Once again, in his characteristically blunt style, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has announced that he would not engage in talks with Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Shehbaz Sharif, because he considers him as a person who has committed serious crimes against the country.

He made quite a few other equally blunt statements in his recent televised question-and-answer session called “Aap ka wazeer-i-azam aap kay saath”, but announcing the continued boycott of the leader of the Opposition stands out as it involves serious constitutional and political issues of national interest.

To begin with, no one and least of all the prime minister of a country can arbitrarily pronounce anyone, and least of all the leader of the Opposition who is considered prime minister in waiting in a parliamentary system, a criminal. The job of convicting someone is clearly assigned to the courts and, in a civilised society, unless a court finds someone guilty he or she is innocent in the eyes of the law no matter how serious the allegations.

Although Shehbaz Sharif, president of Pakistan’s largest Opposition party the Pakistan Muslim League (N), is facing a number of serious criminal cases and regularly appears in the courts, he has not been convicted in any one of them yet. In fact, he has spent considerable time behind bars and it was the courts that gave him bail pending the final outcome of the cases against him.

History sheet

It is not uncommon for Pakistan’s top political leaders to face multiple court cases. Benazir Bhutto appeared in the courts almost every other day with her young children in tow while her husband Asif Zardari was in prison. Asif Zardari too faced some extremely serious cases but both Bhutto and Zardari went on to occupy the two top positions of prime minister and president respectively.

Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was tried for the hijacking of a plane but later occupied the post for the third time after his conviction was reversed. Without prejudice to the merits of the ongoing cases, it is an unfortunate tradition in Pakistan that governments try to make life miserable for opposition leaders by instituting every conceivable case against them to hound them out of the political arena. The court cases alone, therefore, cannot be the criteria for holding someone guilty.

Shehbaz Sharif is an elected member of the National Assembly and duly notified by the National Assembly secretariat in the constitutional position of leader of the Opposition by virtue of leading the largest opposition party in the House. Till such time as a court of law convicts him and he stands disqualified to be a member of the legislature, or the majority of Members of the National Assembly belonging to the Opposition remove him, he remains Opposition leader in the House. This is a reality that the prime minister should formally recognise and deal with Sharif instead of going by his personal judgement.

Constitutional responsibilities

Pakistan’s Constitution assigns some important responsibilities to the leader of the Opposition. He has to be consulted by the prime minister in the appointment of some of the most important public officials in our country such as the chief election commissioner, four members of the election commission and chairman of the National Accountability Bureau.

He has also to be consulted in the appointment of a caretaker prime minister at the time of holding general elections. The Supreme Court of Pakistan has also said that these consultations “…cannot be treated lightly as a mere formality, rather supposed to be effective, meaningful, purposive, consensus-oriented, leaving no room for complaint of arbitrariness or unfair play”. It is, therefore, not a choice for the prime minister to consult or not consult the leader of the Opposition – it is a constitutional obligation.

In the past, when it became inevitable, the prime minister preferred communicating with the leader of the Opposition through a letter rather than having a face-to-face consultation. Arguably, the spirit of Pakistan’s Constitution requires that the prime minister should hold in-person consultations with the leader of the opposition. The quality of consultation suffers, again arguably, by not holding in-person consultations. It should also be recognised that holding consultations is not an act of socialisation – it is a legal requirement that has to be fulfilled.

Khan’s personal aversion

While Imran Khan is personally averse to holding in-person consultations with the leader of the Opposition, he has repeatedly delegated the task of consulting the Opposition to his ministers. Recently, the foreign minister and leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf parliamentary party in the National Assembly, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, wrote a formal letter to Shehbaz Sharif as leader of the Opposition to invite him to hold consultations with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf to evolve a consensus on a constitutional amendment for creating a new province in south Punjab.

If holding consultations with the leader of the Opposition is not right and it means compromising with “criminals”, then how is the consultation by ministers but not by the prime minister himself right?

Apparently, Prime Minister Imran Khan has skipped meetings with the Opposition on critical issues because of his personal aversion. He did not attend a meeting on national security when Pakistan and India almost went to war after the Balakot strike in February 2019. Later, the army chief had to apparently stand in for him in another meeting discussing the provincial status of Gilgit-Baltistan. Avoiding such prime ministerial responsibilities is unprecedented.

The prime minister has demonstrated in the past that he is quite capable of revisiting his decisions once he realises the need for reconsideration. He changed his mind on blocking the appointment of Shehbaz Sharif as leader of the Opposition and, later, his election as chair of the Public Accounts Committee. In the interest of conforming to the Constitution, the prime minister should review his policy on engagement with the Opposition leader in the National Assembly.

This article first appeared in Dawn.