Politics of polarisation

April 27, 2020

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The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

PEOPLE have much higher expectations of their leaders in times of crisis. They seek a clear direction, reassurance, and above all, unity among public representatives so that they work together to responsibly and purposefully address the challenge. With the country faced with a national health emergency, the expectation is that politics will be cast aside and national purpose prioritised over politicking.

What the public do not wish to see is bickering and politics as usual, with attacks on political opponents that serve as distractions from efforts to deal with the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. Nothing drains public trust more than partisan squabbling at a time of disruption and anxiety.

The political picture that has unfolded in the weeks since the virus struck is an unedifying one. Rather than a national policy and a collective response being evolved, the situation that emerged has been of provinces, especially Sindh, mostly going their own way and the centre taking uncertain charge of the crisis.

The onus to forge a national consensus rested with the federal government. But the opportunity was passed up despite offers for cooperation from the opposition. The stated justification was that there could be no truck with those who looted public money. In one fell swoop, the entire parliamentary membership was written off and the chance to evolve an inclusive policy squandered. The result was to divide, not unite, the country’s political forces.

The reluctance early in the crisis to frame a nationally agreed approach by consulting the provinces is explicable only in terms of politics — a partisan unwillingness to engage with opposition-led Sindh. That situation later improved once new policy bodies with provincial representation were set up but not nearly enough for a clear national narrative and policy to emerge. Arguments by prominent ruling party ministers that the 18th Amendment allowed provinces to choose their own path seemed a disingenuous effort to justify an abdication by the centre.

National purpose needs to be prioritised over politicking.

More troubling is the continuation of partisan attacks, mostly but not only, by ruling party members against their rivals. This was most strikingly exemplified by a bevy of ministers travelling to Karachi to hold press conferences and launch attacks on the Sindh government’s strategy. Irrespective of their disagreement with provincial actions, to engage in divisive politics at such a critical moment was more than just a diversion. It seemed an effort to undermine public trust in the provincial government when it was seeking public compliance for a lockdown in the country’s largest and most vulnerable city. Later, a prominent ruling party leader even accused the opposition of egging on doctors who addressed a press conference in Karachi only to urge the authorities to close venues where people could congregate. Meanwhile, daily tirades continue against the opposition by the federal government’s principal spokesperson.

Deeper reasons and a checkered political past lie behind such unseemly conduct. The country does not have an inspiring record of political rivals working together. The 1990s, to cite an example, marked a decade of intense political confrontation and instability. Those at the receiving end of broadsides from ruling party members today behaved similarly against their foes in the past and are therefore hardly beyond reproach. Habits of tolerating the ‘other’ never took firm root in Pakistan’s fitful democracy. Locking up opposition leaders and slandering them has a long history. Polarised politics is therefore hardly new.

However, in the post-2008 decade, a culture of political accommodation seemed to emerge. It was fragile and there were outbreaks of political feuding. But in a break from the past, there was greater tolerance of dissenting views. Adoption of the 18th Amendment, which following a prolonged period of consensus building, seemed to tentatively usher in the politics of conciliation and give and take.

But at the same time, the expansion of a freer broadcast media began to have a different impact. Political debate started to acquire a more shrill and harsh tone. Not unlike other democracies, television’s competitive 24/7 news cycle heightened the tendency for intensely partisan debate. An environment was fostered that accentuated stridency in the political discourse. Political protagonists felt that impact was created by outshouting an opponent on TV rather than engaging in calm discussion.

The rise of a new political force, now the ruling party, introduced its own brand of politics and campaigning. With its rejection of traditional politics and its political evolution taking place in agitational mode in an extremely combative environment, this also fostered a political culture of extreme partisanship. The party’s confrontational style of leadership helped to fire and mobilise a loyal body of supporters who wanted to break from the ‘old politics’. Its leaders convinced themselves that their uncompromising approach yielded rich political dividends. The self-image of a party challenging the political status quo led its members to consciously break norms, and use abrasive language, to distinguish themselves from their rivals.

The use of social media by Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf — the first organised effort by any political party — produced its own effects. Social media became a powerful political tool but one that also contributed to aggressive messaging and politicking.

All of these seemed effective political tactics in opposition. But they persisted through the party’s assumption of power. As many analysts have pointed out, the PTI has yet to transition, in several important respects, from an opposition movement to a party of governance. Its attitude towards rival parties remains rejectionist as all are regarded as venal and opportunistic. While this depiction frees the ruling party from engaging the opposition, it has obvious consequences for governance in a polity that is federal, where the ruling party lacks a parliamentary majority on its own, minus its motley crew of allies, and in which its political rivals enjoy the allegiance of a sizeable section of the electorate.

An extraordinary crisis calls for extraordinary actions by the leadership. Regardless of the ruling party’s antipathy towards its opponents, a crisis of the magnitude of Covid-19 should urge its leaders to at least suspend their partisan conduct and divisive rhetoric for now and embrace an approach that is truly national in spirit and in practice. People expect nothing less from their political leaders.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

Published in Dawn, April 27th, 2020