A lot is happening to the media as we speak. Some of us lament it. Some of us thought it would be over after the election, and that the aberration was merely meant to alter the strength of the post-election PTI-plus-plus coalition. Others correctly identified the changes as permanent.
Since it is clear now that there is a structural and institutional shift taking place – further laments have two downsides. First, they may not be published. Second, they have no impact on outcomes. I was recently asked to remain positive by people that I respect. Sometimes, we must make lemonade out of lemons. Here goes nothing.
The lack of preparation of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s cabinet has been exposed quite mercilessly in the first three months of its rule – but this absence of preparation has opened several doors that represent opportunities to alter the nature of governance at its very core. To make the transition from accidentally stumbling upon critical governance challenges, to actually tackling them will require some lesson learning. At the end of this week, PM Khan will have been in office for three months. Here are three key lessons he needs to absorb from them:
Lesson Number One: Economics and geopolitics are intertwined. This government has successfully evaded a fiscal catastrophe (such as a protracted suspension of imports or a default on external debt). Some credit for this should go to Finance Minister Asad Umar. His work has bought Pakistan about a year of fiscal certainty. But if ever we needed proof that Allah loves our country: consider the sudden dip in the cost of crude oil. Global oil prices once gave Ishaq Dar a fiscal bonanza. They have now come to Mr Umar’s rescue. How he convinces PM Khan to use the breathing room will be crucial. But recognising and remembering where the room came from will also be essential.
The oxygen has come from Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Beijing. These relationships were not established by PM Khan, but each package of aid and investment is a vote of confidence in Pakistan, under him. PM Khan may not have sought to engage in foreign policy and national security, but The Great Escape of 2018 – when Pakistan staved off a debilitating fiscal crisis – has been an exercise in deploying national power. None of the three capitals has engaged Pakistan purely out of generosity, and equally, none has engaged in short-term transactions. It is a combination of a genuine sense of solidarity, combined with geopolitical considerations, national self interest, and the chance for a new beginning with a new leader. PM Khan’s management of relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and China therefore require sustained, deliberate and coherent attention. The Pakistan Army is a vital stakeholder in these relations – but the COAS should not have to clean up behind irresponsible statements by cabinet members.
The lesson? Pakistan’s economic policies cannot be (and have never been) divorced from its geostrategic calculus, its national security, and its foreign policy. This means that the finance ministry, commerce ministry, economic affairs division, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the defense and intelligence establishment require mechanisms for coordination (short term and operational), for coherence (medium term and tactical) and for convergence (long term and strategic).
Lesson Number Two: Cruelty and injustice are structural, not episodic and not based on personal preference. Conversely, they cannot be addressed without tackling structures. PM Khan’s most powerful and compelling quality is the compassion for the underprivileged that drives him. There have been multiple occasions when this compassion has shone through brightly. His announcement of citizenship for Afghan, Bengali and Bihari origin individuals was one. His incessant references to education, malnutrition, maternal and neonatal health during his maiden address to the nation was another. His announcement this weekend of the establishment of shelters for the poor is yet another. Yet his good intentions have little chance of being translated into effective or sharp devices of change – at least not until he is able to deploy a holistic response to those challenges.
Digital identity, the wellbeing of infants, children and mothers, and a measure of protection – including shelter – for the most vulnerable are all the domain of social protection. But they are all equally the domain of the national registration database. And they require coherence with other instruments of compassionate public policy, such as housing, and local government. With Dr Sania Nishtar at BISP, he has at his disposal a globally recognised public policy specialist with the experience and knowledge to dispassionately translate a series of incoherent, but compassionate instincts, into coherent programmes and policies.
But BISP and NADRA need a working relationship that privileges the wellbeing of every new born, over and above considerations of cost or jurisdiction. And they in turn need a mechanism to engage with provinces – both to encourage and help shape the right policies, as well as to dissuade overly zealous and ill-informed young PTI ministers from making disastrous decisions (such as the young legislator in the Punjab intent on destroying the Daanish Schools, which is about as compassionate and humane a public policy intervention as there has been in the last decade). This requires artful negotiation and interdepartmental or inter-ministerial engagement of a quality unprecedented in Pakistan. At stake is PM Khan’s compassion agenda: which, for his most ardent supporters, is why he is in politics to begin with.
Lesson Number Three: Pakistan requires a robust and rigorous countering violent extremism (CVE) infrastructure that stops making mistakes that have already been made. The violence and mayhem that followed the Supreme Court’s Aasia Bibi decision was a law and order problem. But the manner in which state and society have cowered in fear is a violent extremism problem. The most effective way to take the streets is to first take minds and hearts. The TLP is winning. No amount of investing in the police, or Rangers, or FC, or water cannons, or jail cells, or police stations will tackle the potency of Pir Afzal Qadri’s open calls for insurrection or Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s open contempt for the Pakistani order built by none other than Quaid e Azam.
Barelvis, once represented in politics by giants like Maulana Ahmed Shah Noorani, are now being charged up and unleashed to terrorise, by crude and unremarkable class-based expositions. Crackdowns and police or military operations were never able to cure the Baloch or Mohajirs of their grievances, and they will not be able to stifle the growing power of the narrative of Barelvi victimhood. A robust CVE strategy would employ the richness of Pakistan’s Hussaini roots, would be unabashed in seeking to establish law and order, and would not burden only soldiers or policemen, but also scholars and intellectuals.
There is a sweet irony in how powerless PM Khan was exposed to be by state and society after the Aasia Bibi judgement. He was no different than the Captain-Safdar-deploying-former-PM Nawaz Sharif. And neither of these prime ministers was any weaker than anyone else in the equation. A good CVE plan would make partners of the traditional religious parties, rather than continue to push them into the cheap seats at the TLP show. But it begs repetition over and over and over again: the challenge to the notion of a Jinnahist order in this country is not exclusively a law enforcement issue, nor an issue of making political deals. The challenge is genuine innovation, ideas and leadership.
There is a running theme in these lessons. The administrative structure, the people (or civil service), and the money available in government are all insufficient to deliver PM Khan’s agenda of compassion and national sovereignty.
To make up for these weaknesses, the PM must achieve two very difficult tasks. First, he must deploy the available structural, human and financial resources in a manner that generates cross-team and inter-ministerial synergies. Second, he must nurture political consensus to drive through key reforms – through a federal system that is more respectful of, and more sensitive to, provincial autonomy than ever before.
The writer is an analyst and commentator.