Riven by discord

“IN a country riven by discord, the extent of disagreement among people, their political representatives and their media outlets feels simultaneously intransigent [and] untenable… . Not only are we bad at agreeing with one another; we’re also terrible at arguing with one another.” Author and columnist Pamela Paul’s words apply to us equally well.

The situation we find ourselves in cannot be dealt with through anything less than plain speaking. Bizarre things have happened over the last few months, especially since the political coup in April. The architects of the hybrid rule could not wait to see the results of their experiment in political engineering through to completion.

Imran Khan was perceived to have fallen short of fulfilling the promises made in 2018. Even his supporters were disillusioned and resigned to defeat at the hustings due in 2023. But by a quirk of history and miscalculations of the string-pullers, the maverick populist was catapulted to new heights of adulation by an overwhelming sympathy wave.

That resulted in resounding political victories in by-polls, and exposed the machinations of the powers that be and the shenanigans of two mainstream parties along with a hotchpotch of scattered opportunists willing to become pawns on the political chessboard.

The string-puller in chief, appointed by Nawaz Sharif and given an extension in service in 2019 by Imran Khan, exposed himself the most as the architect of political engineering, with horrendous consequences for a national institution that enjoyed public esteem for its monumental sacrifices in combating terrorism.

The bull in a china shop went on a demolition spree and then took a palpably incredible stance of ‘political neutrality’, practically abandoning the hybrid regime cobbled together by his minions in 2018. An internal power struggle came to the surface on a key appointment of the sleuth-in-chief.

Systemic caution was thrown to the winds; speculation about future four-stars in contention became grist for the rumour mill (a national pastime in the absence of transparency in governance and lack of dignity in political discourse).

We need a new social contract between the state and society.

Meanwhile, the cipher issue was blown out of proportion. The norms of diplomacy were violated. A senior US official’s conversation with our ambassador in Washington was conveyed through an encrypted diplomatic message to the Foreign Office.

It contained ‘threatening’ and impolite displeasure for our government of the day and the concerned stakeholders. Correctly interpreted as amounting to ‘interference’ in our internal affairs by the National Security Committee, a decision was taken to issue a ‘demarche’, a diplomatic retort to the superpower to let us mind our own business in the internal and foreign policy domains.

However, the cipher was unfortunately used to serve the purpose of political point-scoring by building a narrative of trying to break the shackles of ‘slavery’ and striving for ‘real independence’.

One is reminded of Gen Ayub’s lament of friends, not masters, and Z.A. Bhutto displaying a similar letter from the same superpower to browbeat him over nuclear ambitions.

The following conclusions can be drawn from the current political milieu. Imran Khan has gained substantial public support despite political adversity. He has galvanised the youth to support his cause to regain power.

Huge public rallies and protest marches refuse to wither away, although he has not been able to achieve the two objectives of his protests: selection of an army chief of his choice and force an announcement of early elections by the PDM government.

His threat to dissolve the Punjab and KP provincial assemblies is again a tactic to get an early election date.

The game of thrones and political survival is being played in Punjab in particular. An experienced opportunist has managed to gain political space as the chief executive.

He has always been part of the king’s party; his king is based in Rawalpindi. There are striking similarities with the friction in the mid-1990s between the federal and provincial governments.

Good governance has been sacrificed at the altar of political expediency. Both the chief secretary and IGP, appointed by the federal government, buckled under political pressure and opted to go on leave. The resultant administrative paralysis has had serious consequences for the rule of law and service delivery.

The economic meltdown and political dissension are bound to have dire consequences.

Imran Khan can either accept the federal government’s offer to hold talks, without any prior conditions, or wait till October 2023 for general elections on terms set by the PDM government whose ‘handlers’ may not be available for mediation in view of the change of army command.

We know from history that Nawaz Sharif, Benazir Bhutto and Imran Khan earned the support and respect of the masses as underdogs when they refused to be dictated by the political agenda set by the security establishment. Therefore, the following is the recommended way forward.

One, the prime minister, as chief executive, may convene an all-parties conference as soon as possible. In the first round of national dialogue, each party’s general secretary or deputy chairman, with a maximum of three members from the party, can be invited to finalise the agenda and initially debate on developing a consensus on the following matters of great national importance: a) charter of economy; b) charter of democracy; and c) charter of governance.

Two, focus on democracy should be on adherence to their constitutional roles by parliament, the judiciary and executive, especially restrictions and restraints on the military and intelligence agencies so they may never get involved in political engineering. Similarly, an agreement on granting no extensions to the service chiefs should be reached.

Three, rule of law and good governance must be ensured through setting up an independent commission on criminal justice system reforms. After these deliberations, assisted by relevant experts, consensus may be reached by the heads of all political parties who can then sign a comprehensive charter of economy, democracy and good governance as a public pledge to forge a new social contract between the state and society.

The opportunity for innovative rekindling of the spirit of democratic renewal should not be lost.

The writer is director of the Centre for Governance Research, an independent think tank.

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