THIS is one U-turn that has been much needed. On Monday, while presiding over a meeting of his spokespersons in Islamabad, Prime Minister Imran Khan instructed them to refrain from criticising the opposition in the media and instead highlight the government’s achievements. Further, he termed the opposition as “harmless”, saying they “did not matter” any longer.
The change in tack comes across as a major policy shift, considering that Mr Khan has made the excoriation of previous governments the hallmark of his tenure. He has repeatedly denounced opposition leaders as “looters of the national wealth” who are responsible for Pakistan’s economic woes. That uncompromisingly one-track narrative has been echoed by many federal ministers and advisers in a seemingly endless loop. As a result, government-opposition relations are perennially hostile, and political rhetoric rather than governance has taken centre stage.
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Consider it took months before three dozen plus standing committees — that are necessary for legislative work — could be constituted, a task that according to the National Assembly’s rules of procedure must be completed within 30 days of the leader of the house being elected. The PTI’s needlessly combative stance never let up enough to allow for a working relationship across the aisle.
The statement on Monday by the prime minister is the first clear sign of a recalibration in strategy. Increasing public discontent, Yousuf Raza Gilani’s unexpected victory over the then finance minister Hafeez Sheikh in the Senate election; the threat of the PDM’s mass resignations and long march; and the perception that the much-vaunted ‘one page’ was showing signs of wear and tear may have forced a rethink. Certainly, with the election of his candidate as Senate chairman and the implosion of the PDM, Mr Khan has seen off the latest challenge to his government, at least for the moment. But, after nearly three years of ignoring advice to climb down from the ‘container mode’ of his dharna days, the premier may have realised that beating the drum about the previous governments’ failures so far into his tenure was becoming untenable. In fact, the law of diminishing returns had kicked in a long time ago.
The rift in the PDM has lowered the political temperature — and no doubt anxiety levels in government corridors — at a time when the treasury benches need to engage with the opposition. The judicial and electoral reforms the government has proposed can only be carried out through dialogue with legislators as a whole, not just those belonging to PTI or its allied parties. Nevertheless, knowing the prime minister’s predilection for self-righteousness and mercurial about-turns, it is difficult to gauge whether the political rhetoric will be dialled down for long. What is certain is that far-sighted leaders concentrate on the work the nation has entrusted them with rather than pursuing a barren policy of harking to the past.
Published in Dawn, April 7th, 2021