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Untitled Document
Elements Of A National Consensus
Dr. Akmal Hussain
Newspaper: The Daily Times
Dated: Thursday, November 06, 2003

Underneath the apparent calm a crisis of state and society continues to confront Pakistan. Elected governments are functioning yet there is continuing contention on the constitutional changes through which an institutionalization of military rule was sought. As in the polity, so in the economy there is a glacial stability. The State Bank reserves have increased, the budget deficit has reduced and GDP growth has marginally increased. Yet underlying these positive indicators, the under currents of deepening poverty, unemployment, and the structural problems in the institutional framework that sustains growth, give cause for concern. At the level of society, violence appears to have abated, yet the periodic mindless massacres in the mosques and in the streets remind us of the deep rooted social malaise that continues to persist. The discourse of democracy, tolerance and reason confronts the discourse of authoritarianism, religious violence, and bigotry.

Thus in all three dimensions of Pakistan’s crisis of society, economy and state, fundamental unresolved issues threaten a fragile stability. Political and economic stability as indeed the strength of the state can only be sustained by achieving a political consensus on these fundamental issues. Let us identify the elements of such a consensus, which if achieved, could embody national consciousness and underpin the process of political and economic development.

No man is an island. A state is even less so. This is particularly the case in a world where the economy is globalized and most states are required to conform to international norms of state behaviour. Therefore it can be argued that the future of Pakistan lies in building a modern, democratic state marked by reason, tolerance and a universal humanism that derives from the great religious and cultural traditions of its people. The challenge is to sustain this national endeavour through a set of fundamental political norms that are organic to national consciousness. For a norm to be organic to national consciousness it must be recognized by most citizens to be self evident, in the sense of being essential to their experience of citizenship. (i.e. national identity).

In this context four fundamental norms could be considered for a national consensus. The first norm will be determined by resolving the issue of whether religious belief is a matter concerning the individual or the state. In this regard, the view of the Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah is quite clear. In his speech of August 11, 1947, he said:

“You may belong to any religion or caste or creed ___ that has nothing to do with the business of the state….. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one state…. Now, I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in the course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual but in the political sense as citizens of the state.”

These words spoken by the father of the nation cannot be taken lightly. As Hegel in his lectures on the Philosophy of World History pointed out, “Speeches are actions among human beings; indeed they are extremely important and momentous actions…speeches on a national or international plane issuing from nations themselves or from their sovereigns, are actions, and as such, are an essential object of history”.

Why do we call Mr. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Quaid-e-Azam or the father of the nation? This is because most citizens of Pakistan believe that he represents the spirit of the nation. Such a spirit arises when a nation becomes conscious of itself as a nation (i.e. achieves national consciousness). Here again Hegel is relevant when he defines the spirit of a nation as “consciousness of its own ends and interests and of the principles which underlie them.” (Italics mine). In this sense the above-mentioned speech is not mere words, but expresses one of the defining principles of nationhood.

The second issue that has to be resolved to create the basis for sustaining a constitutional order is whether Pakistan’s process of legislation is to be done on the basis of Ijtihad, and a sovereign parliament or is it to be governed by a set of specific religious laws prevailing in an earlier millennium (Sharia) and whose trans-historicity is a subject of debate amongst religious scholars. This relates with the question of distinguishing between those Islamic injunctions, which are specific to a particular period and those, which are universal and trans-historical.

The third issue on the basis of which a national consensus is to be sought emerges from the specific structure of state power in Pakistan inherited at the time of independence. Within this structure the military had a relatively important weight due to the fact that as an institution it was relatively more developed compared to most other institutions of the state. The military was certainly more developed institutionally than the main political party of the time, (The Muslim League) which was like the subsequent major political party (The People’s Party) more a movement than a party. Through out the post independence period the military has demonstrably been a political protagonist within the power structure. The question that now has to be resolved into a fundamental norm, is whether the military is to be subordinate to civilian authority, (a necessary condition for a democratic state), or is the military to be pre-eminent over civilian government, in which case the polity would be essentially authoritarian.

The fourth issue relates with the question of whether India is to be seen as a permanent enemy. Or is India to be seen as a neighbouring country with whom Pakistan has at present certain disputes, which need to be resolved. If they are resolved Pakistan would be free to have good neighbourly ties. In the former case enmity with India would be a defining feature of the Pakistani state. In the latter case Pakistan could have relations with India based on national interests. An explicit political consensus on this issue needs to be achieved because it has important implications for the future of Pakistan’s polity, economy, foreign policy, and the concept of national security.

Pakistan stands at a watershed in its history. The multifaceted crisis of state, society and economy has created the imperative for a political consensus based on the defining principles of nationhood. Only such a consensus could give life to a constitution, sustain political and economic stability and strengthen the state.

The author wishes to thank the Rt. Hon. Aitzaz Ahsan for a helpful discussion on this subject. However the responsibility for the views expressed in this article or any errors that remain, rests with the author alone.

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