Saturday June 15, 2024

A dialogue too far

By Ghazi Salahuddin
December 20, 2020

In a country where rational and open debate seems hardly possible in the media or even on the campuses, they are talking about the prospects of a grand dialogue among national institutions to resolve the present political crisis. There are also some whispers that backdoor contacts have been made across the dividing red lines.

On the surface, though, hostility between Imran Khan’s government and the opposition alliance is becoming more intense. After the Lahore show of strength by the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), which was somewhat less than overwhelming, the hateful chorus of PTI spokespersons has become more high-pitched.

On their part, the PDM leaders have reasserted their demand for the prime minister’s resignation, continuing to reject any option of talking to him or his government. A plan for agitation before the December 31 deadline for the collection of resignations from the members of the national and provincial assemblies is in the works. After that, the final assault is to be made on the citadel of power in Islamabad, with a long march and a ‘dharna’.

Meanwhile, a big show is set for next Sunday, on the death anniversary of Benazir Bhutto in Larkana. Maryam Nawaz is expected to be the rally’s star speaker. This should be the PPP’s major show of strength on its home ground. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s aggressive stance is sure to sparkle on this very emotive occasion.

Beyond any doubt, Benazir’s assassination on December 27, 2007 in Rawalpindi is one of the most tragic and traumatic incidents in our history, in tandem with two other tragedies that we suffered in December, both of which fell on the same day. And I would like to refer to these tragedies in the context of our national incapacity to understand and fully interpret our encounters with history.

The present crisis also falls in this category. In that sense, we are gradually moving closer to the brink. A number of questions that have been tossed into the seething cauldron of political passions have a bearing on the future of democracy in this country. Things can go frightfully wrong when the political rank and file are hyper-polarised. Hence the yearning for some forceful intervention to find a way out of this impasse.

On Thursday, Pakistan’s leading think tank PILDAT held a virtual session with a distinguished panel that said that the federal government “must start a grand inter-institutional dialogue at the earliest”. There is a hint of urgency in what may be described as a petition. The panel consisted of Mushahid Hussain Syed, chair Senate standing committee on foreign affairs, Fawad Hasan Fawad, former secretary to the prime minister, and Gen (r) Ehsan-ul-Haq, former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee.

President PILDAT Ahmed Bilal Mehboob focused on the proposal by former chief justice Asif Saeed Khosa who had given the most detailed blueprint for an inter-institutional dialogue which was needed because of trust deficit among state institutions and encroachment into each other’s constitutional domain.

A press release issued by PILDAT also provided the gist of a discussion that involved an engaged virtual audience. “Their comments and questions ranged from the role of military encroaching upon the constitutional space of other institutions as the key reason for a dialogue, and the weakness of parliament and political parties in carrying out their legislative and oversight functions”.

Incidentally, these comments also underline the improbability of a national dialogue that may eventually lay the foundation of a genuinely democratic system. An interim or partial resolution of the crisis of democracy could be possible. For the moment, that too would be a great relief.

As I have suggested at the outset, the overall environment in which power is exercised does not seem conducive to an earnest resolution of the imbalance that is ingrained in the ruling arrangement. One key problem is that our rulers are averse to progressive and liberal ideas. In fact, they have allowed the spread of very orthodox, intolerant elements.

At another level, our intelligentsia is deprived of opportunities to explore new territories, in an intellectual sense. Combined with the prevailing extremism and intolerance, the suppression of the media freedom has inhibited debate and discussion across the entire society and this deprivation must also have infected the collective wisdom of our state institutions.

Obviously, the need for dialogue is valid only when the two sides – or its multiple participants – do not agree with each other. A dialogue assumes different points of view. But our political and administrative structures do not put up with dissent and have no openings towards values that are associated with democracy and social justice.

This week, we were again reminded of our consistent refusal to study and examine the circumstances in which we lost East Pakistan. Yes, on this sixteenth of December on Wednesday, we did remember the children of the Army Public School in Peshawar who were massacred by terrorists six years ago. But has Pakistan changed during these six years?

The point I want to make is that if we do not deal with questions of our history, we will also not be able to comprehend the crisis that is now threatening our social equilibrium. Hopefully, it is possible that the issues that have surfaced in the present political confrontation have prompted our rulers to rethink their concepts of national security and national interest.

Ideally, the way to a grand dialogue between state institutions should be paved with the promotion of a free media and demonstrable respect for democratic values of dissent and discussion. But the situation that exists on the ground is alarming. The International Federation of Journalists that published a White Paper on Global Journalism has said that Pakistan is among the five nations considered “the most dangerous countries for practice of journalism in the world”.

There are examples of how the Pakistani state responds to any expression of progressive and independent thought. There is little scope, thus, for an early resurgence of a democratic dispensation through whatever means that are accessible to the present practitioners of politics.

The writer is a senior journalist.