The ‘minus one’ riddle

July 08, 2020

Prime Minister Imran Khan's sudden outburst, foretelling a 'minus one' conspiracy to remove him, must be taken with an unusually large pinch of salt.Since arriving on the scene with bold promises in...

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Prime Minister Imran Khan's sudden outburst, foretelling a 'minus one' conspiracy to remove him, must be taken with an unusually large pinch of salt.

Since arriving on the scene with bold promises in 2018, Prime Minister Khan has gone from one crisis to another – mostly of his own making.

As the world battles an unprecedented fallout from the coronavirus pandemic this year, the stakes for Pakistan's future have risen to an unprecedented height. In tandem, the room for mistakes-large or small has radically shrunk.

In recent months, the indecisiveness over critical choices such as to lockdown or not and the widespread confusion over exactly what constitutes a 'smart’ lockdown have together led the official response in these unusually critical times.

A slightly longer view dating back to Prime Minister Khan's election campaign presents a clearly dismal reality. The ruling PTI successfully assembled a wave of populism from its deck at Islamabad’s ‘D’ Chowk, just across the road from the parliament building along Constitution Avenue. But the transition from that populist high to the more difficult task of successful statecraft from the Prime Minister’s Secretariat in Islamabad is yet to take place.

Meanwhile, an ill-advised combative style clearly evident from PTI leaders targeting opposition figures through frequent public outbursts, must only spell disaster for a country in urgent need of solidarity.

In sharp contrast to the ongoing official push for opening of new fronts or fuelling existing ones, Pakistan badly needs an urgent transition towards a long overdue national consensus on vital national issues. Eventually, it must be consensus that will lead Pakistan out of its moment of crisis than the success of its ruling class in tackling real or imaginary dissent through one crackdown after another.

Last week’s forced closure of the Lahore-based Channel 24 on vague charges came almost four months after the arrest of Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, the editor-in-chief of the Jang/Geo Media Group – Pakistan’s largest and one of the oldest media empires. Mr Rahman, arrested on a still unproven corruption charge, has been repeatedly denied bail. He remains in the custody of NAB, an anti-graft body that has become synonymous with pushing the interests of the ruling structure. Such cases only highlight the use of blatant authority to curb dissenting voices across Pakistan’s thriving media, in a clear departure from independent and above board law enforcement.

Beyond such futile battles to consolidate authority, the prime minister and his team have clearly failed to make a difference where it matters the most. Pakistan’s economy and its related avenues that will ultimately decide the destiny of the country continue to sink or barely remain afloat. This is in sharp contrast to the oft-repeated official promises of wide-ranging reforms.

In a telling case, the ongoing saga surrounding the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) after the official revelation of one-third of the country’s trained pilots being armed with fake degrees, has triggered multiple questions. These range from the quality of Pakistan’s air aviation safety to the prudence behind such a public revelation with the Prime Minister Khan’s clearance, clearly disregarding the well-anticipated fallout. In one stroke, Pakistan’s national air carrier has attained an almost pariah status among its destinations, with European authorities banning PIA flights for six months.

The mishandling of this issue alone follows a number of policy missteps in other critical areas of central significance to Pakistan’s economy. In another glaring example, Prime Minister Khan oversaw the disclosure of a detailed investigation in to the so called sugar and flour scandals.

Some of Pakistan’s well-known business and/or political figures were subsequently put to shame with disclosures of their hefty gains from a generous official sugar subsidy granted to exporters. But the PTI government maintains a deafening silence where it matters the most – the role of the government’s own Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) which permitted exports of sugar and flour in the first place without anticipating domestic demand.

These cases are a powerful reminder of other missteps including the long delay after the prime minister’s arrival in Islamabad, before formalising a critical loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Meanwhile, the official track record in key areas such as reforming the tax collection structure or cutting losses in the public sector, remains mediocre at best. And last but not the least, ongoing failure to grant widespread attention and resources to the often ignored agriculture sector has tragically laid the basis for food insecurity in times to come.

With this history over the past two years, why should any student of Pakistan’s political trends be surprised over Prime Minister Khan’s ruling ship only heading southwards. The writing on the wall amply illustrates the hard reality of a 'minus one' push. But is it not fair to conclude that the push has been triggered by the ruling structure’s failure to rule than an imaginary conspiracy?

The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist who writes on political and economic affairs.


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