As Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government close out their first year in office, some top-of-mind challenges will be dominating the daily calendar and the headspace of key members of cabinet...
As Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government close out their first year in office, some top-of-mind challenges will be dominating the daily calendar and the headspace of key members of cabinet and party leaders like Jahangir Tareen, Asad Umar, Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Pervez Khattak: the anti-corruption agenda, the economy and inflation, the public discourse at large, and key national security and foreign policy questions, especially the Afghan peace process, and relations between Pakistan and India.
Ironically, none of these key issues are being managed by the PTI itself. The anti-corruption agenda is on auto pilot with seemingly unlimited autonomy afforded to NAB and its proclivity to respond to market signals based on newspaper and TV talk show chatter. The economy and inflation have been outsourced to Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, who has been predictably focused on stability, no matter its impact on growth or the common citizen. The management of the public discourse has been outsourced to an array of veterans, from Sheikh Rashid to Firdous Ashiq Awan – none of whom have any connection to the PTI’s ethos.
The Afghan peace process has been managed by the military and intelligence community – and this has not changed. And the potential for improved relations with India have been made possible because there is a convergence between the military and civilian leadership’s view of the region. In short, on all the issues that are current and top of mind for PM Khan and his cabinet, very little is actually within the domain of the party’s top leadership.
There are two ways that PTI leaders and rank and file can process this reality. The first is defensively, which is to treat this statement of reality as an attack on PM Khan and the party and therefore lose the ability to engage with those that do not support them. The second is strategically, which is to treat this statement of reality as an unpleasant, but inescapable burden of the life and times of the peculiar model of democracy that has evolved not only here in Pakistan, but globally over the last half decade or so.
It is in the strategic treatment of the current political reality that the PTI has an opportunity to step back and examine the opportunity available to it. If the four key issues that governments usually face are being taken care of by outsiders to the party, PTI supporters can either lament the lack of authority that has produced this current dynamic, or they can celebrate the opportunity and space it affords to the party to do the things that have long been the wish list of all reform-oriented Pakistanis.
After all, this is the one mainstream political force in the country whose platform is predicated on reform. In key areas of public life, this appetite for reform has been manifest in both the language and orientation of the prime minister and the appointments he has made to the cabinet and beyond. Some of the easiest examples are Asad Umar as finance minister, Haroon Sharif as chairman Board of Investment, Sania Nishtar as the head of BISP, Ishrat Husain as the lead for civil service reforms, Shabbar Zaidi as the chief taxman of the country, and Zafar Mirza as health minister.
It is not an accident that the two most infamous casualties of the economic crisis and the crony capitalism that fuels it were Mr Umar and Mr Sharif. But with the economic portfolio now in hands that do not require the political capital of the PTI, this very capital can now be deployed in service of the vast reforms agenda brought to Islamabad when PM Khan rode all kinds of support to victory a year ago.
It is here where the PTI supporter has cause for serious concern. All the top reform items on the government’s list seem to be flailing about, lacking the full force of PM Khan’s substantial power of persuasion and mobilization, and lacking any coherent path forward in a cabinet that should be all delivery, all the time, given how many repeat ministers occupy slots in it. Since the PM, Jahangir Tareen, Asad Umar, Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Pervez Khattak are silent on the matter, we can only ascertain the key reform priorities from the noise in and around the PM Office.
When we do, we discover the following four priority areas that this government seems to want to enact reform in: first, a transformed fiscal regime in which the rich pay their share, and the poor are taken care of (Shabbar Zaidi, FBR, Sania Nishtar and BISP); second, a reformed system to prevent, catch, and punish corruption (Mirza Shahzad Akbar, AGP, NAB, ACE and PAC); third, a public delivery system that is efficient and effective (Dr Ishrat Husain, Shehzad Arbab, the civil services, AGP, PPRA, Finance Division, Establishment Division and Cabinet Division), and; fourth, greater honour and respect for Pakistanis and Pakistan (PM Khan, MOFA, GHQ, ISI and the media).
There are two handicaps that apply across all five of these reform areas. The first is that there just isn’t enough money to go around, and the state of the economy makes things worse, restricting the appetite for consumption and investment, and constraining the fiscal potential of the country. The second is that these reform areas are all intricately and intimately interconnected. Shabbar Zaidi cannot fix the FBR without the administrative and civil service reforms that Dr Ishrat Husain is trying to bring about. Dr Husain’s reforms cannot succeed without public confidence that changes to the system are a product of effectiveness and efficiency concerns, and not part of a political vendetta.
If Mirza Shahzad Akbar is seen as an instrument of relentless political pressure on the Sharifs, and if NAB continues to sanction raids on the homes of reputable people like our former finance minister, then the perception of vendetta is hard to escape. Outside forces that seek to use Pakistan for their ends will prefer to use the divisions within Pakistan for their own ends, than to enhance the degree of respect they afford this country – especially if this government and its supporters continue to run the show like a circus.
Remember also that all status quo forces will always – always – resist reform. For the average PTI supporter, this means that pressure on the Sharifs, arrests of people like Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, and reputation-destruction of those that resist this mode of governance are all necessary actions in service of reform. But the innocent and simplistic supporters also believed PM Khan when he promised to commit suicide before he would ever approach the IMF.
The status quo in Pakistan is the permanent state. This is not the armed forces, it is not the ISI, it is not Nawaz Sharif, no matter how corrupt he may have been, and it is certainly not Asad Umar, Miftah Ismail, Nadeem Babar, Salman Sufi, Haroon Sharif, Sania Nishtar or Shahid Khaqan Abbasi.
The permanent state is the audit para, the estacode, the rules of business, the lifetime, pensionable jobs of public-sector employees, the conversion of contract jobs to lifetime jobs with the stroke of a pen of the incompetent ‘competent authority’, and municipal, provincial, and federal civil services.
Long-time Insafians (who by definition tend to be reformists) have had a full year to observe how power is exercised, and how dreams are shattered in Islamabad. They can continue to offer high TRPs to barely-literate television talk show hosts whose only talent is to raise blood pressures. Or they can begin to come to grips with the single reality at the heart of the enduring absence of meaningful reform so far: the robustness, vitality and longevity of any and all reforms is contingent on the breadth of political support such reforms enjoy.
Exhibit One? Compare General Musharraf’s Local Government Ordinance 2001, to the 18th Amendment. One fell merely weeks after the dictator scurried home. The other stands, despite its conceivers and founders rotting in jail.
Reform does not grow on outrage posts on WhatsApp or Twitter, or on fancy PowerPoint slides. It grows in parliament, across party lines. PTI supporters deserve better than a government obsessed with destroying any hope of consensus for reform across those lines.