THE virus is a challenge like no other. In the rest of the world, it’s being compared to the Second World War in terms of state mobilisation and the changes it will bring. It will most probably be no different in Pakistan.
So great is the challenge that the noisy, messy and chaotic politics of Pakistan seemed to retreat — momentarily. First, it was Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, who during a press conference, described Imran Khan as his prime minister, adding that he was confident that Khan would lead the country out of the crisis. He paved the way for some leaders in the PML-N to also concede that they would support the government.
But before long the bickering had begun again.
Sindh and the federal government are busy in tu tu main main over the lockdown and who was doing what (or not doing it). In Punjab, the return of the PML-N’s president — for the moment — Shahbaz Sharif, didn’t let the bonhomie last for long either. In a cyber meeting of the senior party leadership, the prime minister spoke for a short while before logging off. That he didn’t hang on to hear what the opposition had to say didn’t go down too kindly with Sharif, who also walked out, symbolically, in protest, and BBZ followed suit. Though there was much back and forth about why this happened, many were unhappy at the fact that political parties could not put their differences aside even in times of crisis and work together.
The opposition will and should point out what the government is doing wrong.
But should politics stop in times of crises?
The question has been raised multiple times and has led to a second question: is this what politicians are being asked to do in the rest of the world where governments are battling the pandemic too?
It is hard to tell, but it’s a routine question asked again and again in the land of the pure. Perhaps our long flirtations with dictatorships have left us with this perception that politics is a dirty business, which should be halted at certain moments of crisis or need. It is rather similar to those who imbibe regularly and openly but come Ramazan they put it aside — because deep down they believe it is wrong and something that can and must be atoned for once a year.
But politics is not a bad habit, which is to be indulged in only when times are opportune and given up at other times. Instead, it is part and parcel of the democracy we are and that we aspire to be. The opposition has a role to play as much as the government has in a democratic system. And the former’s role is to keep a government on its toes, especially in times of crisis. And for this, the opposition will and should point out what the government is doing wrong. This is what adversarial parliamentary democracy, which is practised in Pakistan, is about. And it does the job too.
Simply consider the early days of the coronavirus — the constant cribbing by the government in Sindh about the lack of seriousness of Islamabad led to the constant comparisons between Murad Ali Shah and Usman Buzdar and Imran Khan, in addition to criticism of Islamabad’s and Lahore’s slow response. To say that this did not play its part in provoking Punjab to get its act together would be inaccurate.
Indeed, the pressure of the opposition’s criticism and the fear that the people will see it as a better alternative is a large factor in motivating any political party or government.
To use an example from the past, one need only consider the PML-N and its reputation as a party better than others at governance. One reason for this could be that the party always faced serious competition from political contenders. It had to make a place for itself in Punjab in the early 1990s when the PPP dominated in the province; by the time it returned to power in 2008, it had to deal with comparisons with five years of the Q League’s administration and by 2013, the PTI had become a threat. On the other hand, the PPP’s domination of Sindh had, until recently, made it complacent — to say the least — about governance. And at present, if there is pressure on the PTI to deliver, it is only because the PML-N continues to be a formidable player and challenger.
Coming back to the coronavirus, there is a need of a strong opposition to not just keep a government under pressure but also provide needed criticism of policies being put in place. If the expanded Ehsaas programme is missing out people at the local level, who would know this better than the politicians of that area, especially the opposition politicians? After all, if there was mismanagement at Taftan, it was first pointed out by the PPP. Similarly, the fact that the PPP had included local party leaders in the union committee-level relief committees to distribute ration to the needy was highlighted and criticised by the opposition in Sindh. It is not criticism without reason.
This is not to say that in challenging times petty politicking can’t be put aside. In fact, it is. Most of the ugly rhetoric about selected governments (by the opposition) and the noise about corruption and thieves (by the government) has taken a back seat; and the politicians should get the credit for it.
But there is no need for all debate and dissent to die out altogether. In times of crisis — especially a pandemic that no one has dealt with before — only a constant dialogue on the efficacy of the policies being adopted will help everyone find the right way forward.
If the media hasn’t stopped criticising the government in a bid to keep a check, why should the opposition? Let the politicians do their job.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, April 7th, 2020