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August 22, 2018

Imran’s first address to nation: Fine words, but with an epic omission


August 22, 2018

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Imran Khan’s maiden address to the nation was full of fine words, promises and commitments to work wonders, but there was also an epic omission: A call to heal the deep wounds inflicted by the acrimonious politics of the last five years.

A re-conciliatory outreach to all parliamentary forces from Khan, seeking their cooperation for the sake of Pakistan's new beginning, was direly needed to ease their election blues and lure them back into the national fold for the greater good of the general public. Sadly missing, a few well-crafted sentences combining political niceties with national reconciliation would have earned him universal acclaim.

Even a strong government with firm control over the federal and provincial assemblies requires a strong working relationship with its political competitors to build the consensus needed to tackle issues of national significance. Such bridge-building is all the more necessary when the ruling coalition lacks the requisite numbers to steer legislation through the Senate, as is currently the case.

Pakistan endured an unprecedented spike in spiteful, confrontational politics in the five years which immediately followed the 2013 general elections. This turned the political arena into the equivalent of a freestyle wrestling ring. The language became unbearably offensive, sparking a hitherto unheard of blame-game. The lopsided environment prevalent in the run up to the elections and after the controversial polling process further inflamed the hostility on either side of the political fence.

Amid this milieu, Imran Khan has ascended to the topmost executive office of Pakistan. He is now the prime minister not only of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and its allied parties, but of every Pakistani and political party, irrespective of whether they like it or not. Therefore, it is incumbent upon him to assume a bearing befitting of his high office - that of the quintessential statesman, not one of a partisan politician.

In his first address, the prime minister was expected to demonstrate that he had changed in accordance with his assumption of such a monumental responsibility. The proffering of an olive branch to the opposition would have served the purpose, without detracting from Khan's oft-repeated vows of ruthless accountability, a crusade against corruption crusade, adherence to merit without exception, and the observance of financial austerity.

Along with his unveiling of an expansively ambitious political and governance reforms agenda, it was hoped that Khan would call for bygones to be bygones, and utter words to the effect: The elections are over, let’s get together to realise the dream of a “new Pakistan”.

Instead, his 69-minute did not include words to placate the opposition parties, particularly the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Awami National Party and Pakhtunkhwa Awami Milli Party (PKMAP), or provide them with any incentive to soften their high-pitched rhetoric and give the new government a sporting chance to work for the national interest.

Ignoring these potent forces at this critical juncture may not prevent Imran Khan from achieving some of his short-term goals, but he would certainly be able to accomplish a great deal more were he to rally their cooperation. If today he is unwilling to reach out to them, directly or indirectly, ultimately he would have to approach them tomorrow or the day after. Otherwise, the coalition government would be incapacitated in Parliament and incapable of enacting meaningful laws for the public’s welfare. If the existing rivalry were to intensify, or even just persist, the opposition would become increasingly antagonistic.

Sooner rather later, the prime minister would have to acknowledge that an elongated government-opposition tussle would weaken all elected political forces, Khan and his PTI included. Incessant bickering would discredit and damage both sides - as well as democracy - in equal measure.

In addition to enacting new legislation, the government would also need to enact constitutional amendments if it is to translate the prime minister’s aggressive plans and programmes into action.

This would only be possible only if the treasury and opposition benches were to join forces. They could agree to a restricted agenda without compromising on their pronounced stances.

Imran Khan has talked about empowering the parliament. How would he achieve this goal if the legislatures continue to resound with raucous filibustering conducted to block the transaction of worthwhile legislative business? If the prevalent discord is resolved and new rules of the game established by consensus, such empowerment of the parliament would be nigh impossible.

Encouragingly, there was little in the way of an attack on Nawaz Sharif in Imran Khan’s oration, save for comment on his ousted predecessor's spending on overseas tours. By this measure, it was unnecessary - and unhelpful, in the wider context - for the federal cabinet to place the names of the incarcerated ex-premier and his daughter Maryam on the interior ministry's Exit Control List at its very first meeting. They are already lodged behind bars and cannot flee the country merely by scaling the high walls of Adiala Jail. The restriction might have been somewhat justified had Nawaz Sharif and Maryam been free on bail. In the prevailing circumstances, however, it is an inconsequential provocation.

The Khan administration's demonstration of toughness and might would have been laudable, had it directed at unrepentant terrorists and other enemies of the Pakistani state. But the wielding of such official power must be tempered with wisdom in dealings with legitimate, elected political opponents.

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