The idea of grand national dialogue has recently been much agitated. This is not surprising, given the general performance of the current Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government (not to mention other institutions).
Mosharraf Zaidi penned a piece stressing the imperative of such an undertaking and argued that “a grand national dialogue is about understanding the symbiosis between Pakistani democracy, Pakistani federalism, Pakistani pluralism and Pakistani national security.”
The next day, Saleem Safi talked about why it is important to hold such a dialogue. Safi detailed his concerns, like Zaidi did, and went on to suggest some modalities also. His recommendation: either the Supreme Court Bar Association or a Council of Elders to arrange and preside over such a dialogue.
Fahd Husain, writing in Dawn, referred to the idea as the flavour of the month. He talked about “three strategic lines of action,” two related to approaches within the opposition (Peoples Democratic Movement) while one in relation to the current PTI’s government. A contest between hardliners who “want to power their way across limits” and “rationalists [who] recognise the limits of their power”.
In the near past, the idea was mooted last year by former Chief Justice of Pakistan, Zulfiqar Khosa. Speaking at a full court reference to honour outgoing CJP Saqib Nisar, Justice Khosa had proposed an inter-institutional dialogue for developing what he called a charter of governance. He said that we had reached “a stage in our national life where we must take stock of the mistakes committed in the past and come up with a charter of governance to ensure that such mistakes are not repeated”.
Not much came out of that proposal though, like now, it was debated with our usual penchant for rhetoric and platitudes. Let’s consider the idea.
First, we can all agree on the absolute necessity for a correction. It will also be difficult to disagree with the symbiosis Zaidi talked about “between Pakistani democracy, Pakistani federalism, Pakistani pluralism and Pakistani national security.” There can also be no disagreement, given empirical evidence, that institutions are fraying from within and also lack inter-institutional (to use Judge Khosa’s term) harmony. One must also appreciate the genuine angst that informs the writings I have referred to. And extrapolating from mounting evidence it must also be clear that one cannot overemphasise the imperative of institutional harmony.
The issue, therefore, is not about questioning the intent or that institutional harmony is imperative to the successful future of this country. The question is: how do we go about it?
One assumes that the idea implies (a) the need for all stakeholders to get together and work out the rules of the game because, presumably, all of them are, or should be, interested in furthering Pakistan’s interests; (b), when you don’t have a non-violent way of conversing, debating and deliberating the foundations on which you want to erect the edifice of the state, the alternatives can be and usually are disruptive.
It’s hard to disagree with the intent behind these implications. Yet, beyond this point, there are difficult questions that must inform the debate.
The first is obvious: how does one get all stakeholders to accept the imperative for such dialogue? Put another way, if all interested parties were amenable to such a cooperative framework, we wouldn’t need such a dialogue to begin with. This would be because all the stakeholders would then prefer cooperation to conflict and would hence already be in harmony. The reason they are not is because they have their entrenched interests that lock them in conflict. To suppose that somehow they could be made to cooperate is to exercise willing suspension of disbelief.
The point is that before we get to the table, we have to figure out the interests of all parties/actors, as also the power relations in and through which those interests are both protected and advanced. After all, if we have a situation necessitating some action to get all the ducks in a row, we will first need to figure out how and why the damn ducks aren’t in a row to begin with.
If the problem emanates from power relations, it would be naive to think that we could have a Council of Elders to whose mandate all actors/parties would willingly submit. Once again, let me make clear that I have no doubt about the sincerity of those who are suggesting the need for such a dialogue. They are obviously concerned, as we all should be or are, about the current situation. The problem with the proposal is its neatness: let’s do X and Z will fall in place.
Consider, for instance, that this is a system which works in silos because no one wants to part with information. Reason? Information is power. And this despite the hierarchies that are supposed to act as the upward/downward chains, presumably for maximising synergies. And this is not a tactical problem; it’s a strategic problem. Those who have worked in the system know what this means.
Corollary: over decades, it has created entrenched interests; interests that override everything else, including the sensible requirement of institutional cooperation. Add to this the established findings of organisation theory and we get institutional attitudes that run so deep that nothing short of a major disruptive shock can change their outlook.
Which brings me to another problem. Historically, the ideas of such grand dialogues or Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have been underpinned by disruptions, inflection points where old, entrenched interests have for whatever reasons either become extremely weakened or have been defeated. That’s when some societies move towards further disruption, shunning the need to heal old wounds or move towards a more cooperative framework to work out new legal, social and political compacts.
It is ironic, as I mentioned above, that one implied reason for such a dialogue is precisely to avoid reaching such an inflection point. But that is not possible because states and societies almost always get to that point through a grand disruption. Before that point, those who exercise power evince no interest in accommodation, unless such cooperation can help them keep in power.
That’s the problem with power. In this country, several factors have created the power relations we currently have and which are the reason for the current experimentation and disharmony. Combine that with entrenched interests and the wheel comes full circle on the problem we began with: how is a grand national dialogue in the interests of those who wield power even as it might be in the interest of those who currently don’t. And how will such a dialogue materialise if the only ticket back in for those who currently are on the outside is to agree to the power configuration that exists and to which the problem can be traced back?
This is a system that fears itself because it doesn’t trust itself. For all the shibboleths about national interest, what we have are institutional interests that reify a worldview and cloak it in the hallowed robes of national interest.
That said, I think the importance of the idea of a national dialogue (leaving aside its idealism) is that (a) it keeps the flame alive and (b) it flags the presence of more than one narrative and by doing so, calls on those who currently exercise power to respect other voices in order for the balance to be restored.
The writer is a former News Editor of
The Friday Times. He reluctantly tweets @ejazhaider