By Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi
A fool-proof method of judging a democratic political system is to examine the discourse and word power of its political leaders — do they articulately present their point of views when dealing with an issue or talking about their adversaries?
Political discourse means the phrases, reference points, comments, and a connected series of statements used by political leaders while interacting with another individual or group. By that definition, how do our political leaders address one another and what courtesies or discourtesies do they extend towards their rivals? What kind of language do they use in their speeches and statements in parliament, during public rallies or media interviews? Political discourse reflects not only the disposition of the leaders but also the quality of politics in a country.
All parliaments emphasize that members should exercise and maintain decorum and decency in their speeches and statements, with some phrases and idioms declared “unparliamentary” by the speaker.
History is witness to the fact that Pakistan’s parliament has numerous examples of “loose”, “rude”, and “unparliamentary” remarks made by its members, who often use “discourteous” and “offensive” idioms for their political adversaries. Such incidents take place more often than usual when there is a high degree of tension between the ruling party and the opposition.
The previous parliament (2013-18) and the present one, elected in July 2018, have experienced a lot of mud-slinging between the government and the opposition. In addition to using indecent and crude language, some members also resorted to hooliganism and disorderly conduct in order to disrupt the proceedings. There were some instances when the members came very close to engaging in physical fights, too.
The current National Assembly (NA) has been holding its meetings periodically for more than three months. As political polarization between the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz intensifies, the NA sessions are often marred by shouting matches between the leaders of the two parties.
Disruptive behavior and walk-outs have become a common practice, with some members building their reputation by using rude and aggressive comments about the rival party. Despite the speaker’s warning and deletion of comments from the NA’s records, some continue with offensive and abusive speeches.
There have been several instances when the NA or the Senate sessions have been postponed to avoid a war of words from escalating. Adverse interactions have also taken place between the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the PTI, with supporters trading accusations and counter-accusations against one another.
How do you explain the degeneration of political discourse in Pakistan? A democratic political system cannot function in its true spirit if it is not backed by a democratic political culture. Pakistan’s political culture has strong streaks of authoritarianism and parochialism which is not in line with the imperatives of a democratic political order. Unable to internalize democratic norms, the political leaders do not feel restrained by the norms of democracy that emphasize self-control, deference towards dissent, mutual respect, and political accommodation. Moreover, a non-democratic or partially democratic political culture admires defiance of the authority. The more defiant a person is towards the people in power, the more respect that person enjoys as a “ ourageous” person. The party leadership does not discourage a person from using abusive discourse for its political adversaries. In fact, a noisy and rowdy person is appreciated by the party colleagues for making life difficult for the party’s rivals.
A number of people lack orientation for logical arguments due to poor or non-existent academic backgrounds. They run short of decent and polite words quickly and then resort to rude and offensive word usage which is their usual style of conversation.
Some political activists often indulge in the strategy of killing two birds with one stone — by mud-slinging political adversaries and praising one’s leader to demonstrate their loyalty and win over his/her confidence.
If democratic norms and processes are to be strengthened, the discourse of the political leaders needs to conform to the democratic imperative. Resorting to hooliganism in parliament and using abusive language undermines the prospects of political dialogue which is a hallmark of democracy. The leadership can do their bit by discouraging their party members from engaging in such non-democratic behavior. Unfortunately, they do not seem interested in going down that path.
(Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi is a Pakistan-based political analyst. Twitter: @har132har)