This year the nation has marked Pakistan Day at a defining moment in the country’s history. The course that its leaders chart in the coming months will determine whether Pakistan will move away from or towards the vision of the Founding Fathers – to create a modern Muslim and democratic state that fulfils its obligations to its citizens and delivers on the social contract with the people.
We have failed to realise this vision for a variety of reasons. The inability of successive civilian and military governments to address the country’s underlying, structural problems, the tyranny of geography that heightened the impact on the country of regional politics and global geostrategic dynamics, the reluctance of a change-averse privilegentsia to enfranchise the entire polity and address social and economic deficits and disparities, and the elusive quest for political stability and economic viability.
The consequences have been economic weakness, growing poverty and persisting illiteracy, societal disruption and division, radicalisation and violence, institutional erosion and a state apparatus that shows signs of being dysfunctional, with parts of the country having now become ungovernable.
This is not to say that the glass is empty. The growth of a politically assertive middle class, the expansion of civil society, the entrepreneurship of the private sector and the increasing public awareness created by a vibrant, independent media have all helped to strengthen the necessary underpinnings of democracy and foster at least some elements of an enabling environment for a modern polity. But the country’s politics has yet to catch up with and reflect the purposefulness and dynamism of urban society. Instead, political leaders seem to be prone to reliving the past, often seeming to be locked in yesterday’s battles rather than focused on pressing issues that will determine the future.
Pakistan’s crisis of governance calls for a leadership that can understand and act on the minimum that is required to move towards a coherent system of managing the country and its mounting problems and challenges. At the very least, this means three things which constitute the prerequisites of good governance.
(1) The political will and ability to focus on issues and frame policies in the public interest, a process that also involves taking tough decisions and shaping public opinion.
(2) Building a political consensus on core issues of governance, especially the economy and security, and working democracy by consent.
(3) An institutional approach to decision-making and giving priority to institutional reform and restructuring to substantively address eroding state capacity and authority in carrying out the core functions of state.
If these governing principles are seen in the context of the present situation it is apparent how much ground there is to cover. Take the first imperative of governance. A protracted period of political wrangling has sidetracked the country’s leaders from substantive policy, especially as the government has shown a proclivity to preoccupy itself with ceaseless politicking and sterile rhetoric rather than concentrate on issues. The primacy of power politics over policy in the PPP coalition’s first year in office has fed the image of a government that lacks policy direction and any coherent agenda. Instead, it is seen only to be responding day-to-day problems in an ad hoc and erratic manner. It has yet to roll out a roadmap for governmental and legislative action.
The missteps in Punjab underscored how power outpaced public purpose in driving the conduct and setting the priorities of governmental leaders. Internecine disputes distracted the key political actors from meaningful engagement with urgent policy issues.
An amicable end to the standoff between the government and the opposition, followed by Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani’s grand gesture in travelling to Raiwind to meet with Mian Nawaz Sharif, represents a welcome departure from the strident politics of the recent past. Both vowed at their joint press conference to work together and pursue reconciliation to meet internal and external challenges. This presents a moment of opportunity. If the government and opposition can translate this renewed spirit of cooperation into sustainable cohabitation, this will create the conditions for their leaders to focus their attention and energies on what voters elected them to do: serve the public interest.
To reverse the policy drift and disarray, the Zardari-led government should in the coming days desist from resorting once more to political manipulation and machinations. Speculation persists that the president and prime minister are still on a different page on the Punjab question. For its part, the PML-Q leadership should cease muddying the political waters.
There will be issues that will need wisdom and a spirit of accommodation to resolve, in particular the repeal of the 17th Amendment. Even though uncertainty remains about the restoration of the status quo ante in Punjab, both sides have said they want to make the Charter of Democracy the basis of cooperation. Prime Minister Gilani’s declared aim of achieving a grand reconciliation offers the promise of providing an avenue for consensus building that can help make progress in meeting the second requirement for governance. Nawaz Sharif’s declaration that he is ready to cooperate with the government to “change Pakistan’s destiny,” as he put it in a speech on March 23 at Raiwind, affirms there is a chance for constructive engagement.
The reconciliation process should not just be about power-sharing and rebalancing of powers between the president and prime minister as reflected in the debate about the 17th Amendment, but should centre on the urgent policy issues that are make-or-break for the country’s future.
To start with this means meaningfully engaging with the economic crisis, going beyond policy tinkering to secure financial bailouts that address only the symptoms and not the underlying causes of the economic crisis. Consultations between the government and opposition to fashion an economic strategy that is backed by political consensus should be part of the reconciliation process.
There should also be serious follow-up on the 14-point Anti-Terrorism Resolution adopted by Parliament in October to evolve an agreed approach to deal with the country’s security threats and challenges, from Swat to FATA, in order to contain rising militancy in the country. Ambivalence or denial won’t make the problem go away. Nor does this absolve politicians of their responsibility to confront the security conundrum. Moreover, with the Obama administration about to unveil its new strategy for the region, there is a pressing need for Pakistan’s leaders to adopt a unified approach. This is a national imperative and warrants a responsible and sober response. Only nations that are united can protect their sovereignty and are treated as serious players by the international community. Prime Minister Gilani should convene a meeting of the heads of all political parties to take them into confidence immediately after the expected visit to Islamabad of US special envoy Richard Holbrooke and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, who will be sharing this strategy with the government.
The third essential for effective governance is a robust institutional framework. This means two things. One, decision-making in an institutional setting, and not by personal whim. Prudent decisions emerge from working within the institutional edifice of checks and balances in the political system. And, two, it means institutional strengthening, so that state capacity is restored to carry out core functions that have seen steady erosion in the country over the past three decades. These functions are the state’s ability to tax, to maintain law and order and to control the country’s borders. The state’s capacity to deliver vital public services cannot be improved if the machinery of state fails to adequately perform even its most basic functions. These core functions have a crucial bearing on the government’s ability to address the economic crisis. In fact, all government goals depend on institutional capability. So does political stability.
Tests of leadership lie ahead for all the principal players. Addressing the complex sources of Pakistan’s extraordinary challenges needs all of them to rise above partisan interests and defy the widespread perception that Pakistan is a state bereft of statesmen.