Vain quest for consensus

It is convenient for a leader as he enters high office to have an overarching theory or, more pompously, an ideology. For Mr Asif Zardari this is ‘reconciliation and consensus’.

Before him, Pervez Musharraf had coined the less attainable but more flattering compound of ‘enlightened moderation’ and ‘grass-roots democracy’. His predecessors too had their theories.No theory or ideology outlasted its author, but sustained him while in power. That indeed was the real purpose. Sustained longer than others was Ziaul Haq who used his Islamic and jihad ideology to reduce parliament to a consultative council (Majlis-i-Shura). It still acts as one, although it is expected to be supreme and sovereign. Jihad has now come to mean suicide bombings.

Pervez Musharraf’s ‘enlightened moderation’ ended up in religious extremism of an intensity that was not experienced even in Ziaul Haq’s regime. His grass-roots democrat (nazims and councillors) has not only outlasted him but remains a thorn in the side of every minister and official. It may be a bit far-fetched to imagine but if one day Musharraf stages a comeback, thousands of nazims would surely rally round him.

Ayub Khan’s basic democrats could not survive his exit as the system was not protected by the constitution. The credit for the first surge in rural development, however, must go to his basic democracy. Schools and dispensaries, for instance, were built for the first time in the Mohmand tribal territory (this writer then was the political agent there) under a programme financed by American aid and headed by Shahid Javed Burki. The rural masses then cursed the noisy city rabble for hounding their benefactor out of office. His presence, while he lived, was marked only by lonely walks in the capital that he had founded.

Here, it must not go unsaid that all — or nearly all — of today’s champions of parliamentary sovereignty and rights of the provinces merrily sat in Ziaul Haq’s Shura and cabinet, and later also let Musharraf assume direct control of the district governments.

Since that control must now once again vest with the provincial government, as it does in every other federation, the district nazims will have no choice but to reconcile to their powers and jurisdictions being curtailed.

The MQM with its stake in Karachi, Hyderabad and other towns of Sindh is there to ensure that the inroads made by the legislators and ministers are not too deep or extensive. The saving grace for the local government system is that in the current scenario the MQM is an indispensable ally if the PPP is to rule in peace.
Recounted above at some length are the residual effects of the theories/ideologies of Ayub Khan, Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf. Being tested now is Asif Zardari’s ‘reconciliation and consensus’.

The consequences of political wrangles so far negate his idea and are set to worsen during the tenure of his government. His theory is apparently prompted by a desire for political parties to share power and allow their leaders to have a good time, instead of precipitating mid-term elections or — not to be ruled out — external intervention. He might not be even counting Musharraf out.

The political parties and all other institutions are indeed in a state of disarray. At stake is not just the share of the contending parties in power but, more fundamentally, the division of powers between the federation and the provinces, parliament and the president, and between the executive and the judiciary. These multiple power equations combined with divergent views on Musharraf’s trial leave little room for unanimity. Insurgency in parts of Balochistan and the tribal areas makes the task even more daunting and prospects bleaker.

It would thus be prudent of Asif Zardari to give up his conciliation rhetoric and, instead, abide by the normal democratic norm that the majority rules. The quality distinguishing democracy from other forms of government is dissent. It was a rare moment in our history when the democratic process was put to work and the government and opposition forces were evenly balanced, powerfully led, with the media free and vigilant. That opportunity has been squandered.

The quest for a consensus has burdened the nation with large federal and provincial governments but without a programme or direction. Where is there room for conciliation when the PML-N spokesman accuses the president’s office of defaming Nawaz Sharif, and when Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and Governor Salman Taseer in Punjab are not even on speaking terms?

In the prevailing atmosphere of deep-rooted mistrust even coalitions at the centre and provinces keep going only because the partners need each other and not because they like each other. In 20 months they have not been able to agree even on the division of powers between the president and the prime minister let alone on the extent of provincial autonomy, which is a more troubling issue.

The contradiction inherent in the situation is that while the parliamentarians elected in 2008 expected to complete their five-year term, the issues that have since arisen were not in sight then. The parties have split or realigned. The electoral mandate of 2008 has lost its validity. The death of Benazir Bhutto and the departure of Pervez Musharraf have transformed the political scene altogether. The ‘mandated’ parties, in any case, lack the will and capacity to tackle pressing problems like the Baloch and tribal insurgencies.

The gravity and urgency of the issues demand that all parties should go back to the people with their proposals on the power structure at the centre, autonomy of the provinces and how to deal with insurgency. The parliament that comes into being would thus be more of a constitutional convention. If the country is in need of a consensus it is on mid-term elections.


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