The curse of national consensus

Published: January 21, 2012
The writer is Director at the South Asian Media School in Lahore

The writer is Director at the South Asian Media School in Lahore [email protected]

Democracy is rule by consent. States adopt policies on the basis of this consent which is normally expressed through an elected parliament. But there is a higher concept than this: the national consensus. It backs the ‘mission statement’ of the country or its nationalism. It is also sought in moments of crisis when the big decisions — usually about war — are taken.

National consensus is composed of many elements. It may vary in quality. And the elements composing it may differ from country to country and civilisation to civilisation. Is national consensus always a good thing? Is it always the genuine article? Or is it sometimes wrong and dangerous? Is it always rational and correctly arrived at or is also at times manipulated?

National consensus enables the state to face up to challenges of a big scale. It reflects the determination of a nation not to give ground, to be inflexible as to the choices it makes. It is needed if you want to go to war, notwithstanding the result of such a war. It is seldom good where a nation needs flexibility of approach to policymaking.

If the state is weak and economically troubled, it needs suppleness of approach and elbow room for opportunism. The national economy always dictates flexibility and opportunism; nationalism almost invariably demands inflexibility and non-compromise. Nationalism is spurred by thoughts of sovereignty and self-respect, both abhorrent to the national economy.

Wars are fought on the basis of national consensus. Defeat or victory is the outcome of any war. National consensus is denigrated by defeat prior to learning the ‘lessons of defeat’. Victories are not supposed to teach any lessons. Germany and Japan, after their defeats in the Second World War, learned their lessons and were transformed. In both cases, the national economy won the new argument.

Pakistan’s national consensus is dangerous because it allows the supreme authority of the state — the Pakistan Army — to pursue an inflexible course in policy. This national consensus is also not completely genuine because it is spurred by dubious motives. The political parties join it to do each other down. The ruling party, which is the target of this hostility, joins the collective suicide to seek immunity from the army’s ire.

Argentina was deluded by a suicidal national consensus into attacking the British-occupied Falklands Islands or the Malvinas. After the defeat, the Argentine general, who rode this national consensus was not spared by the nation. General Yahya rode a similar national consensus in West Pakistan when he attacked East Pakistan and met a similar fate.

In non-rational societies, national consensus is propelled by high emotion and unrealistic dreams. In Pakistan, the national consensus behind the Raymond Davis case, Osama bin Laden’s killing, rejection of the RGST (reformed general sales tax) to improve state revenues, against America and its allies in the European Union, against the ‘war on terrorism’, etc, will damage the already crumbling economy.

Is it true to say that if suffering comes in the wake of national consensus, the people will happily endure it? Not true at all. People never forgive the negative fallout from their own expression of collective will. To avoid state collapse, representative democracy mediates between this popular will and the pragmatic economy through the politicians.

But if politicians instrumentalise the national consensus to gain their internecine ends, the state can no longer absorb the shock of unequal challenges to its security. The loser is the economy. Today, the biggest enemy of the Pakistan Army is not America or India but the national economy. In this war against the economy, the Pakistan Army is winning.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 22nd, 2012.

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Reader Comments (11)

  • Jan 22, 2012 - 12:19AM

    In non-rational societies, national consensus is propelled by high emotion and unrealistic dreams.


  • Sheikh A. Bukhara
    Jan 22, 2012 - 12:47AM

    Khaled Sb, as you correctly point out there is a national consensus that we won’t pay taxes, economic need or not. As a result this national consensus then leads to the need to borrow from abroad on sometime difficult terms. And then we wonder why we cannot break the reliance on the IMF and World Bank…Duh…


  • John B
    Jan 22, 2012 - 1:11AM

    Well put. What is and what has been the national consensus of Pakistan is marching to the beat of drums, and submission to the command and the Pakistan establishments- civil service, courts, banks,Mosques and all those institutions that are necessary in running the country- followed the generals to the cliff on suicide missions, and pak considers that as patriotism.

    In the US freedom of expression is the national consensus and is almost a religion, and children swear allegiance in school “with liberty and justice for all”. The concept of social consensus is based on this foundation and whenever the events twist this consensus, people rise up, as it had happened in Montgomery, Little Rock, and in Chicago.

    Now where were the people of PAK when their generals took them on misadventure, as in Kargil or when the so called Mullahs sowed seeds of hatred? They all either marched behind, obeyed and signed the orders, cleared the checks, transacted business as usual with no embarrassment and went to mosques and prayed, because the national consensus is allegiance to the army and to the religion, no matter what their conscious says.

    It is a curse only when someone pays attention to their conscious. Otherwise, it is a patriotism.


  • adeel759
    Jan 22, 2012 - 1:34AM

    Many good points in this Article. National Consesus: The only thing this nation has been manipulated to agree on is Hate and Fear. Other than that, we cant even agree on Hadiths and the translation of the verses of holy Quran. Lessons From Failure: Wel this phenomenon does not exist in the land of the pure, because we are too wise to learn from failure. Rationality vs Pakistani Rationale. A top pakistani official was quoted in a recent foreign article describing pakistanis as,”Half irrational, half emotional”. Army at war with Economy. Well, they might be winning but Pakistan is losing. In a national security state like Pakistan, its the Army who is to provide and guarantee conducive atmosphere for the sound economic activity. But if that happened, politics and politicians will eventualy take the lead since political strength and stability is the core demand of vibrant economy. Politicians in the leading seat, that’s what Pak Army is at War with and winning.


  • x
    Jan 22, 2012 - 2:14AM

    very true


  • Jan 22, 2012 - 2:44AM

    Pointless article! Writer should have said that in a democracy there is no use or room for consensus. Majority’s will prevails. Seeking consensus has immensely harmed Pakistan by not building KBD.


  • sharifL
    Jan 22, 2012 - 11:02AM

    @Mustafa Kamal:
    well said. So true


  • Feroz
    Jan 22, 2012 - 11:14AM

    There is no such thing as national consensus. In Democracies resolutions are passed by majority vote, not consensus. Consensus is an utopian concept that akin to a dream and has little chance of implementation. When people do not want to take tough decisions they call for consensus.


  • Jan 22, 2012 - 11:58AM

    Pak army has done so much for our economy…all the best known companies….our economy will overtake india because our ppl are more enterprenual, resilient and smart…the indian companies will be gone the moment they automate the call centres….

    Remember what Zaid Hamid says, 5 years…just five years and we will be on top of the world…Recommend

  • PP (Punjabi Pakistani)
    Jan 22, 2012 - 2:19PM

    @Aqeel Ahmed:
    who Zaid Hamid?
    BTW, your pak army is doing and making every thing but defense of pakistan.
    Plz ask your Sipha Salar sometimes think about his own jobs besides running Pakistan, making breaking pakistani elected govt.Recommend

  • Cynical
    Jan 23, 2012 - 9:21PM

    @Mustafa Kamal
    Quite an apt summarisation.
    Well done.


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