THE PML-N’s blistering response, via Chaudhry Nisar Ali, to the Supreme Court’s observations earlier this week about the proper role of the opposition in the parliamentary legislative process is worth parsing. To the extent the largest opposition party in the National Assembly is offended that its conduct came under criticism from the Supreme Court, perhaps the PML-N’s unhappiness is justified. While strictly speaking the comments by the justices did not violate the letter of any law, a Supreme Court that is sensitive to others’ comments about it should perhaps also be sensitive enough to avoid riling up other pillars of the state, which the parliamentary opposition undoubtedly is.
However, if the criticism came from perhaps the wrong quarters, that doesn’t make the criticism itself wrong. The new contempt law that the government steamrolled through parliament could not have been voted down by the opposition given that the government has a comfortable majority in both houses of parliament. But that does not mean the opposition had no role to play whatsoever and should have just surrendered and walked out in protest as it did when the bill came up for a vote before the National Assembly. A few well-argued speeches from the floor of the house by leading members of the opposition would have at least put on the parliamentary record the flaws in an obviously flawed bill that history will not judge kindly. When certain fundamental principles of the law are at stake — as in the new contempt law, which attempts to give an unacceptable carte blanche to executive decisions — the opposition needs to use the parliamentary megaphone it has to alert the country and parliament about what is at stake.
Cynical as the government’s motive was in moving the new contempt law, it is not impervious to criticism — in fact, after the law was passed, the PPP has turned to the legal community for suggestions about how the new contempt law can be improved. So if the PML-N, or some other opposition party, had stood up inside the house and cried out about the very obvious flaws in the new contempt law, perhaps the PPP would have accommodated some of the opposition’s concerns. The point goes beyond the new contempt law, however: a government with a majority in parliament may sometimes pass good laws and sometimes bad ones — what the opposition must do is try and use its parliamentary privileges to minimise the creation of bad laws. Staging walkouts and playing to the television cameras outside parliament is not enough. Governmental unreason inside parliament must be countered by opposition reason inside parliament.