Death of dialogue – Fahd Husain

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AZAM Swati sure took his own sweet time.

On Friday, the railways minister expressed an earnest desire to set the Election Commission on fire. In the uncumbersome process of losing his cool, he poured his heart out against the commission for what he believed was its role in taking bribes to rig the election. It was an unguarded moment for the minister, which possibly explains his fairly outlandish statement in the Senate committee on parliamentary affairs. The surprising thing though was not the outlandish-ness of what he said, but why it took him so long to say it.

His party has been bottling up its rage against the ECP for quite a while now, and it must be supremely difficult, one can imagine, for sharp-tongued ministers to restrain their raging emotions for so long. The self-inflicted agony of this admirable restraint runs the risk of leaving deep scars on the soul, and yet it took months, perhaps years, for the partisan bile to explode out onto the committee platform. The ECP officials, confronted with the theoretical possibility of an arson attack — even metaphorically — thought it prudent to make themselves scarce. Who can blame them? Little did they know, this could just be the beginning of a long hot two years of political jujitsu between them and the PTI brigade.

Welcome to the jungle, one may say.

For what else can we call the political arena where dialogue is dying a slow death; where discourse is transforming into a steady stream of abuse; and where debate is limiting itself to acrimonious accusations of the worst kind? This brand of politics — where opponents are not rivals but enemies that deserve not just to be defeated but to be vanquished — is now starting to take a toll on the functioning of the system itself. Everyone is climbing up the escalatory ladder and no one in sight can halt the self-destructive momentum.

Nothing illustrates this more vividly than the treatment meted out to the hapless electoral reforms bill. The PTI government believes with all the force at its command that the answer to all electoral manipulations is the introduction of the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs). With equal fervour, it is also convinced that overseas Pakistanis must get the right to vote in the next general elections. Both these beliefs are based on worthy principles: elections must be fair, and Pakistanis abroad must be enfranchised. The problem starts when these lofty principles have to be translated into actionable policy.

 

The obvious place to start is to unbundle the huge expanse of the principle into little digestible, transformable and implementable policy modules. The unbundling in the case of the EVMs, for instance, could be to distill the principle into a simple question: how do we ensure the EVMs themselves cannot become victims of manipulation?

Who would disagree with the fundamental premise of this question? Every member of the PTI starting from the prime minister downwards would be happy to admit and acknowledge that he and she would want the EVMs to be un-manipulate-able, so to speak, and therefore will have no objection in doing whatever possible to ensure this. Good. The opposition however says the machines will be manipulated. Theirs is a definitive statement. There is a gap between the two. As long as this gap remains unbridgeable, the EVMs issue will remain un-resolvable.

There is a way out. It also happens to be the most obvious one.

The government says EVMs are safe. No, says the opposition. We are at this stage today. What should happen next, ideally?

The government should ask the opposition why it says no. The opposition should explain. The government should say: ‘Ah! Ok so that’s what your issue is. Let me answer.’ The opposition listens, and says: ‘Yes point A that you mention explains this aspect, but what about Point B? EVMs cannot overcome it.’ The government says: ‘Point B? Perhaps I could not explain well. Let me expand on it.’ The opposition hears the point and responds: ‘No, what you’re saying does not make sense because of Point C, and D.’ The government thinks for a moment and says: ‘You know perhaps you’re right. Let us get more information and get back to you. We need to flesh out Point C and D so that it answers the questions.’ The opposition agrees. They set a date to meet again.

The dialogue continues.

Except in real life, it does not. It dies when the government says I want the EVM and the opposition says we reject it. Then they fight.

Editorial: EVM controversy

Is the EVM the best way to eradicate manipulation from elections? The answer is neither a ‘yes’ nor a ‘no’ because the government and the opposition, and all other stakeholders haven’t thought it through. At this stage therefore, the best possible answer is ‘I don’t know’. It is not ‘I cannot know’ because we can know, if we really make the effort and take the dialogue through to its natural conclusion. ‘I do not know’ is therefore a deliberate choice to not know even when there is an option of knowing it. This is the wound we are inflicting on ourselves.

The death of dialogue over the EVMs and the enfranchisement of overseas Pakistanis is symptomatic of a larger malaise that is spreading like cancer through politics: an adamant refusal to place reason over partisanship. It is this very refusal that is manifesting itself in a breakdown of parliamentary norms, and it is the same refusal that is translating itself into the disintegration of a functional and constitutional relationship between the government and the opposition.

The cost? Imagine another election falling victim to controversy; imagine another term till 2028 lost to fighting, abusing and instability; imagine another round of nihilistic politics of dharnas, jalsas, long marches and resignations; and imagine the level of despondency and mistrust among the citizens for the system that produces such acute inability to just be able to hold a normal, rational dialogue.

Then imagine the alternative.