If relationship counsellors are to be believed, mixed signals are actually negative signs in disguise, and given the degree of political polarisation currently in vogue, this does not seem like an unfair assessment.

With the economy perilously close to the edge of a precipice and multiple crises brewing in the constitutional and security realms, any degree of flippancy by the government and the opposition over plans to sit together and hammer out a compromise hardly seem appropriate at this stage.

Indeed, actors from across the board — political parties, businessmen and traders, civil society, media and beyond — have been yelling themselves hoarse, demanding a serious attempt at negotiations between the ruling coalition and Imran Khan’s PTI so that the country can get on with the process of rebuilding — both figuratively and literally.

But despite an abundance of good intentions on both sides, each passing day seems to bring us back to square one.

While both sides overtly proclaim readiness to talk it out, leaders willing to show flexibility are being sidelined or overruled

Take the developments over the weekend, when a Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) delegation tried to lay ground for a rapprochement. On Saturday, Sirajul Haq went to both Model Town and Zaman Park and managed to secure buy-in for an indirect round of talks.

The next day, both parties announced — in so many words — their intention to route their efforts through the JI. The PML-N named Ayaz Sadiq and Saad Rafique as their emissaries, while the PTI fielded Pervez Khattak, Mehmoodur Rashid and Ejaz Chaudhry as their representatives for this effort.

The possibility of holding a multi-party conference was also discussed and things were looking up.

Enter Rana Sanaullah. In his inimitable style, the pugnacious interior minister laid waste to days of efforts, building goodwill among stakeholders by summarily dismissing the idea of election in Punjab on May 14.

Although his stance actually deviates from the government’s official line, i.e. that it is trying its best to comply with the Supreme Court’s order to hold polls in Punjab in mid-May, it is in line with the PML-N’s (and indeed the entire ruling coalition’s) stated position that polls must be held in one go.

It is a classic case of one step forward, two steps back. But the irony is, we’ve been here before.

In March, after days of relentless police action against PTI supporters protecting Mr Khan’s residence, a group of civil society representatives going by the moniker of ‘The Mediators’ claimed it had managed to convince Mr Khan to participate in a multi-party moot where other stakeholders in the electoral process would also participate.

Invitations to this proposed moot were also to be extended to Nawaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, but nothing came of it.

Shunning dissenters

This confusion stems from a culture of intolerance that seems to have permeated the political fabric, and despite the widespread acknowledgement of the need for a cooling down on both sides, it seems that leaders who are critical of (or willing to show flexibility) on their party’s line are being shunned.

Indeed, the past several months have exposed divisions among nearly all major political parties. Within the ruling PML-N, leaders such as Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Miftah Ismail, Mushahid Hussain Syed, Iqbal Zafar Jhagra, Dr Asif Kirmani and many others have expressed their disagreement with the party’s stance that elections should be held in one go.

Recently, a notification assailing Mr Jhagra and other senior PML-N leaders from KP was also doing the rounds. Although the PML-N denied its authenticity, it seemed to be sending a message to those members of the old guard who were still speaking their minds and seen to be deviating from the party line.

In a recent interview, former PM Abbasi had termed a national dialogue the only way to solve the country’s problems, and placed the onus of initiating such a move on PM Shehbaz Sharif.

These voices have also urged a rethink of the lines that have been drawn in the sand in the standoff with the judiciary and have called on the party to think of the masses, who are reeling under an unprecedented price hike.

This echoes Mushahid Hussain’s view, who has said many-a time that the political crisis can only be eased if a date for elections in Punjab is finalised.

Similarly, from the PPP, Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, Aitzaz Ahsan, Khawaja Tariq Rahim and, most recently, Sardar Latif Khosa have had to face ostracism for giving voice to their views on the supremacy of the Constitution.

“I think the heads of political parties are running their parties like monarchs and are not ready to listen to the voices of party workers and leaders, that is why those who speak against the party line are banished,” Mr Khokhar told Dawn.

This is surprising, given that when leaders such as Asif Zardari and Shehbaz Sharif extend an olive branch to the PTI, they are applauded. But when someone else from within their parties raises their voice, it is met with silence or reprimand.

These are the kinds of mixed signals that observers feel are doing more harm than good to the government’s cause. After all, in a democratic set-up the onus of initiating goodwill gestures lies on the government of the day.

There seems to be a deficit of sincerity in the entire talks process. Now, the prime minister has reportedly called a meeting of coalition partners today (Tuesday), which may come up with a strategy on how to proceed on talks with the PTI. But it remains to be seen whether anything will come of this fresh move, or if it too will be grounded before take-off.

Published in Dawn, April 18th, 2023

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