The ongoing summer finally witnessed the sunset of PML-N’s five-year rule in Pakistan. In 2013, the PML-N took over the government in the midst of major challenges that included loadshedding, growing external debts, international isolation, bad governance, and a deteriorating security situation. The said challenges were more or less the campaigning slogans of the PML-N that brought them to power. How did the PML-N government perform on these five counts?
Let’s begin by the rosiest PML-N promise in 2013: putting an end to loadshedding. Regarding power-cuts, the PML-N made tall claims before the 2013 elections. During his election rallies, Shahbaz Sharif promised to end loadshedding in two years. But the two-year slogan proved to be just another election gimmick. The PML-N, during its five years in the government, practically failed to resolve the power crisis. Though the PML-N claims to have added 10,000 MW of electricity to the system, this is not the complete truth. The fact of the matter is that the generation capacity of electricity is just one facet of the power crisis. Unless the old transmission system is upgraded and the recovery of circular debt is made, the optimal quantity of electricity cannot be produced.
According to Ali Zafar, the caretaker minister for information and broadcasting, the maximum generation capacity of Pakistan is 28,000 MW. But it cannot avail this capacity owing to the water shortage, transmission losses and technical faults. Thus, the power crisis continues to exist. The outgoing government failed to undertake the construction of any major project in the country. It is worth mentioning that the circular debt has once again reached an extravagant amount of Rs1,000 billion despite claims by ex-finance minister, Ishaq Dar, that the PML-N government cleared the outstanding circular debt worth Rs480 billion. The net outcome is that Pakistan is still bearing the brunt of loadshedding.
On the economic front, the PML-N’s performance has been disappointing. The Sharif brothers kept promising the nation that they would break the begging bowl (kashkol); but that was not to be. They broke all the previous records of borrowing loans from the IMF and other international institutions. Dar kept the nation in the dark and regulated country’s vital financial matters on a makeshift basis without any vision and planning. As a result, the international debt on Pakistan, as of now, stands at a staggering amount of $85 billion. The PML-N government borrowed $35 billion in just five years, which is unprecedented in the history of Pakistan. Consequently, international debt has gone over 70 percent of Pakistan’s total GDP – another gross violation of the constitution, which prohibits a loan limit beyond 60 percent under any circumstances.
The current account deficit has exceeded over $15 billion. Pakistan’s imports have reached almost $50 billion whereas exports have fallen under $20 billion. The ever-mounting value of the US dollar against the rupee has rendered Pakistan’s currency a mere piece of paper. Likewise, Ishaq Dar’s economic team didn’t even bother to do anything about tax reforms to bring maximum people under direct taxation. He preferred to follow the stereotypical system of indirect taxation on the already hard-pressed poor citizens through price hikes in petroleum products, gas and electricity.
With regard to foreign policy, Pakistan has faced relatively more isolation in the comity of nations during the last five years even when compared to the isolation it witnessed during the PPP government’s tenure (2008-13). The PLN’s seriousness about foreign affairs may be gauged from the fact that a full-time foreign minister was not appointed for over four years. Meantime, Pakistan’s relations with the US are at an all-time low. Pakistan’s traditional friendship with the Muslim world, particularly Islamabad’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, also suffered a major setback in the backdrop of the Yemen conflict once Pakistan refused to send its troops to Saudi Arabia. A delicate situation was badly handled. Consequently, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE showed a visible tilt towards India. Likewise, Iran and Afghanistan view Pakistan with suspicion. The Nawaz government failed to understand that India, under a Hindu fundamentalist government, would not cosy up to Pakistan, especially when the Modi government was performing badly on the domestic front – economically and politically.
Russia did send some positive vibes to Pakistan. But the Nawaz government somehow failed to capitalise on this window of opportunity. Only China continued to be on Islamabad’s side owing to its obvious strategic interests in Pakistan. One may argue in the PML-N’s defence that foreign policy is not exactly a civilian mandate owing to Pakistan’s peculiar realities. But then again, the PML-N did not try to assert itself either in this realm.
Coming down to governance, the people of Pakistan had pinned a lot of hopes on a third-time prime minister. However, Nawaz Sharif followed the same old model of governance as he did during the 1990s. Governance is institutionalising “the exercise of power or authority by political leaders for the wellbeing of their country’s citizens or subjects”. But the PML-N government did not invest in the human resource that is supposed to be the biggest capital of any country. Education, health and social-sector development were not accorded due priority.
Thinking about governance means thinking about how to steer society and the economy. The PML-N’s economic team also failed to bring any change regarding the major public enterprises like PIA, Pakistan Railways and Pakistan Steel Mills, which are a constant drain on the national exchequer of Pakistan. There was a disconnect even between the prime minister and parliamentarians from his own party. For months, Nawaz Sharif did not call cabinet meetings; mostly decisions were sought through his proverbial kitchen cabinet. In short, his government did not deliver in any tangible manner in terms of good governance.
The internal security situation over the past two years in Pakistan has considerably improved. Karachi and the tribal regions have experienced relative peace after a longish spell of puritan terror. However, the credit hardly goes to the PML-N leadership. It was the APS tragedy that changed everything.
What explains such a performance? A number of explanations are possible. First, the PML-N doesn’t want to radically transform the structures as it is a beneficiary of the system. Second, like any mainstream party, the PML-N lacks even a reformist agenda, given its class base. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the development model that the PML-N follows is what one may call “demonstration development”. A development that is visible, shining and electorally sellable. Hence, motorways, metrobuses, and mega-projects are prioritised, even if it implies a foreign debt worth $85 billion.
The writer is a policy analyst based in Islamabad.