Is the desire for a grand agreement or compromise on issues of national importance even objective?
“Consensus: The process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values, and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead. What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner: I stand for consensus?” Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
The endless talk of striving to attain a “national consensus” is an overplayed and highly misused and abused card in Pakistani politics. It is pushed by as many well-meaning, and politically-correct individuals as it is by insincere political sharks as the one and only panacea of all the ills that bedevil this land of the pure. The unprecedented economic and political crises Pakistan has been increasingly riven by since Shehbaz Sharif assumed power 10 months ago, has engendered calls for the need to develop a national consensus among rival political forces. And daily, these calls acquire a fresh vigour and sense of urgency.
In evening talk shows, hosts or hostesses often naively ask why our politicians don’t stop squabbling and sit together to sort out the country’s political and economic mess. And in response, our know-all analysts and often even the representatives of the warring political parties, instantly take the moral high-ground, and mouth support for the cause of a utopian national consensus to wrestle with Pakistan’s myriad challenges. Programme moderators and analysts may actually believe in the workability of their demand, but in practical politics, consensus is usually the result of a bad compromise, often reeking of opportunism and leading to weak decisions.
Rather than lamenting the lack of consensus between rival politicians and criticising them for their alleged self-serving, selfish politics, let’s ask the fundamental question: is the desire for a grand agreement or compromise on issues of national importance even objective? Not just in Pakistan, but for that matter in any developing country — where democratic institutions are flawed and weak, and where in the name of democracy, there has been an elite capture – it is akin to asking for a consensus between the oppressors and the oppressed, the plunderers and the plundered, and the looters and the looted. The world’s advanced democracies, which now operate according to the defined rules of the game, managed to arrive at that stage after revolutions and passing through prolonged periods of conflict and civil strife. Countries like Pakistan — where feudalism and tribalism still exist, and the elite capture remains entrenched — have still to undergo this painful evolutionary process, until one side decisively wins. And the grim reality is that establishing a pro-people democracy is not yet even on the agenda of the country’s major political stakeholders as they are still fighting the first basic round, in which getting rid of self-defeating dynastic politics and corruption are the two main items of public discourse.
In Pakistan, on one hand dynastic politicians are trying to perpetuate their family interests and politics by hook or crook. The consensus among 13 traditional political parties has effectively derailed the accountability process and now they want to evade general elections at any and every cost – even in those two provinces where the assemblies stand dissolved. And this they are trying to achieve by keeping the establishment on their side. On the other hand, there is the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which is challenging dynastic politics at the national level — if not in the constituencies – and has become the flag-bearer of the anti-corruption narrative. But the PTI, too, wants the establishment’s blessings to achieve its ends.
For the representatives of the Shehbaz Sharif government, consensus in the current political framework on any of the issues – from fighting terrorism to introducing electoral reforms — would have to be based first and foremost on acknowledgment of their stewardship at the helm of affairs. For the opposition PTI, the first point of business has to be getting down to holding fresh general elections on a war-footing. And there seems to be no middle ground between these two positions, as they highlight one of the country’s fundamental contradictions: Whether to give the corrupt a clean-chit and forgive and forget their past and present corruption, or hold them accountable?
Hats off to former premier Imran Khan that so far, he has doggedly refused even to shake hands with those politicians, whom he sees as corrupt and dishonest. Many call it Imran Khan’s naivete and have continuously been urging him – since his days in power – to defuse tensions with the Houses of Sharif and Zardari — or in other words, build a consensus with the same set of politicians against whom he began his politics. But he has stood his ground. However, many of Imran Khan’s critics rightly point out the dichotomy in the PTI chairman’s position because his rigid stance with regard to his political foes notwithstanding, he has allowed a number of compromised faces to enter and thrive within his own party ranks. Nonetheless, for Imran Khan’s massive support-base, this partial failure to walk the talk does not seem to matter. The reason: Imran Khan as an individual is seen as honest, sincere and a well-meaning leader, and despite the 24/7 propaganda by the Shehbaz Sharif government and its sponsors, the image of him being the “Mr. Clean” of Pakistani politics remains untarnished.
Imran Khan’s uncompromising stance on the country’s corruption-tainted politicians was also once held by the mighty establishment. Unfortunately, as far as public perception is concerned, the establishment is now seen as an ally of the same corrupt dynasties, which once were given a thumbs down by it. The establishment needs to move fast to counter this public perception, which is damaging its image.
Since the political fortunes of the corruption-tainted politicians and their families stand revived and all of them have been let off the hook even in open and shut graft cases, polarisation and confrontation within Pakistan has intensified at all levels. Many Pakistanis, angry and bitter about the manner in which corrupt politicians have been thrust back into power, have lost trust in the state and its institutions. The institutions themselves appear polarised and divided. The Pakistan Constitution has been made ineffective on many counts, including even ensuring some basic functions. The controversy about the announcement of elections in two provinces as per the constitution, is one glaring example of how things are falling apart. The superior judiciary is under attack by none other than the government and the state institutions for following an independent and constitutional line. The National Assembly stands incomplete, and even there the Supreme Court had to intervene to scrap the Speaker’s controversial decision about accepting the resignations of the PTI MNAs, who wanted to return to Parliament. This is indeed a royal mess, which cannot be sorted out through appeals of building a national consensus. This will not work, as both the government and the PTI appear determined to slug it out, whatever the outcome – even at the cost of the country.
The desire for consensus under these circumstances may be politically correct, but remains a pipedream. The big question then: given this scenario, what is the solution? One side must win decisively. If the PDM wins, it means a continuation of the same old dynastic politics, the same old corruption and the same old Pakistan – all of which remains incompatible with the 21st century world. Victory by Imran Khan and his brand of politics is not an ideal solution either, but for many Pakistanis it would be a step forward, yielding a greater push for pro-people reforms, greater political stability and efforts for real economic revival. Pakistanis would still have to undergo very tough times, but there would at least be some hope. But whatever the outcome of the ongoing continuing political wrangling, the tipping point will be determined mainly by the overt or covert blessing of the military establishment. Will the establishment settle for the same old, or give change a chance?