A mixed doubles game
Parliament is a forum for debate, not a boxing arena it threatened to become before the passage of the women’s reservation bill in the Rajya Sabha. But who’s to be blamed for the plummeting standards, the government or the Opposition? The Members or Presiding Officers?
Well, the responsibility is collective. But it devolves more on the Treasury whose task it is to get matters debated and legislations passed. At times, its intent is pious and at times it isn’t. The same is true of the Opposition that walks out for the sake of impact in the media at the cost of an informed discussion.
In the 1990s that used to be the case in Pakistan’s national assembly that once debated in the PM’s absence the cooperative banks scam in which big businessmen and politicos swindled millions out of public savings. The Sharif brothers Nawaz and Shahbaz merrily traveled abroad while the legislature discussed the issue.
It was a mockery of democracy at the plinth of which is the government’s accountability to parliament. On witnessing that, I’d proudly tell the Pakistanis of Indian parliamentary ethos. That they too had a sneaking admiration for it manifested in references to established practices in our elected Houses by such star debaters as Benazir Bhutto, Aitzaz Ahsan and former Attorney General Yahya Bakhtiar (better known in India as actor Zeba Bakhtiar’s father) who then sat in the Pak Senate.
Particularly etched in my memory is Ahsan’s speech in the lower House after the demolition of the Babri Mosque, in which he lambasted the hardliners for retaliatory destruction of Hindu places of worship without caring about what happened to mosques on a daily basis in neighbouring Afghanistan. The Indian parallel I can think of is Arif Mohammad Khan’s speech on the Shah Bano case before resigning as a minister from the Rajiv Gandhi government.
But these silver linings were few and far between. The Pakistani MNAs of the time included the likes of Sheikh Rashid, then a close associate of Nawaz Sharif, who’s obscene heckling once drove Benazir’s mother Nusrat to tears. His most shameful conduct however was reserved for the daughter of the east when she stood defending her husband against the charge of breeding horses in the prime minister’s bungalow. The MNA from Rawalpindi would laugh suggestively each time the PPP leader uttered the word ghoda (horse).
Unfortunately, our own MPs have at times come close to such lowly conduct in recent years. An SP leader who mumbles when he speaks, once used such derogatory language against a woman leader of the BJP (who isn’t in the party any more) that she went on a dharna in the House without actually being able to state openly the cause of her outrage.
There are innumerable other examples of MPs – including George Fernandes who used his erudition to defend rape in a debate on the post-Godhra Gujarat riots— crossing limits of decent parliamentary conduct. At their Nadir, the politicos know no bounds. Male chauvinism cuts across party lines.
One only hopes things will change when (and if) one-third of the seats in parliament and state legislatures get occupied by women. Meira Kumar’s elevation as first woman Speaker has brought order in no small measure in the Lok Sabha. But Pakistan did that ahead of India by electing Dr Fehmida Mirza and reserving seats for women in the national assembly. Their Parliament is a relatively better place today when compared with the early 1990s.
On the ground, however, women’s empowerment is tangible in India but rare to find in Pakistan where tribal customs keep the fair sex shackled. Or else Mukhtar Mai who fought for her rights on being gang-raped wouldn’t have become such a celebrity. She succeeded because she had a politician-jurist of Aitzaz Ahsan’s caliber on her side.
Moral of the story: Women’s empowerment is a mixed doubles game. Get men to push their bandwagon.