The virus is a challenge that is second to none. Around the world, this is compared to the Second World War in terms of state mobilization and the changes that will occur. Most likely there will be no difference in Pakistan.
So great is the challenge that Pakistan’s noisy, messy, and chaotic politics seem backward – for a moment. First, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, who during the press conference, portrayed Imran Khan as prime minister, added that he was confident that Khan would lead the country out of the crisis. He paved the way for some leaders at PML-N to also recognize that they would support the government.
But soon the fight began again.
Sindh and the federal government are busy in the main areas above lockdowns and who does what (or doesn’t). In Punjab, the return of the PML-N president – for now – Shahbaz Sharif, did not let bonhomie last too long. In a cyber meeting of senior party leaders, the prime minister spoke briefly before leaving. That he did not survive to hear what the opposition said was not very good towards Sharif, who also walked out, symbolically, in protest, and BBZ followed him. Although there is a lot of back and forth about why this happens, many are unhappy with the fact that political parties cannot put aside their differences even in times of crisis and work together.
The opposition will and must show the government’s mistakes.
But should politics stop in times of crisis?
This question has been raised several times and has raised a second question: is this what is being asked by politicians around the world where governments are also fighting the pandemic?
It is difficult to say, but it is a routine question that is repeatedly asked in the land of saints. Perhaps our long-standing temptation to dictatorship has left us with the perception that politics is dirty business, which must be stopped at times of crisis or certain needs. This is somewhat similar to those who drink regularly and openly but come Ramazan they put it aside – because deep down they believe it is wrong and something that can and must be redeemed once a year.
But politics is not a bad habit, which can only be done when the time is right and give up another time. Rather, it is part of our democracy and we aspire to be. The opposition has a role that must be played as much as the government has in a democratic system. And the previous role was to keep the government strong, especially in times of crisis. And for this, the opposition will and must show the mistakes of the government. This is what is meant by hostile parliamentary democracy, which is practiced in Pakistan. And it works too.
Just consider the early days of the coronavirus – the government’s continued plagiarism in Sindh about the lack of seriousness of Islamabad causing continuous comparisons between Murad Ali Shah and Usman Buzdar and Imran Khan, as well as criticism of Islamabad and Lahore’s slow response. To say that this does not play a role in provoking Punjab to get joint action is inaccurate.
Indeed, the pressure of opposition criticism and the fear that people will see it as a better alternative is a big factor in motivating any political party or government.
To use an example from the past, one only needs to consider PML-N and its reputation as a better party than others in government. One reason is that parties always face serious competition from political competitors. It had to make a place for itself in Punjab in the early 1990s when PPP dominated in the province; when he returned to power in 2008, he had to deal with comparisons with the five-year Q League government and in 2013, PTI had become a threat. On the other hand, PPP’s dominance in Sindh, to date, has made it satisfied – to say the least – about governance. And now, if there is pressure on PTI to provide, it is only because PML-N continues to be a formidable player and challenger.
Returning to coronavirus, there is a need for strong opposition to not only keep the government under pressure but also provide the necessary critics of the policies that are put in place. If the expanded Ehsaas program loses people at the local level, who would know this better than politicians in the area, especially opposition politicians? After all, if there is a management error in Taftan, that was first shown by PPP. Likewise, the fact that the PPP has included local party leaders in the union committee level aid committee to distribute rations to those who need to be highlighted and criticized by the opposition in Sindh. That is not criticism without reason.
This is not to say that in difficult times little politicization cannot be ruled out. In fact, it is true. Most of the bad rhetoric about the elected government (by the opposition) and noise about corruption and thieves (by the government) have taken a back seat; and politicians must get credit for it.
But it doesn’t need all the debate and dissent to die at all. In times of crisis – especially pandemics that have never been experienced before – only constant dialogue about the efficacy of the policies adopted will help everyone find the right path forward.
If the media doesn’t stop criticizing the government in an effort to keep a check, why is the opposition? Let the politicians do their work.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, April 7, 2020
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