FOR several weeks now, people have been treated to political debates of a variety that is recognised neither by authorities on political science nor by democratic convention, and which can only be described as shallow politicking.
First there was a furore over the allegedly liberal grant of visas to United States citizens during the PPP government (2008-2013) without scrutinising the applicants’ bona fides. The matter was blown out of proportion to hit out at a party that is tolerated by none of its mainstream rivals. Angry statements were issued to newspapers, and TV anchors and panelists bent over backwards to whip the government concerned with a display of righteous fury worthy of a genuinely political issue.
Quite a few things were ignored in this debate — no questions were asked about the clearance of visa applications by the security officials at the Pakistan embassy in Washington, and it was assumed that the grant of visas was the only instance of the state’s stooping to secure US patronage. No one bothered to recall Gen Ayub Khan’s description of Pakistan as the “most allied” of US allies, nor was any reference made to Gen Ziaul Haq’s offer of favours and gifts to Charlie Wilson, including a field marshal’s uniform.
Then much hullabaloo was created over Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s meeting with an Indian industrialist, Sajjan Jindal, said to be a confidant of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The report that described Jindal’s visit as secret also mentioned that he had been officially received at Lahore and Murree.
The only odd part of the story was the allegation that Jindal had travelled to Murree without a visa and that the Punjab home secretary should have put Murree on the visitor’s passport before he flew to the hill station. Some criticism on this point might have been valid and the prime minister could also be blamed for ignoring the environment around him. But politicians and commentators went for him with daggers drawn as if an act of treason had been committed.
Everybody is demanding punishment for those who have not yet been found guilty.
Again the critics, both among the politicians and the commentators at large, ignored the importance and usefulness of informal diplomacy that is recognised by all governments who wish to break a stalemate in their official attempts to set their external relations right. They spoke of the current state of tension in Pakistan-India relations as a permanent article of faith. They also appeared to reject the idea that the businessmen of the two countries could play a role in ending the confrontation between the two neighbours.
Eventually, Mr Khurshid Kasuri, foreign minister in the Pervez Musharraf regime and now a leading PTI figure, had to remind everyone that backchannel diplomacy was in order.
Now a large number of people have gone berserk over the so-called notification issued by the prime minister’s secretariat on the report of the committee that inquired into what is described as a news leak. They are not content with a discussion on the procedure applicable to the release of such reports or the propriety of the ISPR chief’s decision to reject the ‘notification’; they are only angry as to why more heads have not rolled. The opposition parties seem determined to use the matter as a weapon to hound the government. Everybody is demanding punishment for those who have not yet been found guilty, indeed before any offence has been established in any court of law.
A little bit of serious reflection by the honourable parties to this debate should help them realise that the matter touches upon the right to freedom of expression guaranteed not only to the media but also to all the people and their right to know, and that these rights cannot be summarily dismissed.
In all these three instances of noisy and considerably wild verbal warfare, the politicians and freelance commentators have obviously been trying to curry favour with the military. One hopes the military leadership is mature enough to avoid getting involved in partisan politics.
Finally, it seems that the opposition parties are convinced the prime minister could somehow be put out of the reckoning and that any lack of agreement among the PML-N leadership on his replacement, not only on a permanent basis but also for the short term, will leave the party with no option but to call for an early election. However, the PML-N appears to be confident of its ability to weather the storm for two reasons. Firstly, it seems quite convinced that the opposition parties cannot unite against it. Secondly, it thinks the next election will not be fought on the issue of the Panama case alone.
That all the political parties have already launched their election campaigns cannot be denied. The opposition parties are concentrating on the Panama case as the principal weapon against the PML-N and this could help the latter more than yielding any benefit to themselves.
To some extent corruption will be an issue in the elections but it will be wrong for any party to wholly depend on it. All parties will be tested not only for integrity but also for competence to rule efficiently. People prefer efficient performers, even if their integrity is questionable, to leaders believed to be honest but who may be inefficient or lack the will or capacity to do the right thing at the right time.
That means the parties out in the field will have to give up their present style of mudslinging. Instead of demonising one another, they must come out with their plans to guarantee good governance and a people-friendly dispensation if they are voted into power. After all, democratic politics cannot be promoted by invective.
Published in Dawn, May 4th, 2017