracy, the army, Islam, and the ideology of Pakistan.

    this group of people has traditionally not elevated individuals over institutions; imo they have elevated nationalism mixed with religion over individuals and institutions and it is their inability to tolerate any politicians who don’t meet their standards that has been responsible for their undermining of democracy.

    check out this article:
    http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/news/pakistan/19-a-tale-of-two-classes-hh-03

  10. S. Harpasand

    I found the Dawn article (tale of two classes) to be a fascinating read. I am curious why you tweeted that you dont agree with the premise of the article. In your own post above you seem to suggest and affirm the same thesis as presented in the dawn article.

    I feel that the utter contempt and distaste for Zardadi one finds in the Pak media, including the blogosphere, is another example of the elites/educated (middle-class ?) not accepting the “choice” of the dirty smelly uncivilised people. Granted AZ was not directly elected by the people but he is nevertheless the legal and elected leader of his party which was elected by the awam. He should be allowed to complete his term and those who do not agree with him or dislike him should try to win the battle at the ballot in the next round rather then in the chambers of the Supreme Court or backrooms of the GHQ.

    Thanks for sharing and pointing out the dawn article!

  11. admin

    S. Harpasand,
    It’s a pretty compelling argument but I don’t know if it takes into account the urban Punjabi supporters of Nawaz Sharif who *seem* to have outgrown their anti-democracy views despite their support for the army against PPP. Maybe I’m being too optimistic – I guess time will tell.

    agree with your point about the contempt for Zardari.

  12. Admin,

    Heh! yeah, but the Indian law is a bit more stringent–a non-money bill defection is also penalised. But in the endm the outcome is the same.

    Indophile,

    It doesn’t defies common sense, rather, it is more practical and beneficial. It does go against the the ideology that is : the representative decision should be more credible and important than his loyalty, but, in India 95% of the cases people vote for the party.

    I dunno where you get those figures from but even so, it is not the business of the State to ensure party discipline. If the party is as important as you say it is, legislators would balk at the prospect of disobeying their party naturally—there would be need of a law to make them behave.

    . But again, as you said end result is the same, still a stable government is an outcome, which in most of the cases is pleasant for everybody.

    Why have elections at all then—terribly disruptive they are? IF “stable Gorment” is the be all and end all of India’s political system then make some 20 years old PM for life. You’ll get stable gorment for the next 60 years, touch wood.

    You can go through almost all the defections and conclude that none of them were any good for the country.

    IMO, anyone who defected from their party whips to vote for Manmohon Singh’s gorment in 2008 was a good defectee, so sue me.

    Let the Indian Parliament decide what is good for the country. Why give that power to part high commands?

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