Issue-less politics

Published February 13, 2023
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

Lost in the noise of politics and intensity of power tussles today is any serious focus on the issues that are critical to the country’s future. In the political confrontation raging today, the preoccupation of political leaders is with outmanoeuvring opponents, not explaining how they propose to solve national problems or what their parties stand for. This at a time when the country’s multiple challenges are crying out for solutions and answers. Above all, a polarised environment marked by constant exchange of toxic rhetoric makes it impossible to evolve much-needed consensus on key national issues. It also creates an atmosphere inimical to the generation of new ideas.

The political discourse today consists predominantly of bitter invective and aggressive rhetoric along with unceasing efforts by political leaders to denigrate opponents. Instead of debating public policy, much of the political conversation involves diatribes and allegations of malfeasance and venality hurled by political leaders against one another. This has spawned a form of issue-less politics, where instead of the country’s challenges being seriously discussed, political narratives are reduced to deriding rivals. Perhaps because parties no longer have any programmes, shallow narratives dominate politics. No political party has offered a credible vision of the country’s future, much less outlined a strategy to reach that destination.

Take, for example, the response of both government and opposition figures to the two key challenges faced by the country today — an unprecedented economic crisis and the security threat from the renewed surge of militant violence. On the first, public exchanges have taken the form of who is responsible for pushing the economy into the critical ward. In other words, a blame game has been underway rather than an informed discussion of what Pakistan needs to do to salvage the economy on an enduring basis. The government has said it will take all the policy actions needed to reach an agreement with the IMF. But it has not spelled out any economic plan beyond securing the Fund bailout, which is necessary but not sufficient, for a sustainable way out of the country’s perpetual fiscal and balance-of-payments crisis. The IMF deal can only provide temporary relief. It should be an initial part, not substitute for a broader homegrown economic strategy to chart a path to growth. Tellingly, PML-N’s coalition partners, especially PPP, have shown little interest in saying anything on the economic situation, conveying the impression that they have nothing to do with how the economy is being managed. Meanwhile, opposition representatives have been castigating the government for taking steps to satisfy the IMF saying they will compound people’s hardship and misery. But they have not offered any alternative or their own vision of how the economic crisis should be addressed.

Political leaders should be focusing on meeting the country’s challenges, not undermining opponents.

A similar stance was on display in the response to militant violence. Both blamed each other for the current wave of terrorism sweeping across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Leaders of the ruling coalition at the centre accused Imran Khan and his KP government for pursuing policies that encouraged the return of militant activities and held the provincial government responsible for not acting against the TTP. Khan and his party leaders, on the other hand, claimed the province was peaceful when PTI was in power at the centre. They defended resettling TTP fighters in the province and said it was, in any case, the responsibility of federal agencies to deal with terrorism. Imran Khan also linked the surge in violence to his removal from power.

For his part, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif blamed the KP government for the surge of terrorism by failing to equip the police and civil armed forces to fight militants. He asked where funds allocated to the province for this purpose went. Meanwhile, the much-postponed ‘all-parties conference’ announced by him seemed little more than a cosmetic exercise when the atmosphere was vitiated by the arrests of opposition figures and the combative attitude adopted by the government against PTI and its allies. Repeated postponement of the APC showed a lack of seriousness. A serious move should involve holding a conference after and not before fashioning a coherent counter-militancy strategy, which is still lacking. Conferences are forums to ratify or tweak strategies, not frame them.

Another aspect of the poverty of political discourse is how platitudes and clichés are what some political leaders think is enough to convey their position in key policy areas. This again reflects the fact that their parties lack any programme, policy plan or aims. Banal pronunciations by power holders are reported daily by the media. Examples include: “Pakistan will be the investment centre in the region”; “We need to boost exports and productivity”; “We will protect the poor from inflation”; “We are committed to provide education for all”; “Education is the key to progress”; “Terrorism is Pakistan’s foremost problem”; “National unity is needed to fight terrorism”; and so on. These statements of the obvious say nothing about what the actual policy goals are, and more importantly, how they are to be achieved. It is as if mouthing platitudes will magically translate into policy and accomplish goals. If it isn’t platitudes, its exhortations — calling on people to unite, make sacrifices or show forbearance in the face of national adversity. Again, these are statements made in a policy vacuum. Platitudes are not a substitute for strategy any more than exhortations are for policy.

People have much higher expectations of their leaders at times of crisis. They seek a clear and credible direction, assurance that national problems will be competently addressed, and above all, solidarity among public representatives so that they are seen to be working together to responsibly and purposefully address challenges. If all the public hears are allegations that the other side is unfit to govern and sees no efforts to discuss and act on issues of concern to them, it erodes trust in both politicians and the political system. Democracy is undermined when people see politics as just a power struggle shorn of public purpose.

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

Published in Dawn, February 13th, 2023

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