National unity a must, Sir?

Apr 09 2020

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I.A. Rehman
I.A. Rehman

ONE of the most common slogans in Pakistan these days is related to the urgent need for national unity to be able to meet the grave Covid-19 challenge. While a certain degree of unity is visible at various levels, its absence in national decision-making is causing anxiety, because national unity essentially means decision-making by national consensus, and does not mean the entire country’s endorsement of the establishment’s actions.

The forthright manner in which the armed forces are backing the civil administration is an example of intragovernmental unity. A similar example is coordination among the information ministry, ISPR, the health ministry and the National Disaster Management Authority. Here and there, we have some evidence of cooperation between official and civil society teams engaged in distributing food rations amongst the worst-hit communities. That all this does not amount to national unity cannot be disputed.

The coronavirus crisis is being described as a warlike situation. We may therefore recall the steps taken by different states during wartime. For example, the British government chose to invite the opposition Labour Party to join the cabinet at the start of the Battle of Britain, although the ruling Tories had a majority of over 200 in the House of Commons. Labour was willing to accept the offer, but not so long as Neville Chamberlain was the prime minister. So Chamberlain resigned while retaining the leadership of the Tory parliamentary party. When Winston Churchill constituted a small war cabinet against the larger ministry, it comprised three Conservatives, two Labour members and one Liberal.

Closer to home, what did the leaders of India and Pakistan do when they formed the first post-Independence governments?

Inter-party consultation is needed to develop a national consensus.

In India, the key portfolios of finance, planning and law were given to professionals who were not members of the majority (Congress) party in parliament. Likewise in Pakistan, the finance and foreign affairs ministers did not belong to the Muslim League party in the legislature.

This is not a plea for including opposition representatives in the federal coalition at this stage. The government is quite stable and the prime minister has given proof of defying party pulls by releasing the FIA report on the sugar crisis, and taking action against a few ministers/advisers and his controller of the bureaucracy. The purpose of advocating unity of political forces at the national level is to ensure that policy decisions at the top level are based on the broadest possible consensus among the country’s political groups.

That the ruling party is not completely unaware of the need for associating the opposition with decision-making is somewhat indicated by the formation of a 25-member all-party parliamentary committee by the National Assembly speaker, which met for the first time last Monday, and the formation of a similar committee by the Punjab Assembly speaker on the same day. But it will soon be apparent that briefing the leaders of the parties in the legislatures is not the same thing as inter-party consultation that is needed to develop a national consensus.

Functional national unity is needed for a variety of reasons — for interprovincial coordination, for example. The prime minister’s view that the centre cannot impose its will on the federating units after the adoption of the 18th Amendment is commendable, but this does not obviate the need for interprovincial consultation. The government can easily afford the convening of the Council of Common Interests that Sindh has been demanding.

A national consensus is also necessary for filling the gaps in the campaign against the pandemic. Official spokespersons are talking about what they have done and not admitting what remains to be done. The capacity for testing people for infection is pitiably low, as Dr Atta-ur-Rehman, who is not known for exaggeration, has been emphasising. The doctors in Quetta are being supplied with safety gear after being mercilessly baton-charged and thrown into prison for asking for it.

National unity/consensus is needed to organise relief for the multitudes who are without resources, and this can best be done by reviving the local bodies, a proposal that cannot be ignored only because it has been mooted by Qamar Zaman Kaira and HRCP. National unity is also needed to end the tribulations of the media and must begin by ending the unlawful interference in the distribution of and denial of advertisements to leading newspapers, as unlawful means are adopted when the target of discriminatory punishment has not committed any legally cognisable offence. Above all, national unity is required to persuade the people to accept the religious authorities’ advice regarding the offering of prayers and maintaining social distance. What is being suggested is the formation of all-parties committees at every level to streamline the fight against the pandemic. Such a move will also strengthen democracy.

One is aware of the PTI leadership’s allergy to the idea of consulting the PML-N and PPP leaders, but they are no worse, if not better, than many of their former colleagues who constitute the core of the PTI parliamentary party.

Tailpiece: It is to the prime minister’s credit that he ordered the release of the FIA inquiry report into the recent sugar and wheat flour crises. But he seems to have overreacted to the noise about action against those who amassed millions of rupees in profit from subsidy and export. Have they violated any law? Earning profit whenever and however an opportunity presents itself is permitted by capitalism, which we follow religiously. Money begets money. It is the right of the wealthy to gather more wealth and if any transaction causes hardship to the ‘riff-raff’ who are often described as poor citizens, it is their duty to bear it in silence.

What was the need to rush with a ministerial shake-up before April 25? Or is there a design that ordinary people cannot fathom?

Published in Dawn, April 9th, 2020