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January 9, 2018

A difficult year


January 9, 2018

And so it’s a wrap. The year 2017 is over and it has left us with much to ponder. What have we learnt and how have we been tested in the last year, its every turn brimming with tumult and laced with surprise twists?

And more importantly, do we have the wherewithal to utilise our experiences of 2017 to correct our course in 2018? This is difficult to ascertain. But in the meantime, let’s review what 2017 has delivered for Pakistan.

Politics and governance were thrust onto the centre-stage in 2017. Any dreams that the ruling party had for a quiet penultimate year before the run to the next general elections, were dashed with the lightning bolt of the Panama Papers. While the PML-N assumed the posture of obdurate defiance right from the start, it was clear soon enough that it was floundering to defend itself as its leaders – subjected full-throttle to an inquisition of sorts – found themselves unable to present a neat defence to refute their culpability in allegations of financial corruption that may have been the source of their global wealth. But even more damaging to the party than the premature disqualification of its leader from the post of prime minister was the exposé that it had never deliberated on a blueprint for the succession of its leadership.

After months of rumour-mongering in the public domain about divisions within the Sharif family, the ruling party’s decision to declare the ousted PM’s younger brother as the heir-apparent for the PM slot appeared muffled and reluctant. And speculation is still rife over what role the ousted PM will retain in the aftermath of the next general elections, the power-sharing arrangement that will be bequeathed to the Sharif scions – two of whom are champing at the bit to arrive on the political scene – and the PML-N’s plan to avoid further embarrassment and possible incarceration by NAB and the courts of law. What baffles you most when you examine the last five years of the PML-N is the strategy to never come clean on any issue with the people.

This is most recently evident in the veiled, elusive statements and posturing of the PML-N in the wake of its senior leadership’s Saudi visit – a modus operandi that the government has adopted to respond to every major crisis or issue it has been confronted with: from the PTI dharnas, its absent foreign policy (and minister) and its wishy-washy approach towards executing the National Action Plan to the Dawn leaks, the Panama leaks and its failure to deal with the Faizabad sit-ins. Coupled with this is the attitude of near-dismissal with which the ousted PM dealt with parliament and the opposition over the course of the last four years and the confrontational approach with the establishment and judiciary, which has not only created a division in the government ranks, but has also served to cement its animosity with every opposing political force in the country.

Which brings us to the opposition. If anything goes down in the annals of our history in the five years since the 2013 general elections, it is the unique approach to parliamentary politics introduced by the PTI. Imran Khan has been equally derisive of the role of parliament in politics and has instead sought the spotlight and publicity that the street affords his party and, in no small measure, his own hubris. The PTI’s agitation has showcased its leader’s naked struggle for power that has proceeded to accommodate all available political rejects and electables from other parties. It has frantically sought to enter into any available Faustian bargain to dethrone the ruling party and has thus fomented an atmosphere of complete political polarisation and total intolerance in the public mind.

While the ex-PM’s ouster is a vindication of sorts for Imran Khan’s struggle for justice, it will be interesting to see the PTI win a larger political space in the next general elections that is sufficient to enable it to form a coalition government at the centre, as analysts predict. Will the PTI and its supremo then finally decide to abandon street politics and engage in the serious business of governance from within the houses of parliament? As the PTI leadership contemplates this, it may do well to simultaneously draw up its own blueprint for succession.

Extremism, terrorism and foreign policy were the other show-stoppers of 2017. With the lynching of Mashal Khan and countless others before him, it is clear that we have nurtured a demon that seeks to challenge and upend all peace, tolerance and civility from within our polity. We are already facing a dilemma where the bulk of our civil society is confused about the faux religious righteousness imbued in the actions of the radical right. This is particularly a consequence of the hitherto peaceful and more Sufi, Barelvi order also radicalising itself in an attempt to gain more attention and political space and the incessant propaganda around corruption that has falsely equated the ineptitude of politicians and their pilfering of the public purse with the highest form of evil in the public mind. Add to this the otiose, incoherent actions of the government in implementing NAP and you have a recipe for disaster.

While we salute our soldiers for fighting an unrelenting war in the north against terrorists, the establishment think-tank has done itself and the country no favours by continuing to meddle in politics. This was glaringly evident with the handling of the Dawn leaks issue, the ‘notification rejected’ imbroglio and the brokering of the end to the Faizabad sit-in that was accompanied with the damaging optics of cash being doled out to the protesters and their cheeks patted with affection. The balance of civil-military relations is key to ensuring internal stability and the dissonance between both institutions has been instrumental in weakening the key state institutions, not to mention the erosion of the writ of parliament.

Another failure in 2017 has been in the realm of foreign policy. The absence of successful statesmanship is evident in the slide in our relations with Washington, Kabul and Delhi who have formed an anti-Islamabad bloc to secure international pressure through bad press, created by trumpeting the problem of extremism and our alleged support of militant outfits in the region. Our counter-strategy has been to wax lyrical about our CPEC-enabled betrothal to the Chinese and some courting of the Russians mixed with our characteristic mock indignation and tired refrain of ‘I didn’t do it’. Our recent response to the cut in US foreign aid accompanying US President Trump’s accusatory tirade is again disjointed and pusillanimous. Foreign policy requires statesmanship, lobbying, advocacy and continuous engagement through dialogue. It must be the remit of a civilian foreign minister working with a team of seasoned bureaucrats, which is even more necessary now as we face a hostile Trump administration.

Healthy political competition, a strong parliament, an effective opposition, a united civil-military establishment, a wise foreign policy, sound economic planning and a coherent counter-terrorism strategy that seeks to embody the spirit and objectives of NAP may be too tall an order to achieve in 2018. But in the short-term, our policymakers may adopt the approach of taking baby steps to achieve some progress in all these key areas. As a first step, we must let all institutions and actors work towards ensuring a smooth run-up to free and fair elections this year so as to ensure a peaceful second transfer of democratic power.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @kmushir

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