A national dialogue?

Published January 15, 2021
The writer is a former member of the prime minister’s economic advisory council, and heads a macroeconomic consultancy based in Islamabad.
The writer is a former member of the prime minister’s economic advisory council, and heads a macroeconomic consultancy based in Islamabad.

OVER the last few weeks, calls from influential members of civil society have been growing for a ‘grand national dialogue’. This appears to be a result of the growing political polarisation in the country, and a shrillness in the public discourse introduced by the PTI government since it came to power. However, this also coincides with much of the mainstream political opposition’s leadership facing an accountability process for some fairly visible amassment of largely unexplained wealth that has happened during their respective tenures in public office. As a result, the opposition has bandied together and been forced into a ‘do-or-die’ situation, taking fairly extreme and unprecedented positions.

The need to lower the political temperature in the country has been obvious over the last two years. To move the legislative process forward, to introduce fundamental reforms in the polity and the economy, to address the issues facing the ordinary citizen — all of these require the parliamentary process to work, including inter alia debate, discussion, political bargaining and accommodation of opposing views and (to some extent) of political manifestos and legislative agendas. There is thus an established need to create political ‘space’ in a parliamentary democracy.

The political polarisation has also been driven by a flawed process of accountability that has strengthened the suspicion that it is being used yet again for a degree of political engineering as well as victimisation. This suspicion or charge is not unfounded in the Pakistani context, unfortunately. The recent revelations by Kaveh Moussavi, the Iranian-born British lawyer who headed the international asset-recovery firm Broadsheet, which had an agreement with NAB from 2000 to 2003, is a damning indictment of the true objectives of the accountability process under Gen Musharraf and the way NAB has conducted itself since.

In fact, ‘accountability’ has been used as a Trojan horse not just by the establishment but by elected civilian governments too (Ehtesab Bureau of Nawaz Sharif or the witch-hunts by FIA under PPP) for similar questionable designs. These shenanigans have fatally undermined the credibility of the process in Pakistan and caused long-term damage via an array of mostly unintended consequences (moral hazard and double jeopardy amongst them).

Fundamental reforms are needed to change the ‘system of spoils’, not save it.

There is thus an urgent need to make the accountability process fairer, more even-handed, less ad hoc and whimsical — and less tainted. More than technical expertise to probe white-collar crimes by public office holders, NAB requires honesty of purpose.

Having said this, however, it should also be abundantly clear that any reform of NAB or the accountability process should not be a reprieve for corrupt politicians currently being probed — or indeed even for the ‘system of spoils’ successive generations of civilian and military governments have presided over. Every time politicians have been pushed to the wall, they have croaked ‘save the system’. What has the ‘system’ given the people of Pakistan, other than protracted non-performance, systemic non-delivery, and massive disappointment? And yet it has delivered very visible gains and benefits to a handful of insiders, civilian and non-civilian alike.

So, the fundamental question is: what is the objective of the envisaged ‘grand national dialogue’? And why are the calls being raised now? The answer should unequivocally be that the proposed dialogue must be about bringing much needed, mission-critical changes to the ‘system’ so that it delivers — and not provide a reprieve or ‘oxygen’ to tainted players who have been part of the problem rather than the solution for far too long.

Hence, in setting the objectives of the dialogue and framing it in terms of fundamental reform to the polity and the economy, the first of several follow-up procedural questions will also be answered: who will be the counterparts? From the side of the established political parties, it should be representatives of good standing who have not been tainted by charges of misuse or abuse of public office. Other important questions that will need to be addressed will be regarding the structure and process of the national dialogue — who will conduct it (this group will need credibility, convening as well as agenda-setting power); how will it be credible; and who will be the ‘guarantors’, if any? How will any consensus ‘stick’ and the recommendations be implemented?

Finally, what will the possible entry points be? It would appear that one area of concern where there is common ground across the national spectrum is the economy, and issues around the social contract. There is finally — though too belatedly — a realisation that Pakistan is the ‘sick man of South Asia’ in terms of its economy, due to the short-sighted economic management of successive governments over the past three decades. An agenda focused on the economy will have spillovers into many of the important areas needing reform: service delivery, governance structure and institutional reforms. (Of course, there could be an alternative view that this may be too ambitious an agenda.)

Over the past few years, there have already been sporadic calls for a ‘charter of the economy’, an idea which had been left half-baked but presumably was loosely inspired by the national Common Minimum Programme of the Congress-led UPA coalition government in India in 2004. The CMP could offer a useful template as a starting point, given that Congress was partnering with the Communist Party of India-Marxist and the two parties’ economic approaches were starkly different, even more acute than the differences between the PTI, PPP and PML-N’s manifestos. However, the CMP’s six guiding principles appear to be more statements of aspiration than any practical pillars of economic policy.

Political parties straddling the spectrum from the centre-left to the centre-right are unlikely to find a lot of common ground beyond the ‘ambition’ of managing the economy in a way that works for the poor. When it comes to actual policies to pursue, even the Democrats in the US are splintered between centrists, progressives and socialists with widely differing economic approaches.

Nonetheless, trying to find common ground on reform through dialogue is very much worth pursuing.

The writer is a former member of the prime minister’s economic advisory council, and heads a macroeconomic consultancy based in Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, January 15th, 2021

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