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The politics of negotiation

It was Sunday 4th November 2007. My Sunday morning newspaper browsing normally starts with column reading and news scanning. I was writing in a top daily and was surprised to see that my Sunday Column was missing. Sometimes it happens and then it is published on an alternative day. However, when I enquired later from the op-ed staff they expressed their inability to carry the article as my name was in the banned list issued by the government. A day before, ie, 3rd November 2007 Musharraf had imposed PCO which resulted in violation of many constitutional rights including freedom of expression. As a Pakistani and as a writer that suppression of freedom of expression resulted in a sustained movement against the dictator where media, lawyers and public protested every Thursday till justice was restored.

Suppressing a voice is always counterproductive. In the 2007 movement the selective media clampdown was treated with huge retaliation through protests. That was in the times of a dictator. Ten years later the total electronic and social media clampdown on 24th November 2017 was unprecedented and unnecessary. That it was at the time of a democratic government that this shutdown happened is strange; that it happened at a time when the whole country was trying to find out where all the roads were blocked and which routes were safer was agonizing; that it happened when the need for information and connectivity was highest was annoying; that it was restored when nothing had changed or been achieved was disturbing. While it did nothing to diffuse the situation in the country it reaffirmed the government’s continuous mishandling of issues by adopting the worst method of Non-management “When in trouble, block it, as out of sight is out of mind”.The Islamabad sit-in mishandling has now become a national embarrassment. The way it was let be, the manner in which it was dealt with and the resultant agreement were exactly how a crisis management and negotiation session should never be held. Some key principles were broken to broker a deal which was one sided and made the government look like a lame duck. Let us see what were the don’ts that became the dos:

1) Never let the conflict linger: The principle is when sensitive issues arise, nip them in the bud. Conflicts fester and nourish on non-confrontation and non-communication. The conflict on electoral reforms bill was not a three week story but had originally started in August 2017 and was debated and contested on all clauses except the Khatam e Nabuat one that was a late amendment which went unnoticed till it went to the standing committee of the Senate. Once it was highlighted on 2nd October in the Standing Committee it became a valid mistake where political parties, media, public all demanded restoration and enquiry on who, how and why it was removed. The enquiry was ordered on 7th October. As the government dithered on taking immediate action and sharing the findings of the report the religious party stepped up its outrage and went marching to Islamabad. Their initial demand was resignation and punishment of the people responsible but as government went into a political paralysis the demand charter became more elaborate.

2) Delayed decision-making results in a lose-win situation: As the demands became more ambitious the government went into a panic mode and the Minister of Interior went running around Islamabad like a headless chicken. Everyday there would be statements that within 3 hours or days there will be a solution but nothing happened. So much so that the Islamabad High Court had to step in and order that the blockade on Faizabad interchange be cleared. At least 5 deadlines were given to the protesters by the government to clear the roads and action was threatened but none happened. This made the government and the security forces look helpless and hapless. Thus when the operation did take place it was chaotic and inevitably ill planned and badly executed.

3) Engage and connect with all stakeholders: An issue that is of such a sensitive nature for the whole nation and which was debated in both houses should have been discussed with all stakeholders. A special assembly session should have been called and a committee comprising all parties should have been made to chalk out an action plan. That never happened which resulted in protests within the Senate and all the parties complained on this highhanded treatment of the matter. Instead of helping the government this non-inclusive attitude resulted in alienating support for the government.

4) Take responsibility and ownership: Perhaps one of the best ways of looking silly is firstly to take non-inclusive decisions and then if they misfire not to take responsibility and start the blame game. The Minister of Interior is a classic case of this ” I had to do it, but I am not responsible” immature attitude that is forbidden in every basic management program. Thanks to this petulant approach he not only angered external stakeholders but people within his party confirming the his incompetence and incapability to handle the serious nature of ministry he is heading.

5) Be transparent and hold accountability: Crisis is a time of speculation. To counter uncertainty and restore sanity open communication is imperative. With public in agony and rumours of a government failure ripe, the best way to allay fears was to communicate with the public and pacify them. Instead, what happened was that Electronic and Social media were shut down for two days. That made the rumour mills work overtime. As the government called in the army, cries of a Martial Law and takeover became louder and louder. However, as sanity prevailed and media was restored things started appearing more normal.

With such classic fumbles and blunders, capitulation was an inevitable ending. That too with the help of the armed forces. Inaction and non-transparency are normal consequences of fear and the unease of having a skeleton in the cupboard. An enquiry report ordered on 7th October to be prepared and shared within 24 hours is after almost 50 days still not public. Somebody and something is being shielded and that will remain the pressure point on the government creating the possibility of a reoccurrence of this situation. Negotiation is an art but it is a science too and if the very facts and evidence that develop your negotiating posture are dark and dubious the resultant deal may just be lull before the storm.

Andleeb Abbas, "The politics of negotiation," Business Recorder. 2017-12-04.
Keywords: Political science , Constitutional rights , Resultant agreement , Security forces , Negotiation session , Social media , Highhanded treatment , Islamabad , PCO