THE government’s reaction to Nawaz Sharif’s scorcher of a speech at the opposition’s multiparty conference on Sunday is sadly not unexpected in the current polarised atmosphere, but that makes it no less objectionable.

At a press conference on Monday, senior federal ministers including Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Asad Umar, Fawad Chaudhry and Shibli Faraz accused the speakers at the MPC, particularly the former premier, of being ‘anti-Pakistan’. They claimed the opposition was promoting the enemy’s agenda by levelling allegations against national institutions like the army, NAB and ECP. Mr Umar also said the MPC was proof that Prime Minister Imran Khan was right when he said at the beginning of his tenure that “the opposition has everything at stake … and when accountability moves forward, they will all get together”.

With the political discourse having become increasingly reductive, it now takes very little for wild allegations of being ‘anti-state’ to be bandied about. The shameful precedent that began with the sister of this country’s founder being declared a foreign agent in a state-sponsored advertisement campaign during Gen Ayub Khan’s government has come of age in a political arena where healthy debate seems a passé concept. That said, the ministers’ contention that the opposition have joined hands in order to neutralise the corruption charges against them is not without merit.

The prime minister has also repeatedly alleged the same self-interest on their part, particularly in connection with the passage of FATF-related legislation. There are serious charges of corruption against several leading opposition figures, including Mr Sharif, and they must face them in a court of law, regardless of the outcome. That will increase their stature and lend credibility to their claims of fighting for democracy. A stint in prison, even on trumped-up charges, has rarely done a politician’s career any harm — quite the contrary in fact.

Meanwhile, if, as his ministers maintain, the prime minister is indeed the one in the driving seat, he should put a stop to his predecessor being denounced as ‘anti-state’ and accused of trying to please India by criticising the army. It is a repugnant line of attack. Certainly, there are serious differences between the government and the opposition on a variety of issues.

The former appears hell-bent on pursuing the current mode of accountability while the latter believes it is being unfairly hounded and that the government would not last a day without the support of extra-constitutional forces. Instead of preaching to the choir, both sides should start a healthy political ‘fight’ that draws the line at accusing each other of being unpatriotic or working against Pakistan. They would do well to consider that it serves our enemies well when our leaders engage in such recrimination. We lost this country’s eastern wing nearly four decades ago amidst precisely such vicious rhetoric and politics of vilification. This must stop now.

Published in Dawn, September 23rd, 2020

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