Lessons from past crises

Published March 26, 2023
The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.
The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.

PAKISTAN’S political crisis is deepening with every passing day. The fact that the Punjab Assembly election that was scheduled for April 30 has been delayed to Oct 8 by the Election Commission has further vitiated the political climate. Although Pakistan is in the grip of multiple crises including an unprecedented economic crunch and mounting security threats, it is the political crisis that is at the heart of all crises. If the political system were fully functional, it could focus on and address all other crises.

After the general election of 1970 in united Pakistan, the two largest parties, the Awami League in East Pakistan led by Sheikh Mujib and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) led by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in West Pakistan, faced a constitutional deadlock as Sheikh Mujib insisted on his six-point programme which was not acceptable to Bhutto. Despite extreme polarisation, the two parties held more than one round of negotiations, but sadly, an agreement could not be reached and ultimately the military struck, leading to Mujib’s arrest, civil war and the breakup of Pakistan.

The political leadership of a truncated Pakistan, led by Bhutto, picked up the pieces of a broken, demoralised Pakistan in 1971 and built it back after giving the country a unanimously adopted Constitution in 1973. This was made possible because even Bhutto’s bitter political rivals, including the National Awami Party’s (NAP) Wali Khan and Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo, Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan’s (JUI) Mufti Mehmood, towering independent leader Sardar Sherbaz Mazari and many others were willing to sit with him and his party and complete the arduous task of framing a constitution by incorporating all or most of the competing demands of diverse political parties.

One should pay tribute to the leadership of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who stepped back from many of his own political preferences in order to carry with him the entire spectrum of political leadership of what was left of the country. Political give-and-take, although much maligned and misunderstood in our part of the world, was accepted as a legitimate way of taking the political process forward.

Had the political system been fully functional, it could have addressed all our crises.

The provincial governments of NAP and JUI in Balochistan and the erstwhile NWFP were sacked by president Bhutto a few months before the passage of the 1973 Constitution but the two aggrieved parties and their leaders did not allow the bitterness to come in the way of signing the agreed Constitution.

It is true that the atmosphere of a deep sense of loss and the realisation of not repeating past mistakes was fresh in everyone’s mind and that helped in reaching an agreement, but a purely political dialogue free from any coercive interference and undue influence from the military also played a pivotal role in the successful negotiations over constitution-making. As a result, the country, despite the existential setback, was able to come out of the deep crisis and move forward.

Although Pakistan was not so lucky in some other crises which followed the successful framing of the 1973 Constitution, there are lessons to be learnt and, if possible, applied in today’s context. Despite Bhutto’s sterling qualities as a politician and a world-class statesman, he could not fully overcome his autocratic tendencies and deep-seated contempt for the majority, if not all, of the opposition leaders. He was probably the first among the top political leaders of Pakistan to use such derogatory terms as ‘chuha’(mouse) and ‘double-barrel Khan’ against his political opponents. He was extremely rough in dealing with political opponents who suffered huge indignities and torture in captivity during his rule. Close party colleagues like J.A. Rahim, Meraj Muhammad Khan, Mukhtar Rana, Ahmad Raza Kasuri and several others also suffered a great deal when they dared to differ with him.

Since Bhutto was personally a very popular politician, at least during the early part of his government, very few people from within the party dared to raise their voice against these strong-arm tactics, but as his popularity declined and disaffection spread, all these forces, feeling a vengeful bitterness, rallied against him in the form of the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) in the general election of 1977.

To the credit of both Bhutto and the opposition leaders, and partly because of the successful facilitation of the then Saudi ambassador, the two sides sat down at the negotiating table to resolve the huge crisis which had erupted after allegations of widespread rigging in the elections, in the form of the powerful civil disobedience movement that raged in the country. Despite the protracted negotiations, when an agreement was reportedly at hand, a military coup struck and sadly, hardly any opposition leader opposed it.

Later, the opposition leaders joined Gen Ziaul Haq’s cabinet and endorsed the death sentence passed against Bhutto by the Supreme Court. Many years later, Justice Nasim Hasan Shah, who was a part of the bench which passed the death sentence against Bhutto, admitted in a TV talk show that ‘Mr Bhutto and his lawyers had angered the judges’. When Bhutto was executed, many opposition leaders and some from his own party expressed satisfaction, though a large number of people within the country and abroad protested and expressed deep anger and sadness. The failure of talks between the government and the opposition had extremely tragic consequences.

The analysis of these crises provides us with an unmistakable insight into crisis resolution. First and foremost, there is no escape from negotiations, even with bitter rivals. Second, opponents who badmouth each other and use insulting language burn bridges and make negotiations difficult, if not impossible. Third, there should be no rigid positions; ‘compromise’ is not a dirty word. Accommodating opponents’ reasonable demands is not capitulation. A compromise can lead to a win-win outcome both for the country and the political leadership. Fourth, the time to resolve a crisis is not unlimited; lost time leads to a vacuum which sucks in other forces. And lastly, the consequences of failure to resolve a crisis can be disastrous both for the country and individual actors.

The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.

president@pildat.org

Twitter: @ABMPildat

Published in Dawn, March 26th, 2023

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