Some softening

Published March 18, 2023

AT long last, former prime minister Imran Khan is ready to “talk to anyone and take every step to” resolve the country’s present crises. The PTI chairman’s long-overdue change of heart came after the prime minister extended an olive branch amidst a turbulent week in which the state and the PTI faced off over an arrest warrant pending against him.

Mr Khan suggested that his softened stance was a “sacrifice” he was willing to make for the country’s “progress, interests and democracy” — perhaps a reference to his earlier insistence on refusing to engage with anyone whom he believes has been responsible for ‘looting’ the country.

The breakthrough has, according to some reports, been received with cautious optimism in the current government’s ranks, though observers have warned that the yawning trust deficit between the two sides will prove quite a formidable barrier to overcome. Be that as it may, this is an opportunity that should be seized with both hands.

The long stalemate between the country’s two main political factions has not benefited anyone. In fact, its needless prolongation continues to inflict extreme — and, many fear, irreversible — damage on the country in the form of severe sociopolitical and economic uncertainty.

Very few — including, it seems, foreign partners and multilateral lending agencies — are still willing to bet on Pakistan’s future, given how far the country has sailed into uncharted waters.

The power to navigate the ship back to calmer seas has, since the beginning, rested with the political leadership; yet, for one reason or the other, they have refused to engage with each other and negotiate a way out. If both sides have even tentatively realised that talks are the only way forward, they should consider restraining the hawks in their ranks and give the doves a chance.

It is encouraging to note that several leaders of note from within the PDM coalition have received Mr Khan’s openness to talks with positivity instead of distrust. They are right in expecting some guarantee of commitment to the process from the PTI but, at the same time, should be prepared to make concessions if and where needed.

No negotiation on critical matters can succeed without give and take. On the other side, the PTI seems quite eager to begin parleys, with Fawad Chaudhry even pressing government leaders to set dates now that Mr Khan has expressed his willingness to engage.

This is a positive sign, but the PTI will still need considerable patience and a healthy dose of humility if it wishes to see any such talks succeed. Lastly, it is important that both sides engage in good faith. If they talk to each other honestly, they may both be able to secure important concessions from each other without sacrificing too much in return.

Published in Dawn, March 18th, 2023

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