EMBRACING irrelevance is a delicate art that only the reckless can attain.
Some such adventure is unfolding in slow motion right before our eyes as the flash-and-bang of politics swallows the wholesome need for rational and timely decision-making. The business of the state waits for no one — not even the government.
Crucial and pressing issues of national security are starved for political attention. On the table they sit, piling high by the day, while decision-makers, legislators and implementers wrestle each other to the ground. Thus is birthed the true legend of political irrelevance.
The dossier tells its story even when it narrates another one. Last week, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and DG ISPR Maj Gen Babar Iftikhar addressed a press conference in which they unveiled substantive proofs of India’s state-sponsored terrorism in Pakistan. The dossier detailed information whose exactitude surpasses previous such official reports. This document is a major step within a larger attempt by Pakistan to reframe the narrative that India has peddled at our expense.
This reframing is an evolving process that requires a whole-of-the-nation approach. It also requires a buy-in from key political stakeholders. For such a buy-in to happen, all have to be in the loop. The loop runs through a common understanding that national security matters should override partisan politicking. In the absence of such an understanding, there is no consensus, no consultation, no process and no outcome.
Toxic politics, swirling around our landscape like a ferocious dust storm, is taking a heavy toll on the running of the state.
Yet there cannot not be an outcome because the business of the state must go on. When it does go on, it surpasses, or bypasses, all those who are too busy wrestling in the political ring. The policy that emerges on the other side of this bypass, and the outcome it generates as a result of its implementation, can never have the efficacy it could have had — should have had — had it been enriched by bipartisan political nourishment.
In the case of the dossier on Indian state-sponsored terrorism, political parties, including the ruling one, have a key role to play in terms of packaging it into a politically digestible narrative for domestic and external audiences. This narrative cannot be blanketed across this vast audience; rather it has to be injected into the veins of public opinion so that it seeps deep into the global bloodstream. This requires political finesse, and policy nuance, and a level of strategic communication that can command the kind of credibility that an informed international audience requires in this day and age.
Try crafting all this inside a wrestling ring.
Then there’s the delicate issue of according Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) a provisional provincial status. The matter is as complicated as it is critical within the existing national security matrix. At least one meeting with all political leaders present — except one — has been held to discuss the issue and forge a consensus. The absence of Prime Minister Imran Khan and the presence of the army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, who played host, paints the predicament of this event for what it is.
A second attempt was made by the Speaker of the National Assembly Asad Qaiser to get all party leaders into the same room for a briefing on ostensibly the same issue. It was an ill-considered plan since the GB election campaign was underway at that time. It was also presented as a fait accompli to the opposition instead of bringing them on board earlier in terms of the agenda and expected outcomes. Had the prime minister — in his capacity as the leader of the house — agreed to attend the meeting? No one knew. The opposition rejected the invite. That was the end of the matter.
Try crafting a consensus, with all its constitutional complexities attached, on the GB issue inside the wrestling ring.
The list is long. Issue after issue desperate for attention and input; desperate for debate and decision; and desperate for options and solutions. On Covid-19 the role of political parties and parliament has been negligible. The National Command and Operation Centre became the nerve centre for the fightback against the virus because the government and the civilian apparatus appeared capacity-challenged in the face of the initial threat. That was nearly nine months ago.
Throughout this period, key institutions that constitute our democratic governance structure — cabinets, parliaments, political parties — had no valuable input to give in the struggle against the pandemic. With the second wave rising ominously, all signs are that these institutions will keep themselves wrapped up in their silky cloak of irrelevance.
Make no mistake: the vicious, hate-filled, and toxic politics, swirling around our landscape like a ferocious dust storm, is taking a heavy toll on the running of the state. This degradation of governance — for what else can one call this travesty — is pushing an already unstable polity into quasi-chaos. Weighty matters are being made light of; urgent issues are being left on the back-burner; and crucial decisions are being deferred for an indefinite time, all this because — and this is where it borders on criminal apathy — yes, all this because the fight against the opponent takes precedence over everything. Everything.
We as a republic might as well go into the business of selling bananas. No nation-state worth its name would ridicule the art of statecraft as we are doing; and none would be oblivious of it as we are. The sheer juvenility of approach towards governance is distressing. And yet here we are, a nuclear armed state of 220 million citizens, stuck in a political traffic jam, honking away in fury. What do you do when there’s no cop in sight and no one wants to reverse first?
The embrace of irrelevance is getting tighter by the day while the ring of wrestling is getting wider by the day. The two are interconnected in a macabre way that can only spell anxiety and disorder for a weakly governed republic.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, November 21st, 2020