By AHMED QURAISHI
If Pakistani politicians fail to build consensus, will they agree then on the need to step aside, spare us their chaotic politics, and let the rest of us force changes into the system to allow new thinking and new faces? Nawaz Sharif’s idea of a 25-year plan for Pakistan is not bad. Except if it means 25 more years of the same tested, tried and failed politics by the same incapable political parties.
Former Prime Minister of Pakistan Mr. Nawaz Sharif has issued a statement asking the nation’s politicians, judiciary and the military to create a 25-year plan he called the Charter of Pakistan. The plan, he said, should be produced ‘with consensus’ to pull Pakistan ‘out of its problems.’
Our politicians are just discovering what statesmen in other nations take for granted. Better late than never.
There is no reason to doubt Mr. Sharif’s sincerity in floating this idea. But he should also ponder with an open mind what many skeptic Pakistanis say about it. Seen from another context, this noble idea can easily turn into 25 more years of the same tested, tried and failed politics in Pakistan. More bluntly: another lease on life for dying Pakistani political elite.
The keyword in Mr. Sharif’s proposal is consensus. If Pakistan had concentrated on indoctrinating its citizens the way Israel, China and the United States have done with theirs, we could still have a common ground to start from. But in the present situation, the Pakistani State has allowed shortsighted and failed political parties to wrestle legitimacy from the State’s hands. Now these parties have become self-appointed sole representatives of entire groups of citizens: one party claims it represents all Urdu-speaking Pakistanis [which is a contradiction in terms since the language is owned by the State and the nation doesn’t belong to any specific group, but that’s another debate]. Another party claims it represents all Pashto-speaking Pakistanis [again, the language is owned by the State and is an integral part of the Pakistani identity]. The two largest parties, the PPPP and the PML have also fallen in the same pit, becoming more narrowly-based regional parties than national.
Pakistanis are not as divided as these parties make them out to be. Pakistanis have also watched with horror over the past three years as the respective leaders of the two parties came dangerously close to provincialism. President Zardari has indirectly threatened to use the so-called Sindh Card if his government was toppled. [He rejected the idea altogether when asked about it, but actions speak louder.] On PML’s side, Mr. Sharif’s faction is ironically guilty of the same since the other faction, the PML-Q, remains slightly better represented nationally across Sindh, Kashmir, Balochistan, Punjab, Pakhtunkhwa, and Baltistan.
Most of the existing parties run private and lethally-armed militias and have perfected the art of street chaos and messy/uncivilized politics. They often have nothing to offer their voters except whipping up linguistic differences. This assessment is a harsh reality. Best of all, there is no law – yet – to stop these parties from perpetuating this flawed concept of how political parties should behave internally and in public.
PLANNING REQUIRES TRAINING
There is no tradition for planning in almost all of the major parties. Membership and career path within the parties depend on loyalty to a permanent, lifelong party chief. It’s more a modern form of a medieval tribe than a modern political party. There are isolated bright exceptions of some politicians succeeding in taking out party ‘planning documents’. Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed of PML-Q is a case in point and he has taken this talent with him to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where he supervised the release of elegant and meaningful policy planning documents. But his talent remains confined to his person and has not rubbed off on the wider political culture in his or in other parties. For the rest of the political parties, planning for the future – let alone for 25 years – remains limited to a lousy collection of bullet-points and generalized essay-writing.
A LONG SHOT
It is impossible to create consensus on anything in this fragmented, violent and shallow Pakistani political environment.
Moreover, in some cases, a State needs to impose discipline and not wait for it to develop. In the West, for example, discipline within a democratic system of governance evolved over centuries, not decades. The process included wars, famines, genocide, redrawing of borders, ethnic cleansing, and more wars. We in Pakistan can’t wait for due process to take its course. Israel is not the best of examples here for political reasons but even now there are many interpretations among Israelis for what Israeli history should be and what type of modern state Israel should be. The debate goes on. But for all the democracy and pluralism, only one interpretation for Israel’s history is enforced from top to bottom. And it was not put to vote but implemented from the inception of the State in 1948.
In China, Singapore, Malaysia, and Dubai, discipline was enforced. No one invited ‘stakeholders’ to sit down and develop consensus, except within adherents of the system, the ‘believers’, so to speak. There has to be a minimum common ground to start from. You can’t invite someone who believes in breaking up the country and another one who believes in one-nation theory and then expect to create a 25-year consensus.
Even in a mature democracy like the United States, a president went to war in Iraq despite half of the nation vehemently opposing it. There was no consensus at all.
In the Gulf region, there is one emirate that is deteriorating on all the vital indicators every year, and that is Kuwait. It currently has 38 billion dinars in its savings account, which means around $150 billion dollars, with small geography and a population of less than two million. And yet the Kuwaiti State has been unable to build any major universities and hospitals since the early 1980s. The reason is political instability. An opposition-dominated parliament and a government dominated by the ruling family have been at loggerheads since the introduction of parliamentary democracy in 1961. The United States and the West hailed the Kuwaiti democracy with its noisy free press as a role model for autocratic Saudi Arabia, UAE and Oman. But that was two decades ago, when the Western coalition that liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation insisted the Al-Sabah ruling family restore democracy and empower the country’s opposition groups. Today, everything is falling apart. In April and October this year, Kuwait’s reformed-minded Emir blasted the parliament and the constitution and blamed them for stalling development.
Forget about consensus in Pakistan. With $150 billion, the size of the city of Karachi, and a population of two million, Kuwait has been unable to create consensus for two decades on whether to allow international oil companies into Kuwaiti oilfields, whether to open up the economy or protect it, to build new cities or not, and the list is endless. Now the rulers of Qatar, Bahrain, UAE, and Oman laugh at the Kuwaiti democratic experiment. This is ironic because there was a time when these emirates saw Kuwait as a model for social development.
This doesn’t mean consensus-building is bad or that democracy doesn’t work. It still is the best system of governance so far, provided it is adapted to local conditions. What can work in the United States and Britain doesn’t even suit Italy, let alone Pakistan.
In Pakistan, media, social and political freedoms will always exist. But without limiting them, the State will have to intervene in the interim and enforce discipline and seize back powers taken away by failed political parties. The State will have to tolerate dissent but not chaos, mess and violence if they accompany democracy.
What is our link to democracy? It is limited to our elites studying it in Western colleges. When they return to Pakistan to rule, their actions are the opposite. In a society like ours, we don’t have the time or energy to evolve democracy and do social, educational and economic development at the same time. You can either get busy in developing consensus or developing the country. You choose.
Despite skepticism, I fully back Mr. Sharif’s idea of building consensus for a 25-year plan for Pakistan. But if the politicians fail to build consensus, will they agree then on the need to step aside, spare us their politics, and let the rest of us force changes into the system to allow new thinking and new faces?