The curse of national consensus

Pakistan’s national consensus is dangerous because it allows the Army to pursue an inflexible course in policy.

Khaled Ahmed January 21, 2012

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.


Cynical | 11 years ago | Reply

@Mustafa Kamal Quite an apt summarisation. Well done.

PP (Punjabi Pakistani) | 11 years ago | Reply @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.
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